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Hansen, David T. (Ed.) (2006). John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect: A Critical Engagement with Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Pp. vii + 195     ISBN 0-7914-6922-0

Reviewed by Dan W. Butin
Cambridge College

July 7, 2007

Don’t read this book. For if you do, you might be tempted to go and read the actual book under analysis, John Dewey’s Democracy and Education (DE). And if you do, well, then you’re done for.

If you actually go and read Dewey’s classic you will have subjected yourself to (according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)) the fifth worst book of the twentieth century. That’s right. John Dewey’s thought is more pernicious, debasing, and destructive than, among others, Theodor Adorno, Noam Chomsky, and Malcolm X. All because, according to the ISI, “Dewey convinced a generation of intellectuals that education isn't about anything; it's just a method, a process for producing democrats and scientists who would lead us into a future that ‘works’…and America's well-meaning but corrupting educationist establishment was born.” (http://www.isi.org/).

If Dewey had never written DE, it appears, A Nation at Risk would never have been necessary and Arthur Levine would have nothing to rail about. So don’t bother.

But if you still insist, if you actually do read DE, you might never find your way out again. You will realize that you must now read his Experience and Education to better understand the fundamental points (since, Dewey states, he wrote that book to clarify what so-called progressive educators misunderstood about DE); after which you will realize that you must go and read Art as Experience or perhaps The Public and Its Problems to understand what Dewey meant when he spoke of democracy and experience; at which point you will probably be buried alive when the entire 37-volume set of The Complete Works of John Dewey falls on top of you as you attempt to pull out yet another potential “final” answer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


David T. Hansen

But if you still insist, if you actually do read DE, you will realize just how deeply and desperately far away we are from creating schools that provide meaningful education and educational reform to all of our youth. You’ll realize just how misguided, how lost, how totally and completely broken our way of schooling is. Consider, for example, Dewey’s (1916) succinct summation of the four “evils” of separating curriculum (“subject matter”) from instruction (“methods”): first, methods become “authoritatively recommended to teachers” from above with no sense of classroom or school context; second, subject matter becomes irrelevant to students, with teaching consisting either of “excitement, shock of pleasure, tickling the palate,” or contrarily, “the menace of harm to motivate concern with the alien subject matter”; third, learning becomes a “conscious end in itself” such that students simply jump through the hoops of the system; and, finally, fourth, methods become “a cut and dried routine” of so-called best practices which are in fact “mechanical rigid woodenness” (pp. 168-170).

Ouch. One doesn’t need NCES data (which I’m citing anyway [Digest of Education Statistics, 2005, table 71, available at: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d05/tables/dt05_071.asp?referer=list]) that shows that teachers consistently view student apathy as one of the most serious problems in schools to realize that Dewey has a point. On an even deeper level, though, Dewey doesn’t just have a point. He has the whole darn lance with which to skewer our contemporary educational paradigm. As Gert Biesta (one of the contributors to the book under review) aptly argues against the “what works” “evidence-based” mindset through a standard Deweyan move, “the most important argument against the idea that education is a causal process lies in the fact that education is not a process of physical interaction but a process of symbolic or symbolically mediated interaction…the simple fact that education is not a process of ‘push and pull’— or, in the language of systems theory, that education is an open and recursive system — shows that it is the very impossibility of an educational technology that makes education possible” (Biesta, 2007, p. 8). This is not relativism redux (contra ISI). It is the careful attention to and analysis of education as a progressive but non-linear and non-deterministic practice. Which, as Biesta reminds us, is also what makes it a moral practice rather than just a technical act. Which is also why, of course, you need to read this book. Because John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect reminds us that Dewey offers, through DE and other works, a truly radical and carefully thought-through treatise on education.

John Dewey and Our Educational Prospect is an edited volume put together by David Hansen, a professor of philosophy & education at Teachers College, Columbia, and the author of, among other books, The Call to Teach and Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching. The text itself is a compilation of eight conference papers that Hansen solicited in his role as past president of the John Dewey Society (JDS) and that were presented at American Educational Research Association yearly conferences in 2004 and 2005. These essays come from both Dewey scholars (e.g., Gert Biesta, Larry Hickman) and prominent educational researchers with Deweyan leanings (e.g., Reba Page, Sharon Feiman-Nemser). Hansen has book-ended these essays with his own introduction and a closing essay on Dewey’s notion of the moral self and placed in the center of the book an invited address by Herbert Kliebard to the JDS.

On one level this is a wonderfully quick-and-dirty production that provides a wider audience for important essays all too easily lost in the conference shuffle. On another level, though, the conference tone is unmistakable in several of the essays as they read as oral presentations without the once-more polish necessary to fully develop truly thoughtful engagement with the dense material being grappled with.

But let me focus on the former aspect of this book, for in many ways these essays remind us how profound and accurate Dewey was about education and schooling. Interestingly as well, Hansen does not just provide exegesis; as a good Dewey scholar he makes Dewey come alive by asking interested and interesting educational scholars to revisit and re-engage with this classic text. And re-engage they do. Each of the authors return, in his or her own way, to the complexity and ingenuity of Dewey’s thinking and the insights gained from re-reading the book.

Kliebard’s essay, for example, is a gem and worth the price of the book alone. Kliebard reminds the reader that “Dewey’s actual influence on American schooling has been negligible not only with respect to practice but even with regard to dominant beliefs within the professional curriculum field.” Nevertheless, Kliebard suggests, one should study Dewey exactly “because of the integrity of his ideas and because they present a formidable challenge to how education is conventionally conceptualized and practiced” (p. 114). Kliebard thus reconstructs Dewey’s notions of method, subject matter, and play and work in order to argue for the systematic conception Dewey had of what and how schools should teach. Kliebard notes that such ideas were in fact “far more radical than is sometimes imagined…[and] profoundly incompatible with existing structures of schooling” (p. 126). Yet it is exactly the genuine rigor and thoughtfulness of Dewey’s approach to the progressive organization of content matter that makes vivid the relative paucity of contemporary practices.

A similar reaction is had when reading Larry Hickman’s explication of Dewey’s arguments concerning socialization, social efficiency, and social control. Hickman wonderfully defends Dewey from the canard (found in both the political left and right) of his supposedly supporting relativism and/or malignant social engineering. Hickman not only carefully undermines such claims; he traces Dewey’s arguments to demonstrate that these terms are both deeply pragmatic and deeply intertwined with the creation of a democratic sphere. Social efficiency, Hickman shows, is about the expanding “avenues of communication” (p. 71) that foster interests and interactions amongst individuals all too often stratified and cut off from each other in daily life. And this interaction, in turn, when habituated (through one’s own “social control”) fosters growth in both individuals and communities. Hickman ties this strongly to education when he suggests that, for Dewey, education was about

socializing natural impulses in ways that reconstruct them as constructive and expansive rather than reductive, and far-ranging and comprehensive rather than exclusive. And the test, as I have suggested, is whether socialization encourages the expansion of the learner’s intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic horizons, and whether the learner and the group of which he or she is a member becomes more comprehensive in terms of their connections and interrelations with other socializing forces.” (p. 76)

This is evocative and rigorous thinking, challenging educators to reconsider the short-term and highly narrowed thinking of what currently passes for being “educated” in today’s schools.

David Hansen’s introductory essay is, as well, a fine analytic overview and summation of the form and goals of DE. Hansen focuses on the preface of DE to argue that Dewey has attempted a daring experiment: to turn a book originally meant as a textbook for teachers into “an ongoing journey” that “will feature surprises, openings, unanticipated conclusions…” (p. 6), all for the sake of embodying Dewey’s fundamental belief in the experimental method as fostering “growth” as both the means and ends of education. Hansen neatly shows how this, for Dewey, links to the idea of evolution, which suggests that “humanity has no predetermined, fixed telos or end state” (p. 7) and, ultimately, how this relates to democracy. Hansen is clear that Dewey is neither simple to read nor easy on the reader’s assumptions; but, again, this is all part of the experiment: “He [Dewey] does not expect agreement as the outcome of the process, but he does hope for the engagement” (p. 9).

I have, of course, several minor quibbles. Several of the essays (perhaps because they were given to the JDS?) border on hagiography. Several of the authors, as well, attempt to ascertain the “key” to DE. Gert Biesta, for example, argues that it is communication; Reba Page that is it curriculum; Gary Fenstermacher that it is on Dewey’s focus on the student. Yet surely they can’t all be right? Their arguments obviously require greater clarification and expansion, and the short essays do not often do justice to the issues raised.

Finally, what the book doesn’t provide (yet teasingly promises) is a serious reason for why we really should keep on reading Dewey. Several of the authors attempt to position Dewey as a contemporary prophet, able to provide insight and guidance for present practice and policymaking. Sharon Feiman-Nemser, for example, suggests that Dewey provides an important guide for teacher education. And Gary Fenstermacher argues for the need to rediscover the student as active agent in educational theory, policy and practice.

But I am not convinced. I am dubious that teacher educators, much less educational policymakers, will make the time to read a three-hundred-seventy-eight page book that begins with the intellectually tantalizing but surely not whiplash-engaging statement that “The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal” (Dewey, 1916, p. 1). This is the opening to a philosophical manifesto, one that will require attention, deliberation, and rereading. No bullet points or simple summations ease the reader’s path.

In the end, I believe, Hansen hits the nail on the head when he suggests that “perhaps Dewey’s work is best approached as a humanist Book of Hours, which, like its medieval counterpart, refreshes and restores the individual in moments of repose, yet is hardly a realistic guide for society” (p. 186). Dewey provides an opportunity to examine and probe the limits of argumentation concerning education and its status in modern society. These arguments are neither easy nor let us off the hook. They, instead, ask us to revisit and rethink how we engage with K-16 education. And, fascinatingly enough, this is exactly what Hansen’s contributors have done. They have tackled Dewey’s thought and measured their theories and practices up to his. And in so doing, they have offered us a glimpse into the continued relevance of Dewey’s thought for our time.

So for all you educators and educational policymakers out there, this is thus the best reason to read this book. For the ISI is wrong; and it may actually be good for you to read more of Dewey’s works; and, yes, it may even be good for you to acknowledge and work through just how mis-educative our educational system has become. This is a good book to help you begin the journey.

References


Dan W. Butin

Biesta, Gert. (2007). Why ‘‘what works’’ won’t work: Evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research, Educational Theory, 57(1), 1-22.

Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education. NY: Macmillan Publishing.

About the Reviewer

Dan W. Butin is an Assistant Professor of education and founding faculty of the doctoral program in educational leadership at Cambridge College. He is the editor of Service-Learning in Higher Education: Critical Issues and Directions (2005, Palgrave) and Teaching Social Foundations of Education: Contexts, Theories, and Issues (2005, Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers).

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