and John Dewey by xuyuzhu


									John Dewey used the word “democracy” in at least thirty different ways. Added
u,p, th,ey constituted a totalitarian ideology.

The Concept of Democracy
and John Dewey

                             CLARENCE B.          CARSON

ONE   OF THE   niosT OFTEN USED words in       most if not all of its descriptive value.
the current American (and world) vocabu-       Contrariwise, it has picked up meaning in
lary is democracy. It adorns the titles of     some kind of inverse proportion to its loss
books and textbooks, is the staple concept     of descriptive accuracy. Democracy, as a
of political speeches, provides the ballast    word, is full to overflowing with meaning
€or propaganda, is the subject of prayers      or, more correctly, with meanings. It is
by ministers, and is the basic assumption      so full of meanings that it has the long
of social commentaries and polemics. It is     distance accuracy of a shotgun, as it were,
almost invariably used approvingly, serv-      in precise expression. I t has become a
ing as the criterion against which events,     loaded word.
developments, practices, and institutions         Before examining the consequences of
are measured. A desirable program of ac-       this development the word needs first to be
tion is called “democratic,” one which is      unpacked of its meanings. Democracy must
opposed is called “undemocratic.” There        first be defined so that the basic definition
is nothing particularly strange about this     can be set beside the accretions of mean-
usage; it supposedly serves to denote an       ings attached to it.
agreed-upon set of values.                        Democracy was originally an exclusively
   But what are these agreed-upon values?      political concept. The first-listed definitions
The trouble enters at this point, for de-      in recent dictionaries preserve this sense
mocracy is one of the most vague and im-       of the word. The New Twentieth Century
precise words in our vocabulary. It has lost   Dictionary (unabridged) gives as the first

180                                                                               spring 1960
  definition of democracy: “Government by         lar government. Rule by the people may
  the people; a form of government in which       not necessarily be founded on any “Chris-
  the supreme power is lodged in the hands        tian ideal.” What these authors are trying
  of the people collectively.” The first mean-    to do, of course, is to tell what democracy
  ing in the American College Dictionary          in America means to Americans, and, to
  is “Government by the people; a form of         some extent how it is practiced in America.
  government in which the supreme power           They have confused it with American prac-
  is vested in the people and exercised by        tices, adding to it associated meanings, and
  them or by their elected agents under a         some which are not necessarily if at all
  free electoral system.” In essence, both dic-   related to it.
  tionaries have said that democracy pri-             Thus far, democracy has been dealt with
  marily refers to a form of government in        as a political concept. But it is by no means
  which the people rule. Etymologically, the      restricted to a political context in its pres-
  word means simply rule by the people, the       ent usage; it has ramified into all areas
  citizens, or the masses.                        of life. It is true there is some imprecision
      Even in the political sense, however,       in its use in the political context examined
  democracy has acquired additional conno-         already, but this is negligible compared to
  tations, overtones, and meanings. Text-          the looseness which characterizes the gen-
  books in American government indicate            eral use of it.
  this trend. For example, one recent text-
  book says that democracy means govern-             THEREIS NO BETTER PLACE to discover
  ment by the many, government directed by        this profusion of meanings and connota-
  the popular will, government in the interest    tions attached to democracy than in the
   of the people, government by the consent of    writings of John Dewey. His is the exam-
   the governed, “belief in the Christian ideal   ple par excellence of the extension of the
   of the unique value and dignity of individ-    meaning of democracy into every phase
   ual human beings,” in human equality,          and activity of life. It would be difficult, if
   and in the possession of certain human         not impossible, to find a writer who has
   freedoms.’ Another textbook includes, in       used the word democracy with a greater
   addition to the usual meanings overlapping     variety of meanings or with more impreci-
   with some of the above, these two notions:     sion.
   a variety of particular programs, and lim-        For most men to use words imprecisely
   ited government.’                              is not surprising, but for John Dewey to
      Some of these meanings are not clearly      have done so is remarkable. Dewey was a
   related to the basic definition of democ-      philosopher, and philosophers have tradi-
   racy. For example, why is democratic gov-      tionally defined their key concepts care-
. ernment limited government? Because the         fully and rigidly, rigorously following their
   people govern, it does not follow that they    established definition. Yet Dewey’s practice
   will automatically limit the exercise of       went directly counter to this. Democracy
   power by their government. The limita-         was one of his key concepts, if not the key
   tions on the powers of government in the       concept. He used the word often enough.
   American political system were written in-     He wrote at least one book3 and numerous
   to the Constitution, and these limits were     articles with democracy in the title^.^ I n
   conceived in the light of certain natural      one article he used the words democratic
   rights because they were believed to belong    and democracy twenty-nine times.5 Yet he
   to man, not because they inhered in popu-      concluded the article with this observation :

  Modem Age                                                                                  181
 “I don’t know just what democracy means           fashion, but each of them has something
 in detail . . . at the present time. I make       which distinguishes it slightly from the
 this humiliating confession the more read-        other. Let us examine them.
 ily because I suspect that nobody else
 knows what it means in €1111 concrete de-         DEMOCRACY,
                                                           according to John Dewey, is:
 tail.”6 In short, Dewey did not define pre-
                                                      1. a political system, involving such in-
 cisely one of his key concepts.
                                                   stitutions as “universal suffrage, recurring
    Nor does the difficulty in understanding
                                                   elections, responsibility of those who are in
 the meaning which Dewey attached to
 words end with democracy; a similar im-
                                                   political power to the voters. . . .””
                                                      2. government by the consent of the gov-
 precision was characteristic of most of his
 writing. Joseph W. Beach declared that
                                                      3. an educational process.‘*
 Dewey’s work showed “a lack of clearness,
                                                      4. an educational prin~ip1e.I~
 a lack of precision,’77 Among the difficul-
                                                      5. an educational system, one in which
 ties in his style, according to another critic,
                                                   all participate in making the decision and
 were “the use of familiar words with un-
                                                   all make contributions to the common
 familiar meanings; the use of words with
 pregnant meanings; the use of long, in-
                                                      6. a method, one of reaching decisions
 volved and highly concentrated sentences
                                                   by discussion, voting and the acceptance
 , .  .; the development of different impor-
                                                   of the majority view.I5
tant ideas in the same paragraph. . . .”’
                                                      7. constantly changing. As Dewey put it,
    All of this means that it is frequently im-
                                                   “The very idea of democracy . . . must be
possible to determine the way in which he
                                                   continually explored afresh . . , to meet the
is using a word by its context. My aim
                                                   changes that are going on in the develop-
here is to set forth the variety of meanings
                                                   ment of new needs on the part of human
which Dewey attached to the word democ-
                                                   beings and new resources for satisfying
racy, but some of his usages defy classifica-
                                                   these needs.”lG
tion. For example, he asks the question:
                                                      8. concerned with the needs and wants
“How far is science taught in relation to its
                                                   of people, “that asking other people what
social consequences, actual and possible, if
                                                   they would like, what they need, what their
the resources which science puts at human
                                                   ideas are, is an essential part of the demo-
disposal were utilized for general demo-
                                                   cratic idea.”’?
cratic social welfare?”9 Not only is the
                                                      9. a guide for directing the forces which
question indecipherable, but the meaning
                                                   confront man in his daily living.18
of “democratic” in this context is not avail-
                                                      10. a kind of freedom. Dewey speaks of
able by analysis. Consequently, I have not
                                                   “democratic freedom,”19 saying that “it         ,
attempted to classify this usage.
                                                   designates a mental attitude rather than
    But without this parlicular enigmatic us-
                                                   external unconstraint of movements. . . .”20
age Dewey used democracy with an as-
                                                      11. a criterion for making judgments
tounding array of connotations and associ-
                                                   about conditions, developments, and insti-
ations. While my tally is not definitive,
Dewey used the words democracy and                 tutions.*l
democratic in at least thirty ways, either            12. a theory of knowledge. Dewey says
as meanings, connotations, significations,         that democracy “must develop a theory of
or associations. The meanings overlap, in-         knowledge which sees in knowledge the
tertwine, and intermingle in an indistinct         method by which one experience is made

182                                                                                 Spring 1960
 available i n giving direction and meaning       all the more reason for establishment by
 to another.”22                                   law of equality of opportunity, since other-
    13. closely related to science and the         wise the former becomes a means of op-
 scientific method. He indicates in connec-       pression of the less gifted.”32 Dewey passed
 tion with his call for a democratic theory       over without comment the probability that
 of knowledge that the “recent advances in         government assurance of equality to the
 physiology, biology and the logic of the ex-     less gifted might be an “oppression” of the
 perimental sciences supply the specific in-      more gifted. Let there be no doubt about
 tellectual instrumentalities demanded to          it, the whole tendency of Dewey’s thought
 work out and formulate such a the~ry.”~’         was levelling, the breaking down of all dis-
 On another occasion he said: “While it            tinctions which raise one person or thing
would be absurd to believe it desirable or        above another. To indicate the extent of
 possible for every one to become a scientist     his thinking in this direction, his comment
 when science is defined from the side of          regarding distinctions made in philosophy
subject matter, the future of democracy is        is revealing. “Democratic abolition of fixed
 allied with the spread of the scientific atti-    differences between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’
 t ~ d e . ”It~ is not clear whether science is    still has to make its way in p h i l ~ s o p h y . ” ~ ~
 democratic or democracy is scientific, or            21. the belief in the dignity and worth of
both.                                             the individ~al.’~
    14. an attitude.z5                                22. participation in the “formation of
    15. a belief in a humanistic culture.z6       the values that regulate the living of men
    16. an economic system, a system “in          together. . . . ”35
which all share in useful service and all en-         23. “primarily a mode of associated liv-
joy a worthy leisure.”2T                          ing, of conjoint communicated experi-
    17. a standard for personal conduct.28        en~e.”~~
    18. a form of social control. Here the            24. an act of faith from the belie~er.’~
meaning is fairly clear as it refers to politi-       25. a set of aims or ends.38
cal democracy. He means that when an in-              26. an ideal, though what he meant was
dividual participates in the making of de-        something to be striven for, not a n ideal in
cisions he binds himself to follow the deci-      the Platonic sense.3g
sion made, whether it is in accord with his           27. a way of life.40
wishes or                                             28. a form of life.41
    19. a way of organizing society. Dewey            29. a living thing, if Dewey’s language
frequently used the phrase, “democratic           is to be interpreted literally. For instance,
society,”3o meaning a society so organized        he says that “democracy in order to live
that all may participate in its decisions, its    must change and move. . . .” “If it is to
goods, the formulation of its ideas and           live” it “must go forward. . . . If it does
aims, and to which all may contrib~te.~‘          not go forward, if it tries to stand still, it
    20. a belief in equality. Equality is es-     is already starting on the backward road
sential to democracy and inextricably tied        that leads to extincti~n.’’~~
up with it, Dewey thought. By equality he             30. a concept for the organization of
meant several things as usual. “All individ-      every aspect of a society and its culture,
uals are entitled to equality of treatment        including all areas of life in its extended
by law and its administraion.” He means           meaning. Dewey said: “The problem of
equality of opportunity also. “The very fact      freedom and democratic institutions is tied
of natural and psychological inequality is        up with the question of what kind of cul-

Modern Age                                                                                        183
ture exists. . . .‘’‘3 And, “The struggle for    vestigating conimittee who is being exam-
democracy has to be maintained on as             ined on his beliefs.
many fronts as culture has aspects: politi-         Suppose the chairman of the committee
cal, economic, international, educational,       asks him this question: “Are you a demo-
scientific and artistic, ~eligious.”*~           crat?” How could he answer such a ques-
                                                 tion if he accepts Dewey’s meanings? Sup-
IN SUM, THEN, according to Dewey, de-            pose he says, “Yes, I am a democrat.”
mocracy is a political system, an economic       What is he saying? Does he believe in as-
system, a social system, and an educational      sociated living? If so, what forms of asso-
system. It is a criterion for judgments, a       ciated living does he believe in? Poly-
theory of knowledge, a method, a principle,      gamy? Communism? Complex marriage?
an aim, an ideal, a thing i n itself. It is a    Does he believe in a “democratic” econom-
way of life, a form of life, a form of asso-     ic system? Is it to be equalitarian? Do all
ciated living, a guide for living, a matter      share equally in the wealth? Does he be-
of faith. It is equalitarian, humanistic, sci-   lieve that the more gifted are to be re-
entific, concerned with the needs and wants      stricted to a level with the less gifted? Does
of man, constantly changing and growing.         he think that all should have their needs
It calls for a particular kind of organiza-      and wants met equally regardless of ability
tion of society and a particular orientation     or effort? Does he believe that all men
of all aspects of the culture. In short, ac-     should share in the formation of values, or
cording to Dewey, democracy applies to all       does he believe that values exist and men
areas and aspects of life. If anything was       seek them, a perfectly respectable philo-
left out we may be sure that it was an er-       sophical position? Is he sufficiently scien-
ror of the head and not of the heart.            tific to be a democrat, or is he so “back-
   In addition to these multifold descriptive    ward” as to hold that science does not deal
meanings attached to democracy there is          with all of reality?
the non-descriptive usage alluded to in the          Before this array of questions he might
beginning-democracy        as an agreed-upon     change his answer and deny that he was a
value which is to be realized in the society,    democrat. But he would only have changed
an unquestioned good. This amounts to a          horns on the dilemma. Does he mean to de-
normative usage without a norm. Reduced          ny the worth and dignity of the individ-
to its essentials it amounts to saying that      ual? Does he reject this “Christian ideal?”
there is something good to be sought, but        Is he opposed to freedom? Is he against
what the good is cannot be definitely            government bv the consent of the goy-
stated.                                          erned? Does he have the audacity to ques-
   Rut if democracy is fraught with all the      tion the validity of an idea stated in the
meanings that John Dewey attaches to it,         Declaration of Independence-that       all men
is i t such an unalloyed good? Before de-        arc created equal?
ciding whether democracy is good and de-             It should be apparent that the question
sirable i t is necessary first to know what it   raised by the chairman poses intolerable
is. Otherwise, it is like signing a blank        alternatives. Any witness confronted with
check. to be filled in according to circum-      such a question, involving so many possible
stances. To demonstrate this, let us accept      interpretations of the meaning of a word,
temporarily the varied meanings which            would have every reason for pleading the
Dewey says belong to democracy. Let us            Fifth Amendment, for nothing is more
observe il man before a congressional in-        likely than that he would “incriminate”

I84                                                                                Spring 1960
himself if he tried to answer it. With all       meaning of democracy lay in the inability
these hosts of meanings the word cannot be       to envisage all the steps necessary to assure
used with sufficient exactness to ask or to      the realization of democracy? Who could
state anything. If a congressional commit-       imagine all the steps necessary to the mak-
tee found it necessary to get the answer to      ing of all men equal?
such a question, it would be necessary first        Dewey, whether he was aware of it or
to issue cards to “true democrats.” Then         not, made democracy a total concept. The
the committee could ask an answerable            application of his ideas to society would
question : “Are you a card-carrying demo-        be totalitarianism. Dewey was much con-
crat ?”                                          cerned to preserve the United States from
   None of this should be interpreted to         European varieties of totalitarianism, yet
mean that Dewey’s use of the word democ-         in order to do this he proposed total de-
racy was merely ridiculous. Nothing could        mocracy. Totalitarianism is monolithic,
be further from the truth. Analysis makes        one-directional, unitary, demanding total
it appear ridiculous, but synthesis presents     allegiance to an ideology, or to the state
a different face. Dewey intended to suggest      which acts to realize the ideology. Under
that democracy was an all-embracing con-         totalitarianism all aspects of life are
cept. encompassing all areas and activities      brought into accord with this ideology, all
of life. He believed that if democracy was       disruptive ideas or forces are removed. Is
to exist at all it must be applied in all as-    this not what Dewey proposed by the “in.
pects of the life of the people. In other        strumentation” of democracy?
words: democracy is an ideology, a com-
plex of interrelated ideas.                      BUT IT MAY BE OBJECTED that Dewey
   There is not space here to show how all       loved freedom, that he was the outstanding
the pieces fit into the whole, but it can be     proponent of diversity. Supposing this were
at least suggested. Dewey started with the       true, it is reasonable to ask how he pro-
view that democracy means equal partici-         posed to buttress freedom or preserve di-
pation by all in making decisions and            versity. Primarily, he placed his hopes in
sharing in the benefits of society. For this     participation by the people in the making
to be put into practice numerous conditions      of decisions. Now it is clear that participa-
must be met. If there are great inequalities     tion is of the essence of democracy in its
in wealth: there will be consequent inequal-     original signification, but the relation of
ities i n power and the subsequent abilitv 1.0   participation to freedom is not so clear.
participate. Therefore, gross inequalities in    Suppose the majority vote to remove some
wealth must be wiped out. The graduated          freedom-say,     to have censorship of the
income tax, for example, would be a device       press. If everyone in the land had voted
for accomplishing this in part.                  upon the matter it would make it no less
   But, people do not have equal abilities.      a lessening of freedom.
To give equal opportunity to people of un-          It may be objected that the majority
equal abilities there must be some agency        will not act in this way, that their partici-
to act on behalf of the less gifted. In the      pation insures the preservation and exten-
schoolsr for example, infinite attention may     sion of liberty. There is little basis in fact
be lavished on the less gifted, bringing         for such an assumption. The Nazi party got
them to a level with relatively neglected        a plurality of the votes in the last free
more gifted pupils. Is it possible, then,        election held in Germany before World
that Dewey’s uncertainty as to the full          War 11. If reports are to be believed, some-

Modern Age                                                                                 185
thing like 99 per cent of those qualified in    agencies were absorbed into the govern-
 the Soviet Union vote in elections. Nor has   ment) in wielding their power. These are
the extension of suffrage in the United        the elements necessary to totalitarianism.
States since the Civil War resulted in new         The bones of the creature are now laid
liberties being added in America. On the       bare. On the one hand, democracy is an
contrary, there has been a steady attrition    extremely ambiguous word, loaded with a
of liberty since that time, though the two     variety of meanings, vague and imprecise.
things are not necessarily related. Partici-   It carries with it also the implication of
pation by the electorate is hardly a guaran-   approval and value. On the other hand, it
tee of the preservation of traditional free-   has become an ideology for the total or-
dom. Diversity is hardly furthered under       ganization of society. Such a word can-
present conditions of transportation and       not be used when the object is clear
communication by participation either.         thought; it should not be used to promote
   Of course, those who set up the United      programs whose acceptance is urged be-
States government did not derive liberty       cause they are “democratic.” The latter
from men but from man and his nature.          use is argument in a circle. It goes some-
They believed thdt liberty was a natural       thing like this: democracy is a good to
right according to natural law, not some-      be sought; this program is democratic;
thing bequeathed by government or the          ergo, this program is good and ought to
majority. It was not the right of govern-      be adopted. Certainly democracy is not
ment to take these liberties away, nor was     the same thing as freedom, and’there is
it the right of the majority, though they      no reason €or using them as synonyms.
might usurp them, even under the United        Representative or popular government is
States Constitution, though every impedi-      one thing; liberty or freedom is something
ment was thrown in the way of the people       else.
doing so. While some, like Jefferson, be-          There is a way out of this circle. Re-
lieved that participation of the people        sponsible people will avoid the use of
would tend to preserve these rights, they      democracy without first defining it. Having
would not have equated participation with      defined it they will restrict themselves to
liberty.                                       that usage. Even this may not be enough,
   Dewey did not believe in natural law        however; it has been used for propaganda,
and natural rights. His belief in freedom      for persuasion, and as a substitute for po-
had no such foundation, if it had any          litical thought so long that it cannot be
foundation at all. There was no arbiter for    easily divested of its accretions of mean-
Dewey beyond what is and what the peo-         ings. Anyone desiring to engage in logical
ple want, no natural laws limiting what the    thinking or in reasonable examination of
people may do and have, nothing beyond         issues will be very careful in using the
the majority to which to appeal. Hence, he     word.
placed no limits upon the power vested          . All of this would not be so important
in the people and did not believe that         if there were not so great a need for new
there were any. Total power would be           political thought, or at least for rethinking
vested in the people. If they accepted his     our assumptions and beliefs. How long has
prescription, they would act to realize a      it been since an amendment was added to
total concept-democracy. No doubt, they        the Constitution extending traditional lib-
would act through the government as well       erties? Is this because liberties are not in
as through other agencies (until these         danger? No! Developments in advertising,

186                                                                              Spring 1960
in law enforcement, in directing thought,             cratic Philosophy of Education (New York,
                                                      1933), p. xii.
in bringing pressure, in fighting wars, in                'lbid., p. xiii.
taxation, in communication definitely have                'Dewey, Problems of Men, pp. 52-53.
brought a circumscription of liberties. Yet               "lbid., pp. 57-58.
                                                          "lbid., p. 35.
twentieth:century America is a wasteland                  =lbid., p. 36.
so far as political thought is concerned. In                     .
                                                          "1bid., p 34.
part, at least, this absence of thought can               '9bid., p. 63.
                                                           uJohn Dewey, Freedom and Culture (New
be laid to the fact that thinkers have been           York, 19391, p. 128.
mesmerized by the pleasing sound of the                    "Dewey, Problems of Men, p. 47.
word democracy. They should cease their                    "lbid., p. 35.
                                                          "lbid., p. 48.
genuflections before this vague, imprecise,                '*Dewey, Freedom and Culture, p. 129.
and loaded word. Everyone of the mean-                     20
                                                              Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 357.
ings which Dewey assigned to democracy                    "lbid., pp. 139-40, 376.
                                                          "Ibid., p: 401.
needs to be examined on its own merit,                     "Ibid.
not artificially bolstered by a magic word.                "Dewey, Freedom and Culture, p. 148.
                                                           '9bid., p. 125.
                                                           =lbid., p. 124.
   'Harold R. Bruce, American National Govern-                Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 300.
ment (rev. ed.; New York, 1957), pp. 5-9.                  %Dewey, Freedom and Culture, p. 130.
   'James M. Burns and Jack W. Peltason, Gov-              "Dewey, Problems of Men, p. 35.
ernment by the People (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,                For example, see Dewey, Democracy and
1957, third edition), pp. 8-13.                       Education, pp. 142, 357, 376.
   3John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New               "See also Dewey, Problems of Men, pp. 37,
York, 1916).                                          74.
    'Some examples in addition to the titles listed        "Ibid., p. 60.
in the footnotes below are: "Industrial Education          w d . , p. 15.
and Democracy," Survey, XXIX (March 22,                    341bid., pp. 44-45.
1913) ; "Practical Democracy," New Republic,               3slbid., p. 58.
XLIV (December 2, 1925) ; "Democracy in Edu-                  Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 101.
cation." National Education Association Journal,           3'F~1-  example, see Dewey, Freedom and Cul-
XVIII' (December, 1929).                              ture, p. 126.
    'John Dewey, "The Challenge of Democracy                "Ibid., pp. 93, 176.
to Education," Progressive Education (1937), re-              Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. v.
printed in John Dewey, Problems of Men (New                QDewey, Problems of Men, pp. 57-58.
York, 1946). Page numbers cited are from Prob-              "lbid., p. 47.
lems of Men.                                               4'lbid.
    "bid., p. 56.                                           43Dewey, Freedom and Culture, p. 13.
    'As quoted by Herman H. Horne, The Demo-               ''1bid.

Modern Age                                                                                         187

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