Focus on John Dewey’s Democracy and Education

1. The Three Foundations of an Enlightened Society

One of the major themes that comes up throughout John Dewey’s classic book on the philosophy of education is that the survival of an alive and vibrant democracy depends upon the educational development of its people. As Abraham Lincoln called it in his Gettysburg speech, democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. For Dewey, though, it is more than a form of government; democracy is (or should be) interwoven into the whole complex social fabric that is needed to sustain progress and civilization. In short, democracy is a way of living. But people can rule themselves and guide the next generation on the path of progress only when they possess a mature degree of intelligence, which in turn can only be shaped by means of right education.

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Education, of course, is not to be associated with merely the formal academic part of education. Education implies continuous growth and mental development throughout one’s life, both before and after the normal school and university phase. “The object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth,” asserts John Dewey.

Now this idea cannot be applied to all the members of a society except… where there is adequate provision for the reconstruction of social habits and institutions by means of wide stimulation arising from equitably distributed interests. And this means a democratic society. (Dewey, 1916, p.129)

The ideal form of social system that can be envisaged in the cause of education is of course a full-fledged democracy, in the true sense of the word. Education promotes higher human values, and the freedom engendered by democracy safeguards the continued existence of such enlightened values. Life in a truly democratic society would therefore be fully conducive to the optimal expression of the potential and the possibilities of people that constitute such society.

For Dewey, democracy cannot be taken as an empty word, as it is today in some Third World countries; and philosophy cannot be empty talk, as it has been down the ages. Philosophy should take up the challenge and the responsibility to help us deal with the major issues and problems of contemporary social life. The search for meaning that philosophy is, becomes the means to the realization of the of social progress. Educational institutions should foster “love of wisdom” in the children from an early age on. Authentic philosophical quest cannot to be equated with passion for any subject area in particular, rather it translates into a proclivity for broad, deep and free thinking in general, which also encourages discussion and debate among people.

                                                       2. Education and Growth

According to Dewey, “the dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is,” meaning, should be, “living-intellectual and moral growth (p.364).”  It is through the concept of growth that Dewey links the meaning and purpose of both education and democracy. In order that all people may be provided enough scope to work on their innate capacities for growth they would have to live in a democratic community, again implying democracy in the ideal sense of the word. Democracy is the only type of society in which individuals are able to grow unhampered in a manner that can facilitate the realization of their unique interests and gifts. Democracy in the society is a necessary albeit not a sufficient condition to drive the evolutionary goal of mankind. And the key to democracy is education that promotes critical thinking and constant growth. For a democracy to flourish, it requires individuals who maximize their potential within the context of cooperative and meaningful activity with others. Dewey’s vision of education is thus directly connected with the question of preparing people in as great numbers as possible for active citizenship in a participatory democracy. Life is a never-ending process of growth, at both individual and collective levels, and democracy is most suitable conduit to channel such a growth to proper ends. In this context, an education that helps children love learning and change is essential to a democratic society.

Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective in fact (p.76).

Education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water, which is what unfortunately happens most of the time even today. A teacher’s sole purpose seems to be stuffing children’s brains with knowledge, just as a programmer feeds computer with data. Dewey’s vision radically departs from this mechanical approach, and inclines towards a more holistic and organic one. The process of true education is more akin to the blossoming of a flower. A teacher should regard a child as a gardener regards a young tree, as something with an intrinsic nature that can one day grow into a magnificent entity, given proper soil and air and light. Education, within the framework of democracy, shall provide the right circumstances in which the natural creative patterns of growing children shall flourish.

                                     3. Democratic Values and Education

Dewey sought a conceptualization of democracy in its broadest sense, as it applies to all walks of life. Democracy is but a vehicle of propagating freedom, freedom being the supreme value of democracy, as well as of life. Dewey attaches a very positive and active meaning to the notion of freedom. It signifies much more than the ability to move or act as one pleases.

Freedom means essentially the part played by thinking —which is personal—in learning:—it means intellectual initiative, independence in observation, judicious invention, foresight of consequences, and ingenuity of adaptation to them (p.354).

That is to say, for a human being, freedom essentially means freedom to think for oneself. At the same time, freedom also entails the participation in group activities. Moreover, humans can learn many capacities can only in a group environment. Dewey favors free social and intellectual interaction amongst people as a means to dissolve the artificial social barriers of race and class.

Dewey strives to expand upon the earlier democratic educational philosophies of Rousseau and Plato. Rousseau, in his Emile, overemphasized the individual and Plato, in his Republic, overemphasized the society; Dewey takes a more balanced view. He points out that an individual can lead a meaningful life only in his or her capacity as an inextricable part of the society, and the society has no meaning apart from its realization in the lives of its individual members. In order to promote a strong democratic character in students which can lead to the advancement of self and society, there is a need for a revolution in education — a transformation that puts stress on thought, experience, and activity factors.

4. Educational Values

In the field of pedagogy, Dewey wanted to minimize the role of memorization, inflexible standardized curricula, and norm-based tests as primary pedagogical tools. He argued that the stimulus to learning is not external to the student, but an organic state of the student in his or her lived context. Dewey also emphasized on the need to transcend the strictly utilitarian scope of education, which has the sole aim of making students productive citizens of the society. Beauty is not a concept that is limited to arts and literature, students should learn to appreciate the true beauty of every subject they learn:

We must not, however, divide the studies of the curriculum into

the appreciative, those concerned with intrinsic value, and the instrumental, concerned with those which are of value or ends beyond themselves. …every subject at some phase of its development should possess, what is for the individual concerned with it, an aesthetic quality (p.296).

Further, Dewey rejected the 19th-century idea (an idea that is unfortunately still widely held) that the sole or primary function of a school is to serve as a conduit for the transmission of traditions or received values. The new men and women of the twentieth century would need to be educated in schools that were also laboratories: their schools would need to be places where received ideas were taught, to be sure. But they would also need to be places where such ideas were examined for continuing relevance and where new ideas were tested by means of their application to real-life situations. In its goal to bring people closer together, education has to do more than to encourage people to adopt the common values of their past. Education must also be able to provide an answer to why and for what we live together.

5. Philosophy and Education

Dewey combines his philosophical pragmatism with his progressive pedagogical ideas. Like Aristotle, Rousseau and others, Dewey too stresses that concepts learnt in education are ideas that strive to make a difference in conduct. A theory of education may be taken as a theory of conduct; philosophy, Dewey argues, is the theory of education as a deliberately conducted practice.

Dewey strives to demonstrate the shortcomings of the practice of separating philosophy from education, stating that philosophic problems arise in contexts in which educational questions are pursued. Further, Dewey makes a deep connection between the need for open-minded thinking with an inquiring outlook and the need for a practically-minded philosophy,  a connection which results in philosophical enquiry becoming an active ingredient of everyday life.

Philosophy is “an explicit formulation of the problems of the formation of right mental and moral habitudes in respect to the difficulties of contemporary social life.” It is the business of education to promote development of such positive mental and moral attitudes. Herein lies the deep interconnection between these two:

The most penetrating definition of philosophy which can be given is, then, that it is the theory of education in its most general phases. The reconstruction of philosophy, of education, and of social ideals and methods thus go hand in hand (p.387).

John Dewey’s philosophy itself as outlined in his “Democracy and Education” is anything but a mere philosophy. It is an impassioned call to action to improve the lot of human kind and further the cause of progress through education.


Dewey, J.  (1916).   Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education.   New York: The Macmillan Company.


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Focus on John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. (2017, Jan 18). Retrieved from