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Educating to save our democracy


Dear Editor:

John Dewey, perhaps America’s greatest education philosopher, ought to be a household name. As familiar to average folks as Kim Kardashian is. OK, maybe I’m dreaming a little too big! I’d settle for him at least being known by teachers and Board of Ed. members.
In 1916, while a professor at Columbia, Dewey published a book called “Democracy and Education” to help concretize a Jeffersonian ideal as old as our republic itself. Simply being, that the main purpose of schools is to educate for good citizenship: thus creating a natural bulwark against tyranny.
Dewey was insistent on what he called the need for an “articulate public,” equipped to discuss social and political problems in a calm, thoughtful, rational manner. Such healthy civic dialogues, according to Dewey, would help yield solutions to vexing problems (like wealth inequality) in a collaborative, negotiated manner that best satisfied the wishes of the majority. It’s hard to think of a better description of a functioning democracy in action.
Fast-forward to 2017. It’s beyond obvious how far we’ve fallen from the grace of Dewey’s hopeful democratic vision. Citizens and politicians now speak at and past each other, rather than with each other in genuine dialogue. At times, they rant and rave like lunatics; or worse, as we saw recently in Alexandria, Va.
Meanwhile, today’s educational leaders seem to have forgotten that we live in a democracy. Rather than talk about teaching for a better social order, they perkily utter banal marketing clichés like “success” and “excellence”—terms which by themselves are devoid of any moral relevance. Success at what? For whom? At whose expense?
Are they equating education solely with career advancement, to hell with becoming a decent, caring person and a good citizen? If so, this doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy. Such a vapid, shallow conception of education can only lead to a further weakening of community, a withering of political and historical consciousness—not to mention basic human empathy—and a promulgation of the immoral, narcissistic belief that “success in the marketplace” is the be all and end of all of a good life.
If this dire situation continues, in fact, if may spell the “end of all life, period” on our beautiful planet. So far, none of the for-profit charter schools (supported by billionaires) have shown an interest in Dewey’s work by equating education with good citizenship. I’m hoping this situation will change; or a new, more socially conscious billionaire will emerge. Meanwhile, the actor Richard Dreyfuss should be applauded for his work in promoting basic civic education, an ongoing project I hope gathers more steam.
I’ve begun to plan seminars to spark civic dialogue on this vital issue, and will devote a future episode of “Public Voice Salon,” a TV show I co-produce with my wife Claudia Canasto Chibuque, to address the crucial but forgotten link between education and democracy. Your ideas are also most welcome at info@publicvoicesalon.com.

Thank you for your time.

John Bredin

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