Building a culture to nourish democracy

Dear Editor:

This week I had the great pleasure to re-encounter a 1939 book by John Dewey called “Freedom and Culture.” It all started from a random glance at my book shelf. For some reason, Dewey must’ve been calling me, whispering in my ear not to forget him. Once I started reading, it suddenly became crystal clear why America is in the political mess it’s in today. We haven’t yet heeded the lessons of our greatest 20th century philosopher.

According to Dewey, democratic institutions in and of themselves—like our three branches of government—aren’t enough to nurture the democratic spirit and behaviors that are vital to democracy’s survival. Witness how Germany’s Weimar Republic, a fully functioning democracy, collapsed like a house of cards when Hitler and the Nazis came to power.

What keeps a democracy strong and flourishing, according to Dewey (who took great inspiration from Thomas Jefferson) is a nation’s educational and cultural apparatus; that is, to the extent that these institutions encourage the kind of civic skills, behaviors, and consciousness essential to life in a democracy. Schools which are authoritarian in nature, which don’t encourage students to make choices, think for themselves, or engage in open, exploratory dialogue, are in effect undermining our democracy from within.

When she appeared as a guest on our nonprofit TV show “last month, Education philosopher Diane Ravitch claimed that American education has taken a serious wrong turn in its overemphasis on testing, and devaluing of subjects like history, civics, literature, science, and art over the past three decades. Just as bad, education is now preached as some kind of new “gospel of the workforce,” its entire purpose linked not to becoming a better person and citizen, but being a “success” and having a fabulous “career.”

We need to seriously rethink this. In the meantime, like Dewey, I believe in the importance of a vital social life, how democracy very much lives and breathes in social organizations, civic clubs, churches, political meetings, cafes, book clubs, dinner parties, and the like. I’ve been hosting a monthly dialogue group, at Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken, as a way to build community (a life-giving practice that fosters hope, repairs alienation, and strengthens democracy); and because conversation is just plain fun.

My next Symposia talk, on June 20, will be about the art of literary discourse. Did you know there’s a strong connection between how we talk about literature (and the arts in general) and the overall health of our democracy? It’s a kind of academic best kept secret…but one that I’m keen on telling! The ability to discuss art and literature in an open, exploratory, and nuanced manner, like magic, has the power to elevate and enrich the way we discuss politics in a democracy.

Given the dismal state of our polarized politics, “literary therapy” might be just the cure we need. Your reactions are welcome at

John Bredin