Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


John Dewey publishes Democracy and Education

The writings of John Dewey span a broad range of subjects, including psychology, epistemology, ethics, and democratic politics, but his philosophy of education lies at the heart of his work. Democracy and Education, published in 1916, is Dewey's seminal work on education and arguably its most influential on this topic. In Democracy and Education, combining his philosophical pragmatism and his progressive pedagogical ideas, Dewey outlines the social role of education, both formal and informal, as the transmitter and bearer of a society's identity through the preparation of youth for adult society. This general discussion is then applied to the type of contents and methods that are necessary in a progressive democratic community. The final section of the book examines the intellectual roots of social divisions that impede the application of democratic education in the contemporary society. These divisions stem from the dualisms embedded in philosophical systems of education, which dichotomize certain domains or relationships, such as the mind and the body, the mind and nature, and the individual and society. Dewey argues for a philosophy of education that nullifies these dualisms, and is centered on the freedom of the mind and thought in directed, social activity.

Dewey defines education as a process of growth, and it is through this concept that he links education with democracy. Democracy, understood as a mode of associated, conjoint, communicated living, is the only type of society in which individuals are able to grow and socially participate in a manner that allows for the realization of their unique interests and gifts. Conversely, for a democracy to flourish, it requires individuals who maximize their potential in activity with others. Learning in isolation perpetuates the duality of mind and action, and of the individual and society.

Another important concept in the book is freedom, which is not just the ability to move or act as one pleases, but it also "means intellectual initiative, independence in observation, judicious intervention, foresight of consequences, and ingenuity of adaptation to them" (352), and entails the participation in group activities. Moreover, Dewey argues, certain capacities can only be learned in a group. He claims that this type of free social and intellectual interaction, in which each member of the group considers the actions and interests as information for informing their own actions, dissolves the artificial social barriers of race and class by allowing for free communication of interest between varied social groups (100-01).

The method of Deweyan democratic education is an experimental process in which thought and reason are applied to activity to find the best answer to a problem at a particular time and place. This, the scientific method and his applications to the field of education, is one of the great themes in his work. The scientific method shows that knowledge does not exist statically or separate from action. Knowledge that is isolated from action and is acquired passively prevents the formation of new habits and the reconstruction of experience, thereby preventing growth and learning. The experimental method unites mental activity and experience, and allows for the creation of new knowledge. This presupposes that knowledge is not a body of universal truth waiting to be uncovered by rational, objective thought. Experimental science has shown that "there is no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing" (321). In seeking to overcome the idealization and remoteness of reason, making it experimental and practical, Dewey called for a curriculum that combines liberal and vocational education, and enlarges personal experience "by furnishing their context, their background and outlook" to the present community life (247).

In summary, in Democracy and Education Dewey emphasizes the associational and communal aspects of democracy, and finds that conscious, directed education is necessary to establish these conditions and form democratic character in children. Growth, experience, and activity are the preferred terms by Dewey to describe the tying of learning to social, communicative activity that allows for the flourishing of democratic community.


Dewey, J. (1926 [1916]). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan. For an electronic version, see 

Prepared by John P. Myers (OISE/UT)

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