A Poster from Hull House, which John Dewey saw as an exemplary school as Social Center
By Eli Kramer
I (like many) wake up most mornings with dread at the edges of my consciousness. Something feels horribly wrong. From ecological crises, to cultural violence and polarization, there is a strong feeling that the unravelling of the civic fabric is inevitable. I feel oppressed by impersonal forces and institutions that seem to be the source of this dread, and which I have little to no control over. Despite these storm clouds on the horizon, the experiences of everyday life often pulls me away from both despair and action. What to do? How do we help ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our shared world revitalize hope and a sense of agency, between despair and the drudgery of the everyday?
The younger generation is particularly susceptible to this disempowering gloom. According to a recent “Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)” study, a majority of rural youth, and a third of urban and suburban youth feel their communities are “civic deserts,” or places devoid of the resources to change self and society (Kawashima-Ginsberg and Sullivan). Even when growing up in a upper middle class, socially rich, urban community, and in a high school with I.B. offerings, and a host of extra curriculars, I too felt few starved of resources for shaping self and society.
I was soon to be fed. In search of a center of empowerment, I went to pursue my undergraduate degree at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies of the University of Redlands . At Johnston, for the first time I felt that my peculiar gifts as a person were truly appreciated and nurtured to make a difference in my communities. Further, I had inspiring models of how education can catalyze the growth of the whole person. Education at Johnston was about mutual support in creating integrated and active stories of who we were, who we had become, and where we wanted to go in our lives. At Johnston, I was nurtured to negotiate my own dynamic way in the world.
Johnston taught me how civic and community schooling can make all the difference in alleviating our thirst for agency. Building on the lessons from Johnston, I soon found myself steeped in the life and work of the philosopher and public intellectual John Dewey. Dewey spent his career showing how education embedded in the life of communities is the center of a fertile civic life. He saw schools as the centers of civic power to address our most incapacitating problems. He also argued that schools should not be factories for adulthood, but should be centers of communities most vital resources, youth, parents, teachers, and concerned citizens, who work together, and learn how to address their most pressing problems: “…we may say that the conception of the school as a social centre is born of our entire democratic movement. This is no longer viewed as a matter of charity, but as a matter of justice—nay, even of something higher and better than justice—a necessary phase of developing and growing life (Dewey, 92-93).” Dewey articulated what I had longed for in high school, and that was first nurtured at Johnston, a vision of schooling as the catalyzing civic center of community life.
Realizing the power of civic and community schooling was just the first step. The true task has been learning how to support the creation and advancement of such schooling. I wanted my new reflective insights to be meaningful and of service. I had not realized then, but the society that takes Dewey’s name was up to just such work. From its founding at the height of the American Great Depression, The John Dewey Society has defended and advanced civic and community schooling.
Their progressive work further refined my fundamental convictions about the power of schools as catalyzing agents of society. Since the Cold War days of anti-Communist hysteria, “progressive” is one of those terms thrown around mostly to disparage political persuasions deemed “leftist” or as a particular vision of the Democratic party supporting a more robust agenda of social reform and improvement. For the founding members of John Dewey Society, “progressive” meant something more than the narrow ideological pejorative we are left with today. To be “progressive,” was to be working toward a better world, beyond one’s own narrow visions and dogmas. They wanted future generations to move beyond their own narrow conceptions, to something broader, more intelligent, and more robustly public. In short, “progressive” meant preparing citizen students to disagree with you, and who will sometimes move beyond your most cherished values. It was a faith not in some reductive fantasy of the natural progress of humans, but a hope in the ability of persons to intelligently work together to improve their situation.
From its early days, the John Dewey Society was a leading voice in current affairs and politics, in particular through the publication of the JDS Yearbook, and through essays in other leading progressive journals such as the Social Frontier. This public work helped cultivate a powerful community of public intellectuals to defend and advance a broad vision of civic and community schooling. For example, The society defended academic freedom and a robust vision of education during the height of Mccarthyism. Then JDS president William Kirkpatrick, through his connections to the press, helped catalyze a series of articles the led the charge of defending progressive education and academic freedom against the anti-intellectual attacks of Mccarthyites (Tanner, 27-30).
Since I began graduate school, the Society has catalyzed my own empowerment for civic public work. I enthusiastically participated in their annual meetings and joined projects that could advance civic and community schooling. Over the last few years, we have been having big picture discussions about the future work of the society. We decided to not only think big, but put those big ideas into practice. This year, the society has generously funded me as a co-director the Democracy in Education Initiative. We aim to revitalize big picture projects in JDS, and catalyze, incubate, and network the civic and community school movement. Our organizing team comes from a variety of backgrounds. We have a Deweyan commitment to civic and community schooling, while reconstructing his philosophy, and moving beyond it, toward this end.
Over the next few months, we will highlight important stories in civic and community schooling and document our own work in this movement. Our hope here is to map the building collective agency for change at this critical juncture in our shared democratic life. The time is now for reflective action.
I wake up in the morning fearing the worst. Then take a deep breath; the sun is still shining and there is exciting work to be done. I have my own “civic and community schooling” to attend with my fellow citizens and DiE organizers. We are a part of a movement just on the horizon. A movement that places its hope in our ability to work together to change our situation for the better. It is a movement that centers this work wherever we collect, connect, and catalyze our shared gifts as citizens and persons.
Dewey, John, “The School as Social Center,” in The Collected Works of John Dewey: The Middle Works of John Dewey: 1899-1924: Journal Articles, Book Reviews, and Miscellany in the 1902-1903 Period, and Studies in Logical Theory and The Child and the Curriculum. Volume 2. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976.
Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kei and Felicia Sullivan. “Study: 60 Percent of Rural Millennials Lack Access to a Political Life.” The Conversation, March 27, 2017. https://theconversation.com/study-60-percent-of-rural-millennials-lack-access-to-a-political-life-74513.
Tanner, Daniel, Crusade for Democracy: Progressive Education at the Crossroads.SUNY-Philosophy of Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.