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Why I love John Dewey
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Why I love John Dewey
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Why I love John Dewey
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21 May 2015

Why I love John Dewey

Dewey was a big believer in the power of a good conversation.

Written by Audrey Statham

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

John Dewey might have died long before I was born, but the philosopher and educator changed the course of my life. His ideas shook my indifference towards democracy and the secular and made me see how important it is to engage in healthy, open conversation.

For Dewey, democracy is much more than a society with a certain form of government. It’s a way of life—“a life of free and enriching communion” where citizens come together in public forums and chat things out.

This means we shouldn’t assume democracy exists just because we have elections every few years.

More than that, if we’re not vigilant, the cost can be very high. For Dewey, the crisis of World War II was partly due to people believing that democracy is self-perpetuating, which left many Western European countries vulnerable to the growth of totalitarian fascist movements.

The greatest dangers to democracy, as far as Dewey was concerned, are the forces that inhibit free and open conversation—the forces that turn us into indifferent, passive citizens.

Dewey believed we could overcome these threats by initiating the kinds of curious, considerate, two-way conversations that democracy depends on:

“The heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gatherings of neighbours on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.”

Dewey realised that people aren’t naturally democratic, that democratic attitudes and qualities have to be created in individuals, which is why democracy and education are inextricably linked in his view.

I came across Dewey’s writing at a point where I’d reached a deadlock in my research for a PhD in education. The stimulus for that research was the “Australian Values Framework”, a national education policy that outlined nine values for Australian schooling and which the Australian Federal Government endorsed in 2005 and disseminated to all state and faith schools.

As a believer, at first I saw this as an attempt to muzzle religious groups by imposing supposedly Australian values on faith schools, but this critique brought me to a dead end because it seemed to leave religious people with a choice between two equally inadequate options: conform to those values and submit to the sanitisation of religious faith, or disengage from political life and retreat to religious enclaves closed off from the wider society.

So I was open to a new direction when I came across Dewey’s writings.

As a result, I experienced a change of heart that let me think more openly about this policy.

I realised that my indifference towards secular democracy was stopping me from contributing to a society that’s inclusive of those with and without religious faith.

In the end, I argued that neither Australian state nor faith schools should teach the nine values for Australian schooling, but should instead educate for democracy as a personal, creative, inclusive way of life.

This approach opens up a way for non-religious and religious people to engage with each other in the kinds of conversations that create understanding and tolerance.

At a time when so many social and political issues have become polarised, Dewey’s legacy has never been more relevant. Often it feels like there’s no hope for finding middle ground on things like vaccination or climate change, but Dewey shows us how it can be done.

There’s an urgent need now for each of us to listen, to be tolerant—and to actively seek out others who look, sound and think differently from ourselves and engage in meaningful conversations with them. Our very survival might just depend on it.

Dewey had extraordinary faith in the ability of ordinary people to collaborate and create a society where diverse voices are encouraged, not silenced. Is such faith utopian? Ultimately that’s for you to decide.

As for me, I learned from Dewey to appreciate how much I value the secular democratic environment we have in Australia, and to understand just how much everyone stands to lose if we continue to take it for granted and don’t act now to sustain and cherish it.

That’s why I love John Dewey.


Audrey Statham

Dr Audrey Statham works at the Social Studies in Health and Medicine Research Program in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University. As a Research Associate and Project Coordinator employed on the ARC Linkage Project, Supported Decision Making for People with Severe Mental Health Problems, Audrey is conducting qualitative research into the lived experiences of family members caring for loved ones diagnosed with bipolar disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia or major depression, within the context of advanced liberal democratic societies.

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