11/14/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Dewey Dare

Professors are entitled to their favorite writers. And this past Monday, in the jurisprudence class I teach at the University of St. Thomas, we covered one of mine: John Dewey.

It occurred to me, as I taught the class, how pertinent aspects of Dewey's work are to the questions we confront in the here-and-now, in mid-November 2012, following a fractious, divisive presidential campaign. Indeed, a small meditation on some salient points of Dewey's work might assist us in navigating the hazards and shoals of the next four years.

Before all else, John Dewey was a teacher, someone who spent several years as a high school instructor before earning a doctorate and taking a position at the University of Chicago. A monumental presence at Chicago and later at Columbia, Dewey's productive life extended from the 1880s to the years after World War II.

A love for humanity pervaded both his words and his deeds. Dewey took a personal interest in improving people's lives as seen in his work with Jane Addams' Hull House. He saw what was good about the human spirit and sought to make it better. Dewey refreshingly shunned the great utopian temptation of his day -- Marxism -- in favor of old-fashioned New England practical activism.

He understood that we are creatures best adapted to gradual change. We are the products of biological evolution, after all, and Dewey hoped that beings molded and shaped in the crucible of natural selection might remain capable of self-reflective improvement, both individually and socially. Dewey was convinced that we can and must strive to make ourselves better -- in our morals, our knowledge of the human personality, and our awareness of the world around us. He was, in other words, by necessity a firmly committed optimist.

Not only the individual, Dewey maintained, but the entire society was capable of improvement. Wicked social institutions -- slavery, medieval feudalism -- have been abolished in real historical time. Other institutions might yet be reformed. The marketplace, Dewey feared, yet remained exploitative. Its exploitativeness might be reduced with careful thought and regulation. A believer in science and the scientific method, Dewey passionately hoped that these tools could be trained on the human condition, unlocking our potential to soar to ever greater heights. Perhaps, Dewey dared to dream, in some future age even war might vanish. (See generally John Dewey, "Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology" (1922).)

Dewey was an unwavering believer in American democracy and became, over the course of his long life, democracy's great public philosopher. The Founders, those men who authored and ratified the Constitution in 1789, were no believers in democracy, but were advocates of a limited, mediated form of self-government. By the early 20th century, however, the landscape had changed -- presidents were popularly elected, as were U.S. senators, and the suffrage had been extended to women. What had formerly been the prerogative of the few was rapidly becoming the birthright of the many. The old constitutional order had been transformed, in other words, and needed new philosophical explanations.

And Dewey offered them. At the level of the individual, Dewey argued democracy was the best, most complete form of human self-expression. Democracy requires us to give substance to our thoughts, to inform our consciences and to act wisely so as to guide our community to good outcomes. This spirit of fraternal/sororal self-rule, Dewey insisted, might be applicable to all forms of social endeavor. The workplace might be governed democratically, as might our schools and universities. Dewey was an idealist, of course, a dreamer whose loftiest aspirations could never realized.

But Dewey also imparted to democracy a meaning that helped guide generations of Americans. Democracy, he argued, was a means of winning not just the grudging assent of a reluctant few, but the enthusiastic support of the many. It bespoke trust, a willingness on the part of social leaders to allow the humbler elements an equal voice in policy-making. It was, in the final analysis, robustly egalitarian.

The success of this egalitarian experiment Dewey entrusted to public education. This old high school teacher was an intense believer in education for the masses. Through shared educational experience, we acquired the values and habits needed for responsible citizenship. It is in the schools where we learn our lessons in civics, where we practice respect for others, where we study and work in participatory environments. The public schools thus became the fertile seedbeds of the American democratic experiment.

I do not wish to be uncritical in my praise of Dewey. I find his subjectivism unsettling at times. As a Catholic, I accept the need for hierarchy and the wisdom of tradition in the most significant parts of my life. As the graduate of a Catholic grade school and high school, I appreciate the diversity religious education offers in a world where public education might otherwise become too homogeneous.

Properly qualified, we might do well to reflect on Dewey this November. He is the philosopher of the common good. One hopes that the racist dog-whistles and the naked appeals to class hatred (the "takers" vs. the "makers") that marked our ugly campaign season can be replaced with the understanding that we are "in some metaphorical sense all brothers, [that] we are ... all in the same boat, traversing the same ocean." (John Dewey, "A Common Faith," reprinted in John Dewey, "The Later Works," vol. IX, p. 56).

It was John Dewey's optimism that drove the "can-do" period of America's greatest public works, the 1950s and 1960s. It was his faith in democratic government and an engaged citizenry that breathed life into the great programs for social improvement represented by the New Deal and the Great Society. Following an election that feels much like a bitterly fought, hard-won vindication of those earlier transformative contests of 1932 and 1964, we might do well to reacquaint ourselves with this great American mind.