03/18/2015 11:26 am ET Updated May 18, 2015

John Dewey and the Rag Tag and Bobtail of Humanity

At its best, higher education, embodying what Byron White of Cleveland State University calls a "student-ready" culture, begins with the talents, interests, and potential of each student. Such a culture is based on radical and unsentimental public love, growing from respect for human beings and their potential ( public "love" based on unsentimental respect is certainly absent in most discussion of campuses today).

Only an education animated by belief in each person's potential can reverse the dramatic shrinkage which has been taking place in our imaginations about democracy, citizenship, and people themselves. It is crucial to remember pioneers in education for democracy who radiated such belief like Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and John Dewey.

Today the public culture is full of bitter polarizations and poisonous recriminations. Americans on all sides of the political spectrum deny, suppress, and forget that those different from themselves are human beings of immense complexity, with potential for democratic and generous action as well as mean-spirited and anti-democratic action. Whole swaths of the social landscape are portrayed in monochromatic terms as good or evil - conservative Christians, liberals, Muslims, government bureaucrats, white working class, black teenagers...the list is endless.

In this context, the third century debate between the Christian theologian Origen and the pagan Celsus is instructive. Celsus expressed contempt for large groups of people. Origen countered:

"Yes, they are the rag tag and bobtail of humanity. But Jesus does not leave them that way. Out of material you would have thrown away as useless, he fashions people of strength, giving them back their self-respect, enabling them to stand on their feet and look God in the eye. They were cowed, cringing, broken things. But the son has set them free."

Though John Dewey was not a Christian - all his life he chafed at his mother's strict religious beliefs - his respect for people's immense potential had similarities to Origen's. The centennial of Dewey's classic, Democracy and Education, will be celebrated next year.

To recall the formative period in Dewey's life is to go back to young intellectuals involved in what Lewis Feuer called the "back to the people" movement. "The depression of the 1880s, the riots, the waves of immigrants accumulating in the new slums, and the stark drama of the Haymarket anarchists, shook America out of its complacency," as Feuer put it. Jane Addams, a leading voice of this generation, said, "[We were all motivated] by a desire to get back to the people, to be identified with the common lot."

The University of Michigan where Dewey first taught was a leader in the momentous shift in American higher education toward the public university, with its commitment to access for a diverse citizenry and to extensive engagement with the society. James B. Angell, Michigan's president from 1871 to 1909, strongly believed that public universities needed to embody and also help shape the dynamics of a changing democracy. He built on the pioneering admission of women in 1870 to create a "democratic atmosphere" on campus, full of debate, discussion, experimentalism, and open play of different viewpoints. The seminar as a teaching method increasing was increasingly used to engage students in interactive education. Students also were able to take a wider selection of courses. There was a growing emphasis on scientific approaches to problems and analysis of the world, understood as democratic practices such as cooperative inquiry and testing of ideas in practice.

Dewey's closest associates among the Michigan faculty were George Herbert Mead, Robert Park, James Tuft, and Alfred Lloyd, all highly engaged intellectuals with a passionate identification with the popular movements for reform that were sweeping America. In views which echoed those of Jane Addams, the settlement house visionary, and Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance, development of human potential was at the center of his first serious statement on democracy, his essay "The Ethics of Democracy," written in 1888.

Democracy, according to Dewey, involves an ethical ideal, not simply a government. Its aim should be the development of the potentials of each person. "Democracy means the personality is the first and final reality," Dewey wrote. "It admits that the chief stimuli and encouragement to the realization of personality come from society; but it holds, nonetheless, to the fact that personality cannot be procured for any one, however degraded and feeble, by anyone else, however wise and strong."

Dewey also emphasized the importance of work as a source of human learning and democracy, extremely unusual among political theorists, combining such emphasis with a sharp criticism of most people's degraded experiences of work. "Democracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial as well as civil and political..."

He envisioned a variety of ways to tie education and learning to the work of the craftsman, the artist, and the professional. Forty years after he had introduced the idea of human development and learning through work in the "Ethics of Democracy," he argued in "Art as Experience" that "the intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged."

He decried the rarity of such experiences in the modern work site. "No permanent solution is possible save in a radical social alteration, which affects the degree and kind of participation the worker has in the production and social distribution of the wares he produces...."

In sum, Dewey envisioned "education for public work," students who would be change agents for work with public qualities and public purposes, not simply fit into existing work roles. This is far different than the "workforce preparation" touted by politicians like Scott Walker.

We need such education today. And we need its animating principle of radical and unsentimental public love and respect for the "rag and tag and bobtail of humanity."