John Dewey to the Rescue?

Republican candidate-presumptive Mitt Romney recently blasted Barack Obama for suggesting that it takes more than an individual to build a country:

To say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John pizza, that Ray Kroc didn’t build McDonald’s, that Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft … to say something like that is not just foolishness, it’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.

What Obama had said was:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

A blogger on the progressive political site Daily Kos responded to Romney:

Did Steve Jobs stand on an assembly line and assemble the iPod? No. Did Henry Ford attach motors to the Model T? No. Thousands of ordinary folks who get up in the morning and with calloused hands and sweaty brows…they are the ones who built those companies. Salesmen and customer service reps and repairmen and ordinary consumers. That’s who built those companies. Mitt Romney seems to think that its the team owners who win championships and not the team.

Christopher Lasch, in his The Culture of Narcissism (written over thirty years ago), said that “We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future” (5). He’s right.

Even earlier, John Dewey explained—for what should have been for all time—the connectedness that Obama was trying to illustrate and that Romney was attempting to ignore. As John Cawelti explained it in the 1960s in Apostles of the Self-Made Man:

For Dewey, the existence of a community is a prerequisite for meaningful individual development…. Communities came into existence when men recognized that they faced common problems and saw the need for cooperation in resolving these problems. It was the resultant communication and co-operative actions which, in Dewey’s view, make the difference between a meaningless pursuit of individual impulse and a truly articulate individual life. (243-244)

Dewey’s book Culture and Freedom and the collection of his essays Individualism Old and New provide the details behind Cawelt’s summation. They might be worthwhile reading for our current political class.

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