The “New Civics”: John Dewey Shall Rise Again

BY AARON BARLOW

When I was young, Civics was a part of the web of education up to the college level. Everyone, after all, was expected to finish high school—and everyone was expected to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the structures of the political system of the United States and the responsibilities of citizenship. We believed, with John Dewey, “that education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction.” I still do, though Civics seems to have dropped off the map of education, nodes of subject mastery, of overly specific “outcomes” having replaced the grander visions of a century ago.

That line from Dewey comes from “My Pedagogic Creed” published in School Journal in January, 1897, one-hundred-and-twenty years ago and almost two decades before the founding of the AAUP, in which Dewey, of course, was instrumental. We could do worse than going back to it as a foundational document for the “New Civics.” Though Dewey was addressing education prior to college, the situation of education has changed. Possibilities for post-secondary schooling are much greater than they were then, and our K-12 schools, both public and private, are shrinking from any commitment to an educational vision beyond the pedestrian, leaving it to colleges and universities to pick up the missions that have been dropped.

Dewey writes:

I believe that education… is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the play-ground.

I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, forms that are worth living for their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality and tends to cramp and to deaden.

In the “New Civics,” we must emphasize these beliefs, making education a unity and not a scattering of skills and assessments. We should bring it to life and into the community, students operating within the dynamics of society as a whole as they learn about it—something that college students, certainly, can more easily do than can their younger siblings. We need to get out of the boxes that are our classrooms and our thoughts, taking our students with us.

In the “New Civics,” we instructors need to be active, constantly, in the public sphere, making clear our commitment to our own partisan beliefs while demonstrating adherence to the ideals of diversity of thought and discussion. We need to show that data, for example, are not simply clay for manipulation into reflection of our beliefs but that data are means for both verification and for change, depending on conclusions not fore-ordained but extracted. We need to show our commitment to discovery, not confirmation.

We need to show how the American system can work for compromise, when all sides are willing to put in the effort. We need to demonstrate the intricacies of our democracy through participation in its institutions.

Dewey continues:

I believe that the art of thus giving shape to human powers and adapting them to social service, is the supreme art; one calling into its service the best of artists; that no insight, sympathy, tact, executive power is too great for such service.

I believe that with the growth of psychological science, giving added insight into individual structure and laws of growth; and with growth of social science, adding to our knowledge of the right organization of individuals, all scientific resources can be utilized for the purposes of education.

I believe that when science and art thus join hands the most commanding motive for human action will be reached; the most genuine springs of human conduct aroused and the best service that human nature is capable of guaranteed.

I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

The “New Civics,” you should be able to see by now, isn’t so new after all. What we teachers need to do, following the advice of Ezra Pound, is make it new, making our institutions and ourselves—and the education we facilitate—new through the process.

One thought on “The “New Civics”: John Dewey Shall Rise Again

  1. Barlow makes a persuasive case for the “New Civics”! To that I would add: Our lack of understanding of and trust in the three separate branches of government, not to mention our President’s continued disrespect for and efforts to delegitimize and denegrate these separate branches of government and the media , bolsters Barlow’s case.

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