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Creative Democracy? The Task Before Us in Times of Populism.
Linnaeus University, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Education and Teacher's Practice. (Studies of Curriculum, Teaching and Evaluation (SITE))ORCID iD: 0000-0001-5554-6041
2018 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Drawing on John Dewey’s essay “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us” (1939), this paper addresses the meaning of democracy and education in a globalized world that is characterized by pluralism and interdependence on the one hand and populist nationalism on the other. Dewey thought that the greatest threats to democracy come from within the democratic countries themselves. The institutions and conditions that are fundamental to democracy can also be used by social forces to destroy it (Bernstein 2000). The purpose of the study is to problematize Dewey’s view of democracy in “Creative Democracy” (1939) through a comparative study on the meaning of citizenship education in curricula in the United States and Sweden in light of the present populist tendencies in these countries. More specifically, this paper poses the questions:

  • What emphasis of citizenship education emerges in curricula for fifteen year-old students in two countries sharing a self-image of being strong democracies, when analyzed from a democratic perspective as outlined in Dewey’s “Creative Democracy”?
  • What strengths and weaknesses in relation to populism and authoritarian regimes does Dewey’s conception of democracy offer?

The meaning of populism can be ambiguous. In this paper, populism is primarily characterized by two main features. Firstly, it relies on the wisdom of “ordinary” people, who are thought of as a homogenous whole consisting of “good” people with “decent” values. Populist parties are usually a form of democracy based directly on the voice of the majority without built-in protection for minorities. Secondly, populists prefer leadership exercised by an authoritarian charismatic individual who is believed to express the opinions of ordinary people and to govern based on what is best for this group (Inglehart & Norris 2016). Those who do not adhere to this basic philosophy of populism are excluded from the “ordinary” and in contrast, are categorized as “elite.”  

Theoretical framework

In the written address, Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us” (1939), John Dewey formulated democracy not only as a way of life, but as a “personal way of individual life” (p. 226). Dewey’s idea of a personally-lived democracy has two main characteristics: democracy is first and foremost a moral ideal, rather than an institutional fact, and democracy is about pluralism (Dewey 1939/1991).  According to Richard Bernstein (2000, 2010), Dewey was a “rooted cosmopolitan,” which is a term also used by Appiah (2005, p. 222) when he argues that a “tenable cosmopolitanism” needs to take seriously not only the value of human lives, but also the value of particular human lives in communities contributing to forming those lives. Cosmopolitanism, Appiah argues, grows from the county, the town, or the street rather than from the state. According to Westbrook (2006), Appiah’s book on cosmopolitanism has a close affinity to Dewey’s pragmatism, although Appiah does not himself make use of that label. According to both Dewey (1925/2008) and Appiah (2007), communication, or rather “conversation,” is the bridge between differences, cultural as well as other differences, not to come to some sort of consensus on ethical values but simply to make contact with each other, or to “get used to one another” (Appiah 2007, p. 168). Dewey (1939/1991) argues that in a democratic personal way of life, cooperation across differences is inherent “because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience” (p. 228).

In his 1916 essay “Nationalizing Education”, Dewey formulates the two counterparts inherited in the concepts of “nation” and “nationalism.” The desired side of nationalism, according to Dewey, is that nations have the ability to offer broader communities beyond a family or village. The aspect of nationalism to be avoided is a type of nationalism where “skillful politicians” know how to “play cleverly upon patriotism, and upon ignorance of other peoples” to spread a feeling of hostility to those outside their own nation (Dewey 1916/1980, p. 202). Therefore, the spirit of a nationalized education must, according to Dewey, be the promotion of the national idea which is the idea of democracy, and the idea of democracy is an idea of “amity and good will to all humanity (including those beyond our border) and equal opportunity for all within” (Dewey 1916/1980, p. 209). Dewey urges teachers to remember that it is they who need to be the mediators of this democratic idea.

So what does the word “creative” add to our understanding of democracy? Bernstein (2000) distinguishes two elements intertwined in the term “creative democracy.” Firstly, it denotes a sense of situated creativity; an individual who is educated in a way that promotes an experimental and imaginative approach to handling social situations intelligently.  Secondly, it is concerned with the need for democracy to recreate itself. The world changes, the social circles grow larger, and creative democracy has to do with how to cope with new times of risk and uncertainty without lapsing into democracy as static procedures or self-righteous insulation. Bernstein (2000) concludes that democracy cannot be a fixed ideal; that is why it is always the task before us.

From these theoretical assumptions, it becomes clear that the concept of democracy, including its creative version, must always be understood as an attitude with intrinsic potentials for both desirable and undesirable implications. In this paper, I argue that Dewey’s “Creative Democracy” (1939) needs to be read together with “Nationalizing Education” (1916) to clarify the democratic responsibility of the public school. Otherwise, the idea of creative democracy risks lapsing into ideals that underestimate the threats to democracy.  

Mode of inquiry

The mode of inquiry in this paper is based on two qualitative research methodologies: conceptual research and document studies. In the first part of the paper, Dewey’s concept of democracy is analyzed against a backdrop of current political phenomena such as populism and nationalism in order to examine the validity of Dewey’s ideas today, about a hundred years after he wrote his texts. From this reading, in the second part of the paper, three key concepts are derived that guide the analysis of citizenship education in curricula from two countries, the United States and Sweden. Two concepts, “situated creativity” and “the need for democracy to recreate itself” are drawn from Dewey’s (1916/1980) “Creative Democracy” and one concept, “cultural pluralism,” from “Nationalizing Education” (Dewey 1916/1980); the latter is interpreted in line with  Bernstein’s (2015) understanding of “where cultural differences are appreciated, respected and cultivated” (Bernstein 2015, p. 355).

Both as countries and as democracies, Sweden and the US are very different, but both countries identify themselves as stable democracies, and both countries have encountered an unexpectedly strong wave of populism during the last few years. In the US in particular, the Republican Party has developed populist tendencies. In Sweden, the “Swedish Democrats,” with its roots in Nazism, has gained increased support and is now counted as Sweden’s second largest party according to the most recent opinion polls. From the US, the state of California has been selected for comparison with Sweden. California and Sweden are about the same geographical size, but California has about four times as many inhabitants. Both can be viewed as progressive in their view of areas like culture, music, and climate change, and both have recently signed letters of cooperation focusing on climate change. The comparison is made between curricula for students who are 15 years of age when they start the school year. This means grade 9 in Sweden and grade 10 in California. In Sweden, grade 9 is the last year of the compulsory school; in the US, grade 10 represents the second year in high school. The comparative study is conducted in the subjects of history and social science (civics).

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2018.
Keywords [en]
comparative research, pragmatism, educational philosophy, curriculum theory
National Category
Pedagogy
Research subject
Pedagogics and Educational Sciences, Education
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:lnu:diva-77077OAI: oai:DiVA.org:lnu-77077DiVA, id: diva2:1237262
Conference
The American Educational Research Association Congress, New York, April, 13-17.
Note

Ej belagd 20190212

Available from: 2018-08-08 Created: 2018-08-08 Last updated: 2019-02-12Bibliographically approved

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