Experience, Education, and Democracy*

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature.1

At bottom, however, there is no difference between faith in education and a generous faith in human nature.2

Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education.3

1. Faith and optimism are the heart and soul of John Dewey's philosophy. For Dewey, possibilities opened up by experience within an essentially open universe empower human beings to think freely, plan effectively, and act decisively. According to Dewey, the world we get and the world we give is shaped in part by thoughtful criticism and reform. It is not all in our hands; nothing ever is. But conditions can be changed; human beings can grow; meanings can expand. The horizon of possible meanings we call culture or "mind" is undetermined, even infinite. Human capacity to imagine and weigh new possibilities in the light of old actualities is the engine of this hope and faith.

2. Growth in intelligence, which includes expansion of outlook or meaning horizon, is an essential task of education. Education presupposes faith in human nature -- that minds can expand and adapt to changing conditions with keen observation, imaginative foresight, and clear-headed judgment. Since these powers of individuals are required for democratic self-rule, faith in education and faith in human nature are inseparable from faith in democracy the possibility of human beings working together and taking charge of their own destinies.

3. In many ways, faith in the possibilities of experience, conceived as both personal and collective (mind and culture), is the basis of Dewey's pragmatism or pragmatic idealism. According to Dewey, human experience itself is the sufficient means for framing purposes and solving problems. No "transcendental" norms are called for, and none exist. The fact that human experience is "self-contained" and does not conform or fail to conform to a "higher" super-empirical standard means that human beings are on their own (together) and are not subject to a higher "authority." In this sense, human experience is allied to the democratic ideal, according to which the "seat of authority" is within individuals themselves and not in any external ruler or doctrine.

4. For Dewey, faith in experience is inseparable from faith in democracy. Whereas all types of authoritarianism, intellectual or social or political, imply a vertical, "top-down," or hierarchical scheme in which a few command and the rest obey, democracy is a horizontal arrangement in which freely reflecting individuals can work together as equals to propose and realize individual and social aims. Departing from classical hierarchical views that grade "levels of being" in the universe and society, Dewey regards even laws of nature as "democratic" results of mutual compact and contract among material elements and forces. Thus, Dewey views the physical universe as a democracy, subject to no supernatural authority and in which each unique being down to the smallest particle must be taken for what it is and evaluated fairly and freshly with scientific openness.

5. Dewey regards democracy in human affairs as an ideal arrangement which has been only partially realized. The requirement that human beings work together to solve vexing problems implies that as individuals they have acquired capacities for thinking freely and imaginatively and critically, for framing and evaluating purposes, and for acting decisively and cooperatively. In a word, Democracy requires education. What is learned besides content in both formal schooling and informal learning are habits of openness, reflection, and dialogue. Education means education in the classical sense of paideia, of nurture and growth of persons as individuals and as citizens. This requires stimulation of intellectual and social capacities through the give and take of communication of ideas. The educational community, like the broader political or social community, calls for deepening and widening of meaning-horizons through shared communication of ideas. As even the partial victory of democracy over authoritarianism depends upon liberating thought so as to create individuals who "think for themselves," so democracy requires a liberal and liberating system of universal education. Universal education cannot exist without free and unprejudiced access to information and ideas. Elitism or intellectual authoritarianism, on the other hand, exists only to the extent that the majority of minds are kept in the dark, while a privileged few are enlightened. That is the lesson of Plato's "Cave Allegory" in The Republic which, in the end, calls for an enlightened authoritarianism (aristocracy) and which regards universal education or enlightenment of all human natures as impossible.

6. Both Dewey and Plato agree that those who govern should be "enlightened" or educated. This leads Plato to reject democracy and Dewey to embrace it. For Dewey believes that all, not a select few or class, can learn to think for themselves, to frame their own purposes, and to cooperate with others to govern themselves. Dewey possesses generalized faith in human nature, and Plato does not. For Dewey, all persons can be educated and can contribute their share as individuals each possessing a unique and incommensurable angle of vision. All persons have something unique to offer in return for opportunities they have received.

7. As democracy requires education, so education requires universal access to the collection of shared meanings we call culture. Vehicles for these meanings or ideas are many, including but not limited to books, magazines, newspapers, movies, radio, television, and word of mouth. Access to "new" ideas broadens and deepens and transforms old ways of thinking and acting; it expands imagination, multiplies possibilities, suggests new purposes, and exercises habits of reasoning and reflection. It enhances the individuality of the individual as it heightens receptivity to the thoughts and experiences and angles of vision of others. One gets used to receiving from others as well as giving something back. This give and take or "sharing" is the basis of all human transactions, even as it is the basis of all transactions in nature. In the Gorgias, Plato has Socrates chide Callicles for missing this point that sharing or friendship among equals is what ties together both the cosmos and the human city. Sharing is important both for what is shared and the act of sharing itself. Those who share necessarily take others seriously as givers and receivers. They trust that others have something to offer and something to gain.

8. The "give and take" of education includes both "food for thought" that liberates individuals and practice in associating that develops sociality or community. Exposure to different ideas frees individuals from mental traps, such as dogmatism. It also suggests new lines of thought, new solutions to old problems, and new practical aims. Having to work things out with others, through discussion and debate, develops quality of association with others and enlarges personal interest to include social interest or appreciation of others' angles of vision and ideals. In this way, everyone gains. The teacher, who brings more quantitative data and experience, becomes a student himself or herself in coming to grips with each student's new unique angle of vision or new individual way of handling the "same old world." For Dewey, what makes us equal, whether child or grown-up, is not the quantity of our gift to others, but the quality of individuality which is stamped on every gift, however small. This makes every individual, though dependent on other individuals and social conditions for the development of his or her individuality, infinitely important. Sharing of experience and ideas, through formal or informal education, is or at least ought to be, therefore, give and take among individuals who are qualitatively equal and infinitely important as unique human beings.

9. Universal education as an ideal requires an attitude of faith in human nature. It requires belief that each person can, if given the economic and intellectual resources, grow in intelligence and power. As democracy implies that everyone can give and receive, so education implies that everyone has something to teach and learn and can grow in capacity to communicate and cooperate with others, as well as to develop oneself. This faith in the capacity of human nature to grow, to expand itself, to imagine, to reflect, to act wisely, and to work with others may seem unwarranted. In fact, many traditional philosophers have been suspicious or even contemptuous of human nature and have ended up calling for authoritarian methods of education and government. The only alternative to democracy in education as well as in every other area of human life is some sort of authoritarianism. Every such mistrust of human nature seems to lead to vertical or hierarchical divisions of command and obey. According to this suspicion, there are multitudes who can not or should not be allowed to think or act for themselves.

10. But what is the warrant for believing in human nature, in education, and in democracy? Here the good pragmatist must ask about alternatives. Lacking conclusive proof about what human nature can or can not accomplish, practical consequences make faith seem the better perhaps the only alternative. Imagine the teacher who has concluded that education is impossible, that human nature cannot be changed, that human minds cannot be awakened, and that students necessarily detest learning. Teachers who lack faith in the capacity of human nature to learn and to grow have already ceased to teach. For their part, students without faith in education and human nature remain at a standstill. They are victims of self-fulfilling prophecy. Faith in the possibilities of human nature releases persons from prejudices and elitism; it empowers people to learn and to act together with positive results. In the same way, those who believe in human nature already believe in democracy, for they believe that citizens can be wise rulers of their own joint affairs.

11. There is certainly some cause, derived from experience of mistakes and failure, for not believing in human nature, education (universally applied), or democracy. But suspicion of human nature is not usually based solely upon dispassionate and disinterested observation of human beings. On the contrary, it often stems from "vested interest" in the status quo or belief that one has something to lose if democracy were realized and something to gain if people were kept in the dark. When the printing press was invented, ecclesiastical and other ruling parties were fearful that their edge would be taken away if everyone had access to the Bible and other texts. We see the same fear of disseminated information today on the part of those who regard the Internet with suspicion; for the Internet is likely to make education affordable and available to many otherwise excluded because of economic conditions, inadequacy of schools, scarcity of libraries, and the prohibitive cost of printed books. Thus, from the standpoint of democracy, the Internet promises universal access to virtually infinite ideas, including -- I might add -- educational and political ideas which empower individuals to reform social institutions which might otherwise remain parochial and authoritarian.

12. By definition and structure, the Internet implies sharing, give and take, and exchange of ideas. It is based upon a horizontal rather than vertical model of communication. Its unique modes of data transmission make it unlikely that it will ever be or even can be subject to any centralized authoritarian control. From its onset, the Internet has thrived in an atmosphere of loose, horizontal, and democratic aims and methods. For example, open sources for protocols, hardware, and software on the Internet have shown that open and democratic methods can and do work better than closed and proprietary methods. Furthermore, ideas freely shared on the Internet can be taken and judged on their own merit, irrespective of their authors. Certainly, intelligence must be used to test, challenge, and verify what is offered; but arguing from authority or background alone does not work in that medium.

13. From the standpoint of advancing democracy and education, with the addition of the Internet to other traditional media, there is hope that learning can be widespread, human nature can be enriched, human eyes can be opened, and community can be furthered. The boon for informal education and the challenge to formal education sparked by idea resources on the Internet and other media can genuinely increase intelligence, if humans know what to make of it. Incidentally, I believe Dewey would welcome possibilities opened up by the Internet, both in terms of their educational value and their potential for diminishing authoritarianism and elitism. Certainly, he would also have been one of the Internet's persistent critics, insofar as the power of that resource could be used for trivial or dehumanizing ends.

14. In any case, Dewey calls us to move forward with unaccustomed faith in the possibilities of human experience, education, and democracy. We are to "fare forward" because no other option will work. The challenge to teachers and to students will be to believe in what they are doing and to believe in one another. The challenge to political leaders will be to deal squarely and honestly with citizens, to welcome rather than resist public education and enlightenment, to let go of power and privilege, and to encourage more widespread self-determination and democracy. The challenge to philosophers will be to return to experience, reevaluate traditional approaches, avoid elitism, and listen to what non-philosophers are saying. Finally, the challenge to everyone will be to heed Dewey's message that there is no workable alternative to working together, respectful of differences and eager to keep the conversation going.

*This essay first appeared as a preface in Y. Hadzigeorgiou's John Dewey: His Philosophical and Pedagogical Ideas (Athens: Atrapos, 2000).


1. "Creative Democracy," The Later Works: Volume 14 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), p. 226.

2. "American Education Past and Future," The Later Works: Volume 6 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), p. 93.

3. "Creative Democracy," p. 226.

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Copyright © 2000 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.