Active Education, Active Democracy

By Jeff Farr

This article reports on a Center-sponsored panel discussion at the April 2008 Philosophy of Education Society annual meeting, held in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The educator John Dewey had many insightful — some would say prophetic — things to say on what democracy means. He always brought the term back down to earth. In a 1939 essay, “Creative Democracy,” he defined it as a “way of life…controlled by personal faith in personal day-by-day working together with others.” A simple yet profound conception: Democracy is born in how we learn to live and work with one another in harmony. How we educate young people then becomes critical — a fact made clear by a recent BRC-sponsored panel at the Philosophy of Education Society Annual Meeting, held in Boston in April. “Expanding Philosophical Horizons” focused on three 20th-century educators who shared and acted on this belief: W.E.B. Du Bois in America, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in Japan, and Maria Montessori in Italy (and the world).

Chaired by Jane Roland Martin of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the panel considered the question “Why might it benefit American teachers, in light of contemporary circumstances, to understand the visions of these educators?” For many in the audience, “contemporary circumstances” meant the controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which they feel has encouraged a mechanized, corporate atmosphere in classrooms, stifling to the personal development and democratic education of students.

Dale Snauwaert of the University of Toledo, one of the panelists, suggested that these three figures have set an example for educators today as “voices in the wilderness for humanism in their own times. They championed respect and care for persons in the face of dehumanizing social structures, ideologies, movements — racism, fascism, and militarism.”

Rodino Anderson of Bowdoin College began the session with a presentation on Du Bois, who, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), argued for African-Americans’ right to enjoy a full liberal arts education. This was inseparable for Du Bois from “bringing together black and white in the idea of common brotherhood,” Anderson shared. True “brotherhood” could only be built on an “aesthetic education” that strengthened students’ identity, helping them see themselves as equals in society.

This pointed to a commonality of the three educators: the conviction that the foundation of education for democratic life lies in students awakening to, and experiencing fulfillment in, the individual roles they can play as members of communities — from local to global.

A former principal of The Renaissance Charter School in New York City, Monte Joffee shared that for Makiguchi the fostering of this awakening was the moral imperative for educators. “We have to move beyond ideology, and just start with the imperative,” Joffee emphasized. Makiguchi was able to boil down his “philosophy of value” to the simple question “What can I do to assure that each child will be able to lead the happiest life possible?” If students could learn to create value with their lives and contribute value to their communities, Makiguchi held, a worldwide society of value could eventually be realized.

The child finds that he or she also is a part of the whole and has a part to play and a contribution to make.Montessori, as Jennifer Whitcomb of the University of Colorado at Boulder showed, sought students’ awakening through a similar philosophy of “cosmic education.” This was her view that “every single thing has a part to play, a contribution to make, to the maintenance of harmony in the whole,” Whitcomb explained. “Understanding this network of relationships, the child finds that he or she also is a part of the whole and has a part to play and a contribution to make.”

The three educators each “gave voice in very dark circumstances to human potential and to the dignity of humanity,” Snauwaert reflected, “speaking of freedom, of value-creation, of the power of knowledge to liberate, of co-creation, of the importance of happiness and human well-being, of authentic human development, of integrity and integration, and of interrelationship with nature, among many other very powerful ideas. They speak to us, I believe — especially in this time.”

During an open discussion following the presentations, an audience member, who introduced herself as a former Montessori teacher and longtime teacher in higher education, admitted she sometimes feels discouraged by the state of education and the world today. “But now you are reminding me,” she told the panelists, “in these incredibly dark times that we are in, that these people were also in very dark times — and yet they kept up that work. This is really making me feel again like, OK, all right, I have got to get back to work here.”

As Joffee summed it up, “All of these figures just kept on drilling.” They kept moving ahead and seeking answers deep within themselves. The session made clear that such hard work on educators’ part — necessitating very active nurturing of all students’ growth — is what builds an active rather than passive democracy. The classroom of today becomes the democracy of tomorrow.


Du Bois, Makiguchi, and Montessori are highlighted in the BRC book Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice, along with seven other innovative educators, including Dewey. Edited by David Hansen of Teachers College, Columbia University and published by Teachers College Press in 2007.

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