February 10, 1998
by Townsend Walker
Once in a blue moon, someone comes along with a genius for creating order out of the chaos of our muddled thinking and provides us an intellectual compass pointing the way out of a seemingly irreversible dilemma. Such a person was America's distinguished educator John Dewey who gave to the world in 1922 a book titled Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology, and later, Liberalism and Social Action in 1935. I call his book to your attention here because they articulate a principle vital to extricating ourselves from the hopelessness and horrors that are the twentieth century legacy's to all mankind. And because their enduring insights are all but forgotten amidst the crush of today's reigning superficialities.
One of Dewey's core thoughts is that institutionalized social factors shape our habits, the way we understand our world, the aspiration that motivate us, and thus the political and cultural contours of our everyday existence. From that we extrapolate to current events that trouble any reflective persons mightily: the disappearance of the earth's forests that help purify the air; machines that foul the atmosphere; the coarsening and cheapening of human personality; needless suffering occasioned by the fetishism of "private enterprise"; ruthless disregard for the future.
This is today's wasteland -- the desert, on which the practical effects of Dewey's perceptions must be brought to bear. Hurling ourselves blindly as individuals or isolated groups against barricades created over centuries of systematic exploitation will avail naught. In Dewey's words, "There must be change in objective arrangements and institutions. We must work on the environment not merely on the hearts of men. To think otherwise is to suppose that flowers can be raised in a desert..."
In sum, Dewey was impressing on the people of his day that a democratic society does not perpetuate itself automatically but requires for its survival "conscious and resolute effort" by its citizens. "The task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute." Diatribes will not restore the underpinnings of democracy once it fails. At that point only a radical overhaul of its institutions will restore to democracy its original luster.
Habits of thought rooted in failed institutions must be broken and new strategies devised. The institutions themselves must be challenged and turned upside down. Otherwise, "we shall simply do the old thing over again." A closer look at John Dewey may lead to that conscious and resolute effort required to outflank these institutions -- and make the desert bloom.
Until recently, I knew little of the man considered by some to be America's pre-eminent educator and philosopher -- only that John Dewey made something of an educational splash on the national scene by the time he died in 1952. I neither knew what he stood for nor why he is today either unknown, ignored or glossed over by polite society.
Today, having delved into his writing, I discover that John Dewey was articulating three generations ago what lies at the heart of America's social shortfalls and the difficulty of righting them. Looking back over the events of my own seventy-six years, I am able to see that his perceptions of the fault lines weakening the structure of American society have been proven accurate. And I am persuaded of the absolute necessity of formulating a strategy for change that goes beyond ad hominem appeals to sweet reason and self-interest -- and refashions with the mortar of the present the social environment inherited from the past.
By no means does this mean unreasoned jettisoning of the environment we are born to form as Dewey explicitly says, without it civilization would relapse into barbarism in spite of the best of intentions. It does mean, however, that "the eternal dignity of labor...lies in...effecting that permanent reshaping of environment which is the substantial foundation of future security and progress...For however much has been done, there always remains more to do. We can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment...Both things can happen and without a miracle, but only by first changing the jungle and the desert."
What do these abstractions mean for those who have a vision of health care and work as civil rights, or a sense of reverence for the world about them? Or this: that gaining those rights for ourselves is no easy task, and that passing them on to future generations is no easier.
For several years now I have bannered across the newsletter, New Vision - New Voices, these words, still there today: Nothing is likely to happen until people decide to change it. Our hope from the beginning had been that through some miraculous osmosis the truth of the statement would root itself in the minds of a few readers with sufficient force to trigger a response to William Greider's dark summation of the state of the world. The result exemplifies the difficulty of altering our social environment and smoothing the road we travel -- of making the desert bloom.
In the six years since the publication of Greider's Who Will Tell the People, little has happened that would suggest American leaders (whether of workers, the elderly, business, politicians -- whatever) have read it. Much less does the evidence suggest these leaders have heeded his conclusion: that "man must come to his senses -- rebel against the role as a helpless cog in the gigantic and enormous machinery hurting God knows where -- find the courage to speak honestly again in the language of democracy." The posturing we have seen in virtually any category of leadership is only that and nothing more, a reflecting of the self-deception, gullibility and corruption in which the whole nation is awash. Why is this so?
Let us listen to Dewey, ponder his words carefully, and talk about them at length, for he tells us when we are daydreaming and identifies the strategy we must employ in the fulfillment of our desires.
I. "We may desire abolition of war, industrial injustice, greater equality of opportunity for all. But no amount of preaching good will or the golden rule...will accomplish the results. There must be change in objective arrangements and institutions...Not the nation but its customs get old. Its institutions petrify into rigidity, there is social arterial sclerosis...Political and legal institutions are now inconsistent with the habits that dominate friendly intercourse...The significant point is not whether modifications shall continue to occur, but whether they shall be characterized chiefly by...blind antagonistic struggles, or whether intelligent direction may turn the elements of disintegration into a constructive synthesis."
II. "Those who wish a monopoly of social power find desirable the separation of habit and thought, action and soul, so characteristic of history. For the dualism enables them to do the thinking and planning, while others remain the docile, even if awkward instruments of execution. Until this scheme is changed, democracy is bound to be perverted in realization. With our present system of education -- by which something much more extensive than schooling is meant -- democracy multiplies occasions for imitation not occasions for thought in action...But for the most part adults have been given training rather than education...not capacity to learn liberally and generously, but willingness to learn the customs of adult associates, ability to learn just those special things which those having power and authority wish to teach...One side[Dewey's them] proclaims the ultimacy of order -- that of some old order which concludes to its own interest. The other [you/I]...its rights to freedom, and identifies justice with its submerged claims."
III. "...Nothing is clearer that that the conception of liberty is always relative to forces that at a given time and place are increasingly felt to be oppressive. Liberty in the concrete signifies release from the impact of particular oppressive forces; emancipation from something once taken as a normal part of human life but now experienced as a bondage. At one time, liberty signified from chatted slavery, at another time, release of a class from serfdom [or] from despotic rule. A century later it meant release of industrialists from inherited legal customs that hampered the rise of new force of production. Today [Dewey wrote those words in 1935], it signifies liberation from material insecurity and from the coercions and repressions that prevent multitudes from participating in the vast cultural resources that are at hand..."
IV. "There does not yet exist the kind of social organization that even permits the average human intelligence...The only form of enduring social organization that is now possible is one in which the new forces of productivity are cooperatively controlled and used in the interest of the effective liberty and the cultural development of the individuals that constitute society.
Consider in non-philosophical, everyday speech what Dewey has told us. There have been times in the long history of mankind when the collective world seemed to be coming apart at the seams, as in wars or the unraveling of the social fabric, and pious pleading were of no avail. The institutions themselves had to be purged of their rubbish and impurities. New habits of perceiving, understanding, thinking and doing had to replace the old. Control of education -- the means of change -- and to be transferred from the few with a monopoly of social power to the many who were trained to imitate, not educated to act for their own good.
Moreover, the transfer of power in our own time must be by democratic means, through the will of the people. Otherwise, liberty as a counterforce to oppression dissolves into its opposite. Long ago, liberty was conceived as liberation from slavery, and later, with equal validity, as freedom of the rising industrial class from the strictures of arbitrary feudal rule. In his own days, Dewey understood the fluid nature of liberty as deliverance from financial insecurity and the removal of obstacles to the development and self-fulfillment of the multitudes.
The same holds true at the end of the millennium as the world's elite, under the pretext of "globalization," pushes unsuspecting millions to the brink of a new lumpenproletarianism. Within less than a decade we have seen an American president vaporize the difference between the two major political parties, and witnessed the entrenchment of four major indicators of creeping impoverishment among the working class: wage stagnation, job uncertainty, vanishing educational opportunities, and the continued deterioration in the availability and quality of health care. The continued appropriation of wealth by the few further exemplifies the urgency of the need to replace failed legal institutions with new ones capable of reinventing democracy in the image of the people.
Or, in Dewey's synthesizing words, "the isolated individual is well-nigh helpless...for the gulf is so great that it cannot be bridged by piecemeal policies...without having a social goal [for] reforming the institutional scheme of things."
Townsend Walker of Huntsville, Alabama has been activist for universal health care since his retirement twenty-two years ago, and now edits New Vision/New Voices in that connection.