In the opening to Democracy and Education, John Dewey introduces to us the idea of education in its most primal sense. In this understanding, education is seen merely as a means of preservation—a means of perpetuating the existence of not only the individual, but the entire species. By Chapter 7: The Democratic Conception in Education, he has begun a discourse on education in his time. Education, he explains, has largely become a what he calls a “social process” and, as such, the values and goals of education within a society are entirely dependent upon the social ideals of the society at hand. As we begin to move into the design of our own educational institutions, we must evaluate these irreducible ideals. To design a school of our times, we must ask ourselves what the values and goals of education in our society—a democratic one—are to better understand who we are designing for and to what end.
The first of these social ideals discussed, and perhaps the most relevant to our discussion thus far, is what Dewey refers to as the “Democratic Ideal.” In essence, it is a social process—an educational model—heavily based on “shared common [interests]” and a great degree of freedom as it relates to the interaction and exchange of information between social groups with those shared interests. In one word, this educational approach can be described as one of “interdependence.” As it so happens, interdependence is one of three principles key to the idea of open source learning. In order to promote such learning in our own designs, we must seek to create an environment that collects those with common interests. Furthermore, we must seek to design in a way that promotes not only the interaction and exchange of ideas between these social groups, but also the intensity with which that interaction and exchange take place.
The second social ideal is the “Platonic Ideal.” In its most concise nature, the platonic ideal is meant to organize society to an individual level. This is meant to create human organization where each individual is attributed an occupation based on their specific strengths. Plato stated that society would be “stably organized when each individual member of society is doing that for which he has aptitude by nature in such a way as to be useful to others.” To contribute to the whole of society to which the member belongs to. To contribute in the best possible manner means to find the best line of opportunity catered for the individual. At the time of Plato’s philosophy, there was a hopeless cycle created by policy makers, institutions, laws. Within a just state of society, the right minds would generate the right education, thus maintaining the just status of society. Plato searched for a way out of this cycle. His method was to identify the patterns present within society and its members and sift through the individuals during their time of education. The sifting process is meant to filter out and identify the strengths and assign work to their natural fit. Inherently, this would prescribe the individual with their own set of “values”. Rather than a stratification of social classes, the individual values of each member would work together as strengths to interdependently run society. Each member would do their own part while order and unity maintains itself.
Dewey links these various democratic, social, and political processes through characterizing education and institution as national phenomena – an imperative of the state. For each government or state to function with fluidity and efficiency, it requires a measure of subordination from each individual, who submit themselves to defined roles of hierarchy within their organized society. As a result, state education initiatives take on a level of standardization that reflects its systematic organization, one of ‘personal training rather than of personal development’, thus becoming the institution. However, educational philosophy has to also reconcile each individual’s internal development of culture and personality through learning, resulting in a synthesis that emphasizes the state and government as a coherent being composed of creative individuals and their thoughtful functions rather than simply a ‘machine’ of efficient yet standardized gears and cogs. Despite these philosophies, however, the aforementioned principles of education are still heavily rooted in the micro perspective of the state, and the state now. It considers only how pedagogy concerns the benefit of the state and individual in its current society, but fails to recognize the imperative role in the creating of a future for humanity. Thus, it is a social process that ‘has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind’. Education must then operate tangentially to larger human relations, such as the fields of science, commerce, and art, transcending national boundaries, while at the same time maintain its patriotic discourse in service to its state.
This reconciliation gives rise to the modern paradigm shift in responsibility of education from a state imperative to the hands of the private sector. Similarly, the ‘democratic criterion of education’ must not be instilled into individuals, but presented for the individual to find through his/her own personal pursuit of knowledge.