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Educating Democratic Character

Natalia Rogach Alexander and Philip Kitcher

Abstract

Many recent writers on democracy have lamented its decay and warned of its imminent death. We argue that the concerns are focused at three different levels of democracy. The most fundamental of these, celebrated by Tocqueville and by Dewey, recognizes the interactions and joint deliberations among citizens who seek sympathetic mutual engagement. Such engagement is increasingly rare in large-scale political life. In diagnosing and treating the problems, we recommend returning to the debate between Lippmann and Dewey, in which many of the concerns now prominent were already voiced. This inspires the main work of the paper – the reconstruction of Dewey’s conception of democracy as a ‘mode of associated living’. We focus on the thesis that democracy is educative and explicate Dewey’s notion of growth, showing how democratic education contributes to three important functions: the capacity for sustaining oneself, the enrichment of individual experience, and the ability to enter into cooperative discussions with fellow citizens. Dewey’s conception of democratic education is directed at fostering particular virtues and, if citizens come to possess them, the need for Lippmann’s ‘omnicompetent individual’ vanishes. We conclude by suggesting that Dewey’s project of educating democratic character is pertinent for addressing the disaffection of our times.


Corresponding author: Natalia Rogach Alexander, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University, 1150 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY, 10027, USA, E-mail

This essay is a joint effort, resulting from several years of discussions between us. Natalia Rogach Alexander is primarily responsible for the material of all sections after the first two. Philip Kitcher wrote the first two sections and contributed a few sentences and paragraphs to subsequent sections.

In citing John Dewey, we shall refer throughout to the edition of his works (divided into Early Works, Middle Works, and Later Works) published by the University of Southern Illinois Press. Thus (EW 1, 26) refers to page 26 of Volume 1 of the early works.


Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Robert Gooding-Williams, Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi and Michele Moody-Adams for inspiring discussions and helpful suggestions about the issues we consider here.

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Published Online: 2021-03-30
Published in Print: 2021-04-27

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