Education and Democracy

Anti-intellectualism (cover)I’m reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life in preparation for doing a review of Carlin Romano’s new book America the Philosophical. Romano mentions Hofstadter in his introduction, but only in his introduction. He never returns to him. I suspected that was going to turn out to be a weakness in Romano’s book, so I decided I should read Hofstadter before reviewing Romano. That was no great chore. Hofstadter is one of my favorite authors. His book Social Darwinism in American Thought is a real eye-opener. That book, together with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is a kind of Rosetta Stone of American culture.

The penultimate chapter of Hofstadter’s book looks at the educational theory of John Dewey. “The new education,” Hofstadter observes, that grew out of Dewey’s thought “would have social responsibilities more demanding and more freighted with social significance than the education of the past. Its goal would be nothing less than the fullest realization of the principles of democracy. In setting this aspiration, Dewey stood firmly within the American tradition, for the great educational reformers who had established the common-school system had also been concerned with its potential value to democracy” (Hofstadter, p. 378). That is, in Dewey’s theory, “the ends of democratic education are to be served by the socialization of the child, who is to be made into a co-operative rather than a competitive being and ‘saturated’ with the spirit of service (Hofstadter, p. 379).

Leaving aside the issue of the mounting evidence that people are inherently more inclined to cooperation than to competition, it seems to me that something essential is omitted here. The traditional conception of the significance of education to democracy is that it is important that citizens in a democracy be well informed, that they should be able to read as a means to being well informed, as well as that they should be able to think critically and analytically so as to be better able to sort their way through the information with which they are presented and to properly understand its significance.

I believe, however, that the significance of education to democracy is much greater than that. It is not simply that citizens in a democracy must be rational and well informed, they must also be happy. Unhappy people are too prone to using their vote punitively, that is, in ways that actually decrease rather than increase the happiness of their fellow citizens. But policies that improve the quality of life of the average citizen are the engine of democracy. Without them democracy ultimately breaks down. That is, Dewey’s ideal of socialization as encouraging cooperation can’t be sustained unless the individuals being socialized are relatively happy both throughout the period of socialization and beyond (if the process can be meaningfully said to stop at any point).

What few people understand, I fear, is the importance of education to human happiness. Human beings, as Aristotle famously observed, are rational animals. They have very highly developed and complex brains, brains that have needs of their own for stimulation and challenge. Helen Keller writes movingly, for example, of how perpetually angry, and even violent, she was before she learned language (The Story of My Life). That was partly, of course, because of her difficulty communicating, but it was also, as she clearly details, because of her difficulty in fixing thoughts in her mind. Language, like mathematics and logic, is a cultural achievement. People do not learn it in isolation from other people and they do not gain an optimal command of it if they do not read. The brain is driven to make sense of its environment. It finds fulfillment in that. People would do science (as indeed they did for millennia) even if it had no obvious utility, just as they always done cognitively challenging and stimulating games such as chess and crossword puzzles.

The need of human beings to develop their minds is, I believe, so acute that its fulfillment is an ineradicable element of human happiness. That, I would argue, is the real value of education to democracy. We need to educate people in a democracy not merely so that they will better understand what sorts of policies would be best for society as a whole, but so that they will also desire what is best for society as a whole rather than the spread of their private misery onto the larger community.