Tag Archives: John Dewey

Democratic Vistas

In his 1872 essay “Democratic Vistas” the poet Walt Whitman writes that “democracy is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted.” This course tests Whitman’s supposition through diverse cultural practices, with a special focus on the relationship between art and democracy.

We will read and consider the formative ideas about democratic culture that emerged in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. We will then trace the literary aspirations and social contradictions of American democracy in a series of case studies, including debates in the twentieth century about art and public engagement that arose in response to John Dewey’s ideas about what he called “creative democracy,” and the singular cultural work of Adrienne Rich, focusing primarily on her essays published in the collection Blood, Bread and Poetry and her poems from the late 1980s in An Atlas of the Difficult World.

Terry Tempest Williams’ appeal to democratic engagement in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 will offer a conceptual framework for the second half of the course. “In the open space of democracy,” Williams writes in a commencement address she presented at the University of Utah, “we are listening–ears alert–we are watching–eyes open–registering the patterns and possibilities for engagement” (76). In the spirit of commencement, we will consider more contemporary cultural projects that challenge formal conventions and unsettle institutionalized practices, and that enlarge our understanding of art as social and communicative action.

During the final weeks of the course students will contribute to a collaborative project in the Keene State College archives and will design and pursue an individual research project. Student projects will draw on primary materials, in library-based and digital archives, to further develop research experience and methods in defining, organizing, and elaborating the significance of these materials in the public domain.

Required Reading A good deal of the reading in this course is accessible through the Schedule page. The Reading page is the reading list for the course. In addition to the digital materials, we will be reading three books that you are required to purchase.

Robert A. Dahl. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. ISBN 978-0-300-084559

Adrienne Rich. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991. New York, Norton, 1991. ISBN 0-393-30831-6

Doris Sommer. The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham: Duke UP, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8223-5586-1


Creativity and Critique

Patrick and I were in the archive this morning looking at the papers of the Reverend John Crocker. Rodney printed out Bryan Marquand’s 2012 obituary of Reverend Crocker that was published in the January 6th edition of The Boston Globe. The obituary includes a comment Crocker made to a Globe reporter in 1976. “We are responsible for what happens in this world,” he says. “It is possible for people to change, and there is time to change.”

This investment in the possibility of change not only animates the idea of democratic culture but is implied in what I am calling democratic literacy. What is it? How do we cultivate it?

9780813343297-400x600Reading Doris Sommer we are reminded of a Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, who took these questions seriously. His wonderful little book Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach makes a case that teachers, and the institutions in which they work, are responsible for cultivating democracy. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Freire’s pedagogy was his suspicion of “the pedagogical populism that prefers easier engagements, because full citizenship requires high-order literacy” (112).

But how do we cultivate creativity and criticism in the open space of democracy?


One working answer is to explore the relationship between art and democracy, between creativity and criticism. I’m going to read ahead to the chapter in Sommer we will consider on Thursday where she addresses the relationship:

. . . .democratic life depends upon the dynamic between art-making and humanistic interpretation. This is no exaggeration. A disposition toward creativity and critique resists authoritarian single-mindedness; it acknowledges different points of view and multiple ways to arrange available material. Constitutional democracies are themselves collective works of art accountable for their constructions. And constitutions remain open to performative interventions, obliging citizens to cultivate their creativity and criticism (104).

The idea that a constitutional democracy is itself is a collective work of art, accountable to its making, calls attention to participatory and performative cultural activities—the “venture into the multifarious practices that make up culture, the range of cultures.

Whether in archives or outside of them, or whether in museums or in the streets, our cultural activities are constitutive of our democratic life. These activities made possible by an open cultural space and a spirit of creative interventions, critical conversations, and communicative actions. A vibrant democratic culture requires a continual effort to cultivate democratic literacy—the civic arts of creativity and criticism.

However, any conversation about democratic literacy raises fundamental questions about what we mean by learning, by education. Richard Rorty’s essay Education as Socialization and as Individuation, from his book Philosophy and Social Hope (1999), talks about the institutions that do this work, secondary schools and colleges. He talks about the cultural debates over cultural literacy and the confusion about a word “education” that refers to “two entirely distinct, and equally necessary, processes— socialization and individualization. Rorty then puts his cards on the table:

I think that the conservatives are wrong in thinking that we have either a truth-tracking faculty called ‘reason’ or a true self that education brings to consciousness. I think that the radicals are right in saying that if you take care of political, economic, cultural and academic freedom, then truth will take care of itself. But I think the radicals are wrong in believing that there is a true self that will emerge once the repressive influence of society is removed. There is no such thing as human nature, in the deep sense in which Plato and Strauss used this term. Nor is there such a thing as alienation from one’s essential humanity due to societal repression, in the deep sense made familiar by Rousseau and the Marxists. There is only the shaping of an animal into a human being by a process of socialization, followed (with luck) by the self-individualization and self-creation of that human being through his or her own later revolt against that very process.

He then draws out an interpretation of John Dewey’s contribution to our understanding of what education is, what it is for:

Dewey’s great contribution to the theory of education was to help us get rid of the idea that education is a matter of either inducing or educing truth. Primary and secondary education will always be a matter of familiarizing the young with what their elders take to be true, whether it is true or not. It is not, and never will be, the function of lower-level education to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is true. Socialization has to come before individuation, and education for freedom cannot begin before some constraints have been imposed.

We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the students see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centred is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to take themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts as Emerson and Anthony, Debs and Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings.

The challenge for us is to describe how creative cultural practices—let’s say art on a wall of the American University in Cairo, music festivals, urban architecture and design, identity formation in sport, social justice movements, writers collectives, body art, and so on—enact, intervene, construct, reveal, reframe the experience and the possibilities of democratic life.

Method Imagination Inquiry

Over the next few weeks our work will be defining and pursuing a project that will represent and discuss the impact of creative social practices in the open space of democracy. We will also be reading and discussing your work with theorists and practitioners who have thought about these questions, including Doris Sommer and Pablo Helguera, to refine the method we are using to conduct our intellectual work.

On Tuesday of this week we need to get to work on outlining our work and setting up the relationship between individual and collective responsibilities. And by Thursday (or Friday) we want to have in place a concept and an outline for completing our work.

Our reading in Sommer and Helguera provides a stimulating context for what you decide you are going to do. Your efforts, as I have  explained on a number of occasions, is to bring to light the practice of democratic culture. A focus on the “work of art” in the world should not trip you up, as we are moving to find examples of what Sommer calls Schiller’s  “daring proposition” that “creativity and aesthetic judgment are foundations for democracy” (9). Over the next few weeks we will be apprentices to this idea that Sommers connects to Fredrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794).

Among the reasons we are reading Sommer is that she is really clear about the contribution of the kind of critical work we are practicing as students of culture. She quotes Dewey, in fact, the memorable last words from a book we sampled, Art as Experience,

We lay hold of the full import of art only as we go through in our own vital processes the processes the artist went through in producing the work. It is the critic’s privilege to share in the promotion of this active process. His condemnation is that he so often arrests it

The other thing we are doing, of course, is American Studies. This work is examining subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines.  Helguera elegantly, and for me convincingly, explains how art as social practice involves community engagement, dialogue, and conversation. Examples of this kind of practice involve pedagogy (Paulo Friere, in this case), performance and performance studies, sociology, ethnography, literary studies, cultural studies, women’s studies, linguistics, art and art history, political science, and the public humanities.

The work of criticism depends on thinking–creative, critical, however you want to describe it. For Sommer, critical thinking “is both a condition of and a complement to art making-world making in Dewey’s pragmatic and democratizing sense of art as experience-that sparks more exploration and more experience” (10). This is helpful information. It is one way around the debilitating arrest of thought that leaves us where we are. It is a reminder that all of us are creative artists and citizens, if we choose to be, in that creative democracy Dewey imagined, and that we continue to struggle to enact every day.