Democracy’s College: John Dewey and the Future of the Two-Year College Idea


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

November 2, 2015

What truly motivates the forces behind corporate-based education reform is a desire to use schools to help create a permanent, docile underclass working at artificially suppressed wages, an underclass lacking the critical thinking skills and creativity to question and change the forces repressing them. Consider a recent example: the state of Texas.

In 2010, academic publisher McGraw-Hill, responding to new Texas Board of Education guidelines, re-wrote the history of slavery.  New social studies textbooks described the Atlantic slave trade as a process of transferring “workers” from Africa to the United States, as if this were a necessary response to a labor shortage. In a brilliant New York Times op-ed piece two weeks ago, Ellen Bresler Rockmore, a writing teacher at Dartmouth, points out how even the grammatical structure of individual sentences in these revisionary history books reflected a political bias. In a textbook published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sentences structured with active voice presented slavery in a benign light, while passively structured sentences meekly identified slavery’s problems. Here’s a quote: “Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.”  Note not only the active/passive voice distinction, but the order of ideas: slavery is good comes first; slavery is bad comes second. (Yes, grammar is ethical–but you need a liberal arts education to see it!). That’s education reform in Texas: students predisposed to embrace conservative principles and corporate values, aka, good future employees working as wage slaves.

So how does John Dewey fit into all this? Well, Dewey was among this country’s greatest philosophers of education during the first-half of the twentieth century.  He forged his reformist principles by acutely observing social conditions very similar to those existing today: then as now enormous inequality prevented the fair functioning of democracy. Recognizing that higher education favored the upper classes—college admission was gained primarily through wealth and social connections—Dewey saw that higher education was reproducing class distinctions.  Inequality resulted in a dual-track education system, two tiers, an industrial track for the working classes and a college track for the upper classes. Now, witness the historical irony coming into play today, when we see Governor Cuomo and SUNY proposing to return twenty-first community college education to a Gilded Age model—a workforce track for the poor and a liberal arts track for the wealthy. Dewey’s critique of industrial education would today be a critique of “workforce education.”

Over the next few weeks, the Weekly Read will look at how the insights of John Dewey might help us understand the predicament of education in 2015 and offer ways to re-imagine education reform in ways that are genuinely progressive. Of particular interest will be  a recent book, Clifford R. Harbour’s John Dewey and the Future of Community College Education (Bloomsbury 2015), which will be reviewed here.

Reform can happen, but not if it’s the brainchild of hedge-fund billionaires. Look at high-stakes testing, the pedagogical preference of the 1%. Parents, teachers, students launched a popular opt-out revolt that is having real consequences. We can do the same.

Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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