What did Dewey mean when he imagined the school as social center of the community and as a site for building a democratic society? How is that different from just teaching history and government, or discussing the local newspaper in class? Are there any schools today that realize Dewey’s vision?
Dewey articulated these ideas in an early speech called “The School as Social Center.” He recognized even then that there were dramatic innovations in transportation & communication, the relaxation of social discipline & control, the growing need for knowledge in all affairs of life, and the need for lifelong learning. As a result, he saw the need to change the image of what constitutes citizenship and therefore the image of the purpose of the school. These ideas are developed more in an excellent new book called Dewey’s Dream.
One implication of this perspective is the creation of community schools, many of which are allied through the Coalition for Community Schools. Through that network, individuals and organizations share work on “education K-16, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government and philanthropy.”
Other implications are to move beyond elitist models of service and to focus on reflective transformation of ourselves and our own organizations:
the creation of public spaces can be a seedbed for productive, pluralist, citizen-owned politics in an age of gated communities and privatized resources. We need to change the now dominant view of civic learning as community service or service learning, if we are to develop the political sensibilities of our students. Organizing involves understanding education as about transformation, the “reworking” of ourselves and our contexts. An organizing approach is what we need to develop, if we are to think and act politically. (Boyte, 2003)
A project at the Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Chicago is an excellent example of what Dewey meant. It embodies the community school idea, as well as ideas of transformation and collaborative inquiry to address community needs. In this case, “seedbed” has a literal meaning as well.
The project (Urban Agriculture in the Context of Social Ecology) began as a way for students to learn science with hands-on investigations of hydroponics and soil-based gardening. It has since expanded to include the study of urban agriculture, community wellness, and economic development. For example, students will grow the ingredients needed for salsa de sofrito, such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, green bell peppers, ajíes dulces, oregano, cilantro, and other spices. Growing these and making the sauce will afford a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage. Bottling and selling the sauce will contribute to community economic development as well as affording an understanding of economics and food processing.
Benson, Chris, & Christian, Scott (Eds.) (2002). Writing to make a difference: Classroom projects for community change. Teachers CP. Projects in which young people write for community change.
Benson, Lee, Harkavy, Ira, & Puckett, John. (2007). Dewey’s dream: Universities and democracies in an age of education reform. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Boyte, Harry Chatten (2003). A different kind of politics: John Dewey and the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century. The Good Society, 12(2), 1-15.
Dewey, John (1902, October). The school as social center. The Elementary School Teacher, 3(2), 73-86.