Why John Dewey?

Or, "Passengers on a Train"

As we look back over our shoulder to Isocrates for models of citizenship education; Cicero for political rhetorics; Habermas for expanding our thinking of publics; and Myles Horton for voting education, many thinkers remain in our field’s blind spot, particularly as it pertains to theories of ethics. Not the least of these figures is John Dewey, who remains a rather indeterminate figure on the field of rhetoric and composition largely because of his aversion to explicit discussions of communication, oral or written (at least until much later in his seventy-year writing career). In an attempt to resurrect the oft-described “dirty” and “archaic” educational philosophy inherent to pragmatism, this webtext puts forth the idea that John Dewey’s unique configuration of the relationship between the academic and the public domains serves as a productive framework through which to teach students blogging.
      Just as the Progressive movement was sweeping the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, public rhetorics undergirded by an ethico-political platform of democratic possibility and change also took off, having a significant impact on the viability of rhetoric as a separate discipline at the time. Part of this Progressive movement was John Dewey, whose educational philosophy emphasized democracy in everyday life, which included the classroom, and sought to encourage students to put the interests of the larger community first, before acting on individual interests. In stark opposition to the vocational ethic of education Dewey and others were directly resisting at the time, a Deweyan model of learning casts academic skills as quite literally “tools” that students have the obligation to use in order to remedy identifiable social ills. Dewey’s educational philosophy took place, became a part of, and significantly impacted the resuscitation of North American public rhetorics, namely the Progressive educational movement of the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. As such, it is difficult to even discuss democracy and education or citizenship pedagogies without evoking a trace of Deweyan ethics pertaining to teaching and learning.            
      While John Dewey’s impact on North American educational and analytical philosophy writ large is undeniable, the impact this nineteenth- and twentieth-century pragmatist has on rhetorical education is a rather indeterminate one, or, as compositionist Janet Emig (1983) writes, a relatively tacit one. Emig penned this assertion over two decades ago, and since then there have been myriad attempts to uncover, resuscitate, acknowledge, or apply Deweyan theory to the field of rhetoric and composition. This can prove to be difficult because Dewey did not leave readers with much to work with in terms of language and communication and by extension rhetoric, but there are spaces within the Deweyan framework left for just such growth. Recently, Robert Danisch (2007) and Nathan Crick (2010) have made strong efforts to resuscitate Dewey specifically and pragmatism generally by speculating what pragmatist rhetoric(s) might look like. Through emphasizing the “practical arts” and “the arts of becoming,” respectively, Danisch and Crick are doing important work in bringing to the fore a lost American philosophy at a time when contemporary rhetorics are showing increasing concern for participation (as opposed to persuasion and hermeneutics), particularly through the use of computer technologies. Donald C. Jones (1996) uses Dewey as a remedy for the ills postmodern impasses have caused to the rhetorical notion of “agency.” Hephzibah Roskelly and Kate Ronald’s (1998) Reason to Believe also outlines productive possibilities in developing a pragmatist rhetorics and how this might apply to writing classrooms through a more tuned attention to the connections between school and community (p. 95). Turning to Deweyan thought has helped composition and rhetoric make significant strides in the past by providing a basis to think of communication as more than an essentialized, individualized, subject-oriented process. The task taken up by these scholars has been to “fill in the gaps,” so to speak, in an attempt to make Dewey’s lineage to our field less tacit and more explicit. This webtext represents just such an effort.
      Richard Rorty (1998) defines pragmatists as those “involved in a long-term attempt to change the rhetoric, the common sense, and the self-image of their community” (p. 41). The pragmatist agenda, then, has much to do with the rhetorical agenda. In Inessential Solidarity (2010) Diane Davis asks the discipline of rhetoric and composition to radically reconfigure its relationship to “community”; to acknowledge the rhetoricity of the “other”; and to acknowledge our inevitable solidarity through our mutual exposedness (Brown, Jr., 2010). Undoubtedly, Davis’ call is in many ways representative of what can be deemed rhetoric’s “third purpose”: participation. Beyond encompassing itself within the worlds of persuasion and hermeneutics, rhetoric is about relationships, about situatedness and ecologies and experiencing others within these contexts. It is about responding appropriately to encounters and experiences, rather than trying to overwhelm with hermeneutical accuracy or persuasive mastery. If we are not enacting this ethico-political paradigm, then we (and our students) are merely “passengers on a train”: groups of people linked by proximity and direction but without any substantial, physical, forged relationships. Davis’ project focuses less on using language to build communities, and instead more on how we can learn to listen for the voices of “communities” that “exist beyond representation” (Davis, 2010). A return to pragmatism signals an attempt to remedy the philosophical ills caused by postmodern negations and deconstructions in very much the same way Diane Davis characterizes the participatory nature of rhetoric as remedying the stifling hermeneutical approaches so dominant in the twentieth-century.   
     Glimpses into Dewey’s educational ideals take form in contemporary composition classrooms; echoes of Dewey’s mandate of servitude can be heard within the walls. Yet, in terms of building explicit -- both theoretically and practically speaking -- connections between Deweyan theory and writing pedagogy there remains glaring omissions. A complete articulation of Deweyan ethics, specifically in regards to digital literacy tools, has yet to be fully explored. In this vein, I ask, to what extent is our field’s call to appropriately encounter others being manifested in classroom practice? And moreover what should the role of digital literacy tools be in this process? Deweyan ethics helps frame teaching so that we can achieve this goal. It is in the spirit of Davis that I encourage writing instructors to provide students with the opportunity to productively engage with the “other” through experience. This perspective encourages students to think rhetorically about how their digital literacy skills can potentially contribute to their communities, while grounding their thinking in physical experience.

Danisch argues that the American pragmatist movement of the early twentieth century did not fully develop the rhetorical thinking implicit in their work. In this light, Danisch's understanding that students and citizens would engage in the "practical arts" takes form here. John Dewey is not often discussed as a rhetorician because he delves not so deeply into modes of communication, although I would argue along with Danisch that his philosophy intentionally leaves space for such theorizing.
Deweyan ethics primarily manifests itself rather tangentially in our field through the emergence of public writing, service learning, and more recently what Henry Jenkins would call a "participatory culture" of learning and interaction in online writing environments. Our field could do a better job at making explicit the ethical traditions or frameworks upon which we are basing our community literacy practices. Isocrates and Cicero, from a classical perspective, have helped forge connections between civic engagement and education in terms of forming our rhetorical tradition. Miles Horton furthered this goal of civic education. Habermas' theory of publics have helped us think through things. However, these are tangential connections predicated solely on general beliefs in citizenship education and teaching for "real-world" or public application of literacy skills, which are hardly original.
Public rhetorics suffered many setbacks throughout the years: Isocrates' waning significance in comparison to Plato's dominance, or Ramus' relegation of rhetoric to mere style, or the elocutionary move to highly specified models and styles of rhetoric (Bostdorff, 2008).