Academic Knowledge and Democratic Practice: Dewey’s Case for Accessible and Interdisciplinary Education

Posted on March 16, 2018

In the chapter “Search for the Great Community” in The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey establishes a case for interdisciplinary, accessible education to foster forms of public democracy and social unity. According to Dewey, knowledge for democratic practice must be simultaneously interdisciplinary, accessible, and socially applicable.[1] Accessibility, here, is two-fold. First, it means that knowledge should be created in a way that it is understood and applied in many ways. Second, it means that knowledge should be able to be equally grasped by and distributed across the social body that helps create it. This schema ensures that forms of knowledge are publicly generated, owned, and useful in many applications. Based on this description, for knowledge to be useful for democratic practice, it must not be limited to a specific domain, terminology, or institution. Interestingly, knowledge circulated in the modern academy is diametrically opposed to Dewey’s calls. The academy—especially elite, “prestigious” research institutions—produces knowledge that is technical, overly-specialized, and unequally distributed.

The knowledge circulated by academic institutions is mostly inaccessible and oftentimes useless for social application and democratic theorizing or organizing. Conceptual frameworks that situate the world are accessible only to individuals in distinct academic disciplines, who are housed within academic institutions. Dewey argues that “the backwardness of social knowledge is marked in its division and insulated branches of learning. Anthropology, history, sociology, morals, political science, go their own ways without constant and systematized interaction.”[2] Here, knowledge is inherently social, meaning the public helps create it and can equally access it (read: accessible and open), and it is capable of being applied in a breadth of situations (read: interdisciplinary and flexible). Conversely, the knowledge circulated by the academy is factional and specialized rather that interdisciplinary and open.

Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea (Installment 2)

Posted on January 2, 2018

In the first part of this article, I highlighted the problem of turning higher education into merely a means to the end of economic success. In this second part, I focus on resources that can help academics send a more balanced message to the public about the value of higher education.


In the 19th century, John Henry Newman famously and valiantly defended the ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, education as its own end. He did so in his book The Idea of a University, a classic that ought to be required reading for those working in higher education today. Newman says of knowledge that it is “valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end” (Newman, 79). He adds that “there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does” and that the “object” and “mission” of the university is “intellectual culture” (Newman, 85, 92).

Newman’s defense of the intrinsic value of education has roots in Western culture’s deepest religious and philosophical traditions, and its echoes can be heard in many discussions of the university. Its influence is evident in Robert Maynard Hutchins’ wonderful 1953 essay The University of Utopia (where, by the way, there are no accrediting agencies). In this essay, the former president of the University of Chicago writes that “Art and thought are the highest activities of man. They are the aims of life, and society should be organized to promote them first of all. It is a sign of a backward civilization when in a financial crisis the first thing the community thinks of is to close the art museums and reduce expenditures on education. A civilization without art and thought, or one that does not value them, is a pack rather than a civilization” (Hutchins, 17-18). In order to have a civilization rather than a pack, the US must have strong and independent colleges and universities—places where people, first and foremost, think (Hutchins, 87). Given the calls by conservative politicians to slash public funding for the arts and higher education, Hutchins’ defense of both is perhaps more timely now than in his day.

Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea

Posted on November 30, 2017

Higher education has a marketing problem—one that is partly of its own making.

We all know that the public relations situation of higher education is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the general public continues to believe in the value of higher education. A 2015 survey indicates that 95 percent of the population finds it “very important” or “somewhat important” that a person has a degree or other professional certification beyond high school.[1] A more recent survey from the civic enterprise organization New America shows that 75 percent of the American public agrees (strongly or somewhat) with the statement “It is easier to be successful with a college degree than without.”[2] That percentage goes up to 84 percent among Generation Z (those students just about to enter college or in college now).[3] The information here is good news. Americans think that what colleges and universities have to offer is of value, and they want it for themselves and for their children.

On the other hand, why Americans want what higher education is selling is both interesting and somewhat problematic. What Americans mean by “successful” tends to be simply financial advantage. In the Gallup-Lumina survey, 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that having a degree or professional certification beyond high school is “essential” for getting a good job.[4] The Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute shows that the views of the typical first-year student strongly align with those of the general population. While recent years have shown a slight decline in the percentage of students who cite economic reasons for pursuing a college degree, the numbers still are quite high. For 2015, 85.2 percent indicated that getting “a better job” was a “very important” reason for pursuing a college degree, and 69.9 percent indicated that making “more money” was a “very important” reason.[5]