Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice

Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice

Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice

Trained Capacities: John Dewey, Rhetoric, and Democratic Practice

Synopsis

The essays in this collection, written by sixteen scholars in rhetoric and communications studies, demonstrate American philosopher John Dewey's wide-ranging influence on rhetoric in an intellectual tradition that addresses the national culture's fundamental conflicts between self and society, freedom and responsibility, and individual advancement and the common good. Editors Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark propose that this influence is at work both in theoretical foundations, such as science, pragmatism, and religion, and in Dewey's debates with other public intellectuals such as Jane Addams, Walter Lippmann, James Baldwin, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Jackson and Clark seek to establish Dewey as an essential source for those engaged in teaching others how to compose timely, appropriate, useful, and eloquent responses to the diverse and often-contentious rhetorical situations that develop in a democratic culture. They contend that there is more at stake than instruction in traditional modes of public discourse because democratic culture encompasses a variety of situations, private or public, civic or professional, where people must cooperate in the work of advancing a common project. What prepares people to intervene constructively in such situations is instruction in those rhetorical practices of democratic interaction that is implicit throughout Dewey's work. Dewey's writing provides a rich framework on which a distinctly American tradition of a democratic rhetorical practice can be built-a tradition that combines the most useful concepts of classical rhetoric with those of modern progressive civic engagement. Jackson and Clark believe Dewey's practice takes rhetoric beyond the traditional emphasis on political democracy to provide connections to rich veins of American thought such as individualism, liberalism, progressive education, collectivism, pragmatism, and postindustrial science and communication. They frame Dewey's voluminous work as constituting a modern expression of continuing education for the "trained capacities" required to participate in democratic culture. For Dewey human potential is best realized in the free flow of artful communication among the individuals who together constitute society. The book concludes with an afterword by Gerard A. Hauser, College Professor of Distinction in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Excerpt

Brian Jackson and Gregory Clark

Every once in a while, long-dead and oft-forgotten philosophers rise from their graves and walk their way into public conversations. Take John Dewey, for instance. in the spring of 2010 a group of concerned parents in a school district not far from where we both live gathered to oppose what they thought was a socialist education philosophy, expressed in the mission statement of the school district. They called it a “poison agenda,” one conceived by none other than John Dewey (Warnock).

Though he may be considered the patron saint of U.S. education, it is not every day—alas—that local school board meetings debate John Dewey’s ideas. Even academic interest in Dewey comes and goes. It died out after World War II, rose again in the early 1990s, and then waned again. Once presidential candidate Barack Obama worked in the Senate to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 to help a crippled economy, we began to hear strains of that perpetual national debate about the proper role of government in the United States, strains that summon Dewey’s key ideas even if his name is not mentioned.

Dewey’s post-Obama resurrection has been explained by the conservative political scientist Tiffany Jones Miller, who argues that Dewey did more than anyone to “repackage progressive social theory in a way that obscured just how radically its principles departed from those of the American founding” (Miller). Unlike the Founding Fathers, who argued for limited government and individual liberty against government encroachment, Dewey did indeed advocate an explicitly “positive” reading of the concept of freedom—as “freedom to” rather than “freedom from.” For him, freedom offers individuals opportunities to develop their own capacities, opportunities that are often provided most reliably by the democratic state. Consequently by asserting that Dewey’s work represents a “thoroughgoing reconstruction of the American way of living, primarily by means of the positive . . .

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