Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

John Dewey and the Rebuilding of Urban Community: Engaging Undergraduates as Neighborhood Organizers

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

John Dewey and the Rebuilding of Urban Community: Engaging Undergraduates as Neighborhood Organizers

Article excerpt

Concern about the deterioration of local community is central to John Dewey's philosophy of education, democracy, and social reform. That deterioration, already serious at the end of the 19th century, obviously has continued apace in our own time. Powered by diverse and widely ramifying forces, including the on-going growth of individualism (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), modern communications technology and generational effects (Putnam, 2000), and the structural economic shift away from manufacturing to an information-based economy (Fukuyama, 1999), challenges to community life at many levels, and concomitant strains in our democratic institutions, have become increasingly evident. From this perspective, John Dewey's relevance has never been greater.

Dewey's vision for education also underlies the contemporary service-learning movement. Although Dewey focused on primary and secondary schools, his ideals have been adapted and extended to colleges and universities. The convictions that education must center on society's most pressing problems, particularly the reconstruction of democratic community, that it engage students in community service and prepare them for lifelong commitment to civic involvement and social reconstruction, and that it embody the same principles of democratic participation, reflection, and experimentalism that are to be encouraged in the wider community, informs the ideals and practice of service-learning (Barber, 1984, Benson & Harkavy, 1991, 1997, 1999; Hatcher, 1997; Keith, 1998; Rhoads, 1997; Saltmarsh, 1996).

The distinctively local orientation of Dewey's thought, in regard to community, democracy, and education, also coincides with the perspectives of contemporary advocates of service-learning. Raised in a small Vermont town, Dewey believed that community life consisted in the personal networks that connect the residents of local streets and neighborhoods: "In its deepest and richest sense," he wrote, "a community must always remain a matter of face-to-face intercourse" (quoted in Saltmarsh, 1996, p. 16). And again, "There is no substitute for the vitality and depth of close and direct intercourse and attachment....Democracy begins at home, and its home is the neighborly community" (quoted in Harkavy & Benson, 1998, p. 17). Consistent with these theoretical perspectives, Dewey took keen interest in the work of Jane Addams' Hull House (Saltmarsh, p. 17, 19), one of whose central goals was to convene local residents, promote communication and a sense of common interests, and help people deal with their problems. In ways that would immediately appeal to service-learning advocates, Hull House and its surrounding neighborhoods also provided crucial places of learning for the faculty and students of the University of Chicago. It was here, at least in part through reform initiatives undertaken by Addams and her followers, that they learned of the city's agonizing problems and of what might be done to mitigate them.

Given their recognition of the deepening crisis in local community, their awareness of the need for "borderland experiences" (e.g. Hayes & Cuban, 1997, Keith, 1997), and their widening endorsement of Dewey's hopes for education, especially its application to urban problems immediate to our campuses, it is striking that service-learning advocates have so seldom engaged in direct efforts to rebuild local community, particularly through neighborhood organizing. The potential benefits to be derived from such involvement would appear obvious. Civic education would be furthered directly through local neighborhood associations, which today represent one of the few sources of organized citizen involvement in central-city politics and which might be presumed to need help (never enjoying sufficient staff to extend organizing to many corners of their jurisdictions). Neighborhood-level work would engage students across boundaries of culture, class, and race in activities that respond directly to pressing local issues. …

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