Reflections on the Dewey Seminar Experience

In my discipline, political theory, we love a good story. We tell each other stories about the lives and times of great thinkers, such as Plato, Jefferson, or Gandhi. We enter into the fictitious worlds like the state of nature in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Like unruly bit players on the cast of a low-budget science-fiction film, we wander around the authors’ otherworldly sets, poking and prodding at their fantastic creations. We take their conceptual vehicles out for snappy test drives, we throw fancy wrenches into their scripts by conducting unauthorized improvisations, and we try out alternative endings.

We hope that our storytelling will have, in the end, some practical application. When it seems that we are losing credibility with our audience, we usually try to bolster our claims about the practical relevance of our work by spinning another yarn or two.

Sometimes, however, we storytelling philosophers are invited to work with hands-on practitioners. These are the folks who perform the magic that really matters. They are actually trying to work out concrete solutions to the problems related to our key concepts—abstract ideas such as “justice,” “equality,” or “democracy”—on the ground, with real live people, ticking clocks, laws that bind, and ever-shrinking budgets.

In the past year, I participated in the Dewey Seminar on education in the School of Social Science. About a century ago, John Dewey wrote landmark works that, among other things, made the case that public education can play a crucial role in producing individuals who are well prepared to make thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions to society, not only as wage-earners, taxpayers, and the heads of families, but as citizens as well. Conceived by Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute, and Professor Rob Reich of Stanford University, the Dewey Seminar was designed to foster research on the complex relationships between education, schools, and the state.

The Dewey Seminar resembled a three-ring intellectual production. In one ring, we had a group of Members in the School of Social Science: a collection of political philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, literary critics, pedagogical experts, anthropologists, and historians working on various aspects of education. We met as our own group every other week to present our works-in-progress to each other.

For my part, I confessed to the group, early and often, that I was a newcomer to the education topic. Last September, I was much more acquainted with the literatures on income inequality, racial exclusion, and gender-sensitive approaches to justice. As I settled into my office, I got started on my current project: a philosophical analysis of a recent school-finance case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York. In this case, low-income plaintiffs from New York City successfully sued the state of New York for failing to provide an adequate kindergarten through twelfth-grade education, as guaranteed to them under the state constitution. My hunch is that we political theorists can learn a lot of valuable lessons from this case, insofar as it gives us an opportunity to study exactly how disputes over justice and equality in the distribution of public educational resources are being worked out in the courts. (John J. Kerr Jr., a member of the IAS Friends’ Executive Committee, is a Partner at Simpson Thacher; his law firm provided invaluable pro-bono legal services for the low-income children who brought their complaint before the state court.)

Having very little background on education issues at the outset, I immersed myself in my colleagues’ work. In our work-in-progress meetings, we discussed a Member’s study on the barriers to graduation at community colleges; the value of approaches oriented toward creative, dialogical, and “higher-order” thinking for teaching children about science; the strengths and weaknesses of the federal No Child Left Behind approach to pupil performance and accountability; the surprising results from a Member’s study on parental involvement in the day-to-day learning experiences of low-income pupils; or the advantages and disadvantages of granting elected local school boards substantial control over education-policy decision-making. As a participant in our theme Members’ sessions, I navigated an especially steep learning curve, but my colleagues encouraged my emerging arguments and ideas with unflagging generosity and good humor.

In the second ring of the Dewey Seminar, Danielle and Rob brought a handful of the Members working on the education theme together with outside participants in a threestage anthology project. Participants in the anthology project from outside the Institute included school-finance economists; a law professor and an education professor specializing in religious accommodation in schools; political philosophers working on theories of democracy, equality, and the right to education; a leading policy expert from a prominent think tank; and a director of an education research institute. We met at the Institute on three occasions over the course of twelve months. At each one-week workshop, we presented our works-in-progress to each other. The project’s format gave each of us an opportunity to solicit in-depth commentaries on our chapter drafts from specialists coming from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Our goal is to produce an interdisciplinary and agendasetting scholarly book on education, under Danielle and Rob’s joint editorship.

In the Dewey Seminar’s third ring, as it were, Danielle and Rob brought a full slate of leading practitioners to the Institute campus to make presentations to the Members working on the education theme. These visitors range from district superintendents and college presidents to leading intellectuals at cutting-edge think tanks, classroom technology entrepreneurs, charter-school founders and teachers, a legal advocate and a judge deeply involved in the state school-finance cases, and senior figures from major philanthropic foundations that are operating significant grant programs in cooperation with various public school systems.

One visitor invited a group of Members to New York City to spend a day in the classroom with immigrant children learning to speak, read, and write the English language. To say our visit was an eye-opening experience would be a vast understatement. Then we took to the road a second time. Seth Moglen, a Member in the education theme group, led us on a tour of the multifaceted South Side Initiative—a community partnership involving Lehigh University and the residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

From our exchanges with these dynamic, engaged, and diverse practitioners, and from our impromptu “road trips,” we learned a great deal about what is working, and, just as importantly, what is not working in our public schools today. By the end, I felt like I had been brought so close to the major policy action on the state and federal levels that I could anticipate the education headline stories of the week featured in National Public Radio broadcasts or the front pages of the New York Times.

As the year draws to a close, it is difficult for me to provide an adequate portrayal of my experience as a participant in the Dewey Seminar. With the generous support of the Institute, I have rubbed elbows with social scientists who know how our current education policies actually work and practitioners who breathe life into our abstract ideals on the ground. It is one thing to study the philosophy of education in the company of fellow storytellers; it is quite another to teach a special-education class or to organize a groundbreaking professional development course for eighth-grade biology teachers. I will be integrating the extraordinarily rich and inspirational lessons that I have learned in the Dewey Seminar into my own research activities and university teaching for years to come.

Anna Marie Smith, a Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, was the 2009–10 Rosanna and Charles Jaffin Founders’ Circle Member in the School of Social Science. Financial support for the Dewey Seminar was provided by the Spencer Foundation and the Ford Foundation.