Democracy in Education

Submitted by:
Walter Bevers and Denice McCormick Myers

Alternate Names: “Equable opportunity” in communication between government and society (Dewey, 1916, p. 513)

Central Tenets:

John Dewey (1916) is generally credited as having been the first to construct the theory of democracy in education. However, the origins of this epistemology had its roots in ancient Greece, because it was used by Socrates and Plato in their teachings (Cubberly, 1991). Democracy, in a political sense, is believed to have been first formulated as a method of government by the people of ancient Greece around the year 479 B.C. The original intent of ancient Greeks, particularly the aristocrats of Attica, an ancient Greek city-state, was not to include anyone in upper echelons of power unless they were male, native-born Greek children from households in Greek city-state nations such as Attica, Athens, and Sparta .

Male children of the elite were sent to barracks to live while earning their citizenship through the completion of their education and military training, hence the connection between the ancient Greek perceptions of democracy to educationIn contrast, Dewey stressed the importance of inclusion of others in society besides elites, especially in connection with communications between themselves and a democratic government (Dewey, 1916).

Dewey’s tenet is the basis for what we now know as democracy in education, which he described as the “equable opportunity” in communication between government and society (Dewey, 1916, p. 513). Dewey believed that government and society do not exist apart, no matter what particular statuses its citizens or groups of citizens hold. Therefore, it is government’s duty to educate its people to communicate their needs and interests (Dewey, 1916).

Prior to Dewey’s writings, Thomas Jefferson was credited with formulating some basis for democracy in education. However, none of Thomas Jefferson’s co-authors of the Declaration of Independence (1776) were women, and the term ‘all’ in the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” did not include women or slaves. Likewise the American voting public, at the time consisting of European American, property-owning men, did not consider liberty for women, the majority of the tenant-farming public, and slaves, who Jefferson believed, "could never be educated to the levels that whites could", and thus “would never be able fully to contribute to the defense of the republic” (Gilreath, 1999, p. 189). Proslavery forces maintained that, “" (Gilreath, 1999, p. 191).

Dewey disagreed with Jeffersonian ideals in two major areas since he was very much against slavery, having stated that,"[A]ll the members of the group must have an equable opportunity to receive and to take from others. There must be a large variety of shared undertakings and experiences. Otherwise, the influences which educate some into masters, educate others into slaves(Dewey, 1916, p. 513).

Another area in which Dewey disagreed with Jeffersonian ideals was in the issue of constructing a voting public; for one, because all society was not included, and for another since Dewey claimed that it was not enough to give men the right to vote, they must also “be good for something” (Dewey, 1916, p. 2187); which is interpreted to mean that ‘men’ must be able to contribute to society through “equable” (Dewey, 1916, p. 513) communicable exchange. Therefore it is the duty of government to provide education to its people.

Application of the Theory of Democracy in Education:

Dewey’s theories have been applied by many, including biologist and psychologist Jean Piaget, who formulated stages of cognitive development in children (1950); constructivist Lev Vygotsky, who worked with the idea that it is important to include of all children in learning experiences (1978); and constructivist Parker J. Palmer, who is still working with teacher efficacy and reflectiveness in teaching (1997). Other views that counter Dewey’s theory have been offered by Acemoglu, Johnson, Robinson, and Yared (2005), who interpreted Dewey’s version of the democracy in education to mean that “high levels of educational attainment [are] a prerequisite for democracy”

Ranson (1993) refuted Dewey’s concept that socialization should be the primary function for democratic governments. Ranson (1993) claimed that education no longer has a constitutional role to perpetuate the state, but instead, is more inclined now to build and perpetuate economic markets. He wrote, “Democracy is coercive, stifling the autonomy of schools and demotivates teachers” (Ranson, 1993, p. 333.)

A more recent viewpoint was represented by John Willinsky (2002), who expressed that with the existence of the Internet, people have access to more information now than ever before, and most of this access is entirely generated by their own personal interests, studies, or work-related choices to obtain information. Because of this, Willinsky (2002) postulated that there are no longer access restrictions to information that Dewey claims to have existed during his time. Therefore, the concepts of democracy and education can now become untied from one another since educational access is a loosely held commodity that is now available to “all”; making the connection, and linking back to the Declaration of Independence (Willinsky, 2002).


Cubberly, E.L. (1920) The History of education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy in education. New York: The Free Press.
Gilreath, J. (1999). Thomas Jefferson and the education of a citizen. New Hampshire: The University Press of New England.
US Constitution, Article II, Section 1. Age and Citizenship requirements.

References applying the framework:

Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., Robinson, J.A., & Yared, P. (2005). From education to democracy. American Economic Review 95(2), pp. 44-49.
Palmer, P. (1997) The Courage to Teach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Piaget, Jean. (1950). The Psychology of Intelligence. New York: Routledge.
Ranson, S. (1993). Markets or democracy for education. British journal of educational studies 41(4), pp. 333-352.
Willinsky, J. (2002). Democracy and education: The Missing link may be ours. Harvard educational review 72(3), pp. 367-392.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.