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

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.

Institutional departments confine academic knowledge to their respective disciplines.  Worse, interdisciplinary knowledge is confined by sub-disciplines. Academic disciplines contain numerous sub-factions that generate knowledge relevant only to a fraction of the discipline, as opposed to the whole. Disciplines are fractured within themselves, and the academy is fractured by numerous disciplines. Of course, this situation hinders interdisciplinary, collaborative work that could establish flexible forms of knowledge. Coupled with this, graduate training programs teach academics how to limit the scope of inquiry and present technical research. As a result, publication and research opportunities are accepted or rejected based on disciplinary intelligibility, as opposed to expansiveness, accessibility, and institutional or public collaboration. The constitution of the current research academy blocks any potential institutional or public attempt to create cooperative, flexible, and useful knowledge outside of the small circle of academics that generate it, which has serious social effects.

Dewey recognized these effects and asserted that academic knowledge is “remote and technical, communicable only to specialists, and [it is] a conduct of human affairs which is haphazard, biased, [and] unfair in the distribution of values.”[3] Taking Dewey’s claims further, overspecialized knowledge results in unfair social practices justified by the academy, such as the control, restriction, and policing of forms of intelligible public discourse. Those outside of elite departments and without their privileged status with knowledge have little influence on subjects of research, the language and constitution of knowledge, and the concepts of sense-making knowledge produces. Dewey observed the social effects of specialized knowledge and claimed that “[academic] knowledge divided against itself…maintain[s] sordid slums, flurried and discontented careers, grinding poverty, and luxurious wealth.”[4] Knowledge abstracted from the public and from cooperation cannot properly conceive of the effects it might have, and it contributes little or no social utility.

In Dewey’s view, knowledge benefits society only when it is cooperative, flexible, and accessible. Further, knowledge derives its use-value from its social application. Conceptual frameworks are useless if inapplicable in the world outside of academic institutions. Academic knowledge should be accessible to and influenceable by the public. However, in current institutions of higher education, academic knowledge often operates like a mole: burrowing into specialized “holes,” divorced from the world and the social consequences it creates, other branches of knowledge, and the public body.  Dewey argued “the ultimate harm [in this] is that the understanding by [individuals] of [their] own affairs and [their] ability to direct them are snapped…when knowledge is disconnected from its human function.”[5] Further, Dewey suggests that academic knowledge divorced from social use leaves the social body “truncated, [confused], [and] distorted.”[6] Specialized, isolated forms of knowing limit the ways individuals can make sense of and better their individual and collective lives.

Systems of academic knowledge that are equally influenceable by the public are difficult to create, especially for the benefit of everyone in society, individually and socially. Dewey recognized that the public is fractured and that individuals are affiliated with multiple social groups. The intelligibilities, uses, and needs of knowledge are different depending on the individual using it. Social unity and shared benefit through democratic practice are difficult to develop. However, Dewey suggests that social consciousness and cohesion are possible, and that unity is constructed through shared social communication, public knowledge creation, and the application of knowledge for social benefit. Social cohesion and democratic participation are created through education that is both interdisciplinary and accessible. This could take the form of transdisciplinary, collaborative research projects focused on expanding and influencing public discourse with several practical, social applications. These projects would use a variety of theoretical, practical, and “non-academic” approaches to scholarship.

A necessary condition for a well-functioning democratic society is open and accessible knowledge coupled with shared social application. For this to occur, academic knowledge must be created and presented in a language that is intelligible to other academic branches and the social body, or else it cannot be tested, used, and diversely applied. Academic knowledge must also be equally accessible for and distributed to the social field, ensuring that the all individuals can create, understand, and benefit from it. This requires a form of institutional standardization which ensures that all individuals can participate in knowledge creation and utilize its benefits for themselves and their places in society.[7] Scholarship from the most elite institutions down to the most communal must operate accessibly and interdisciplinary to foster useful, democratic practice across the social body and open varieties of public discourse and knowledge.

Overspecialized, fragmented, and inaccessible academic institutions are blockages to democratic practice and useful public knowledge. Unfortunately, solutions to these problems are difficult to theorize, since they are complex, and there is not simply one “Solution.” This is not a matter of simply changing teaching methods, research practices, training programs, or publication requirements. Further, eliminating barriers to accessibility—as is happening with forms of online education or open-access, interdisciplinary journals—is insufficient, because accessibility does not entail intelligibility, collaboration, or public ownership. Governmental gainful employment policies and financial-aid regulations also miss the issue at hand. These mechanisms can serve as a useful disruption in the business-as-usual operations of the isolated, specialized academy, but this rupture must go further to address the immanent structures of power that underlie the academy writ large and control forms of knowing and praxis. The function, control, and use of academic institutions and the knowledge they generate must be recognized for what they are, reorganized, and reconstituted to suit public thought, action, and cohesion.

Academic institutions produce and police the conceptual frameworks that are used to make sense of the world and delegitimize ways of knowing and behaving that operate differently. These institutions dominate the methods by which knowledge is created, who it is circulated to or for, and how it is applied, both institutionally and socially. These problems find their locus in a disequilibrium of power relations among institutions, their mechanisms, those who control and benefit from these mechanisms, and those who are excluded from and dominated by them. To alter these unequal power relations requires a public seizure of and revolution against current institutional constitutions, notions of prestige, and the existing conceptions and limitations of knowledge. The practices of the modern academic system must be reconstituted in a way that punctures the social and historical power relations that plague academic institutions and their public uselessness.  Interdisciplinary knowledge creation along the lines suggested by Dewey is desirable, but the road to such a system is long and winding.

By Forrest Deacon
Ph.D. Student, Politics, The New School for Social Research

[1] Knowledge must be both interdisciplinary and publicly accessible, which means accessibility and interdisciplinarity are distinct notions.  Interdisciplinarity entails knowledge is flexible and applicable to different phenomena, where accessibility entails knowledge and its creation are open to all members of the public. Knowledge, to be useful for democratic social practice, must be both interdisciplinary and accessible.

[2] John Dewey, “Search for the Great Community,” The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry (Chicago, IL: Sage Books, 1927): 171.

[3] Dewey, The Public and its Problems, 171.

[4] Ibid., 175. Dewey’s reference to wealth centers around unequal distributions of social wealth and capital.  The juxtaposition of poverty to wealth is a reference to the social effects of capitalist exploitation.  One can read this claim to be suggesting that elite academic institutions act as mechanisms to further expand and justify capitalist relations of production and exploitation.  This claim is taken further by Louis Althusser in his work Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus, where academics—especially at elite institutions—are nothing more than professional ideology producers for capitalist production. See, Louis Althusser, “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2001): 104-106.

[5] Ibid., 176.

[6] Ibid., 174. I replaced an ablest term with a more accessible term.

[7] Interestingly, Dewey’s reasoning here exposes a potential contradiction. The social body is differentiated in needs and understandings. Knowledge must then be flexible and adaptable to different uses and sensibilities. However, to avoid social fragmentation and inequity, knowledge must be distributed in an equally accessible way—to ensure that everyone can reach, create, understand, and use it. Thus, knowledge must be both flexible and rigid, or simultaneously differentiated and standardized.

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