In poking around for information on a forthcoming post, I encountered an aspect of the life of John Dewey that I had previously been unaware of.

I know of Dewey for his work in education, and for advocating pragmatism as a philosophy. It turns out that, in addition to his famous applications of that philosophy to education, he also turned his steely gaze on the practice of journalism.

This makes sense of course, since journalism can be thought of as essentially a form of adult education. For Dewey, education was best practiced experientially, not via rote learning by static students.

That was why he disagreed with Walter Lippman’s view of journalism as an essentially “push” medium, in which journalists consult experts and elites, and then tell the public what to think. For Dewey, the best sort of journalism was practiced by the public and in cooperation with the public. Dewey regarded the expert-driven model of journalism as “the worst indictment of democracy yet written.”

Reading this reminded me of j.d.’s experience at the Citizen Journalism Academy. Based on his experiences at the seminar he can “see a future ? coming quickly now ? when ? Serious people will seek out serious sources for serious matters, and blogs will bond together rather than fracture society.” “Citizen journalism” and the whole bloggish enterprise matches nicely with the Wikipedia’s description of Dewey’s views on what journalism should be, with the idea that journalism should operate:

by taking the focus from actions or happenings and changing the structure to focus on choices, consequences, and conditions, in order to foster conversation and improve the generation of knowledge in the community. Journalism would not just produce a static product that told of what had already happened, but the news would be in a constant state of evolution as the community added value by generating knowledge. The audience would disappear, to be replaced by citizens and collaborators who would essentially be users, doing more with the news than simply reading it.

These views were put forward in Public & Its Problems, a book which would not still be under copyright in any sane society.


  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    November 1, 2006

    I think my confusion here (granted, I’ve not read the books so I’m only going on the summary) is that there’s journalism in terms of presenting information “as it is” and the idea of some collective journalism (wikipedia being the most concentrated experiment in modern times) can refine the “as it is” to a level of accuracy unreached by individuals.

    on the other hand, without the proper structures in place, the “how it got that way” can be lost and in terms of making decisions and predictions, that’s the more important.

    Then there’s the nature of the lack of experience. In what I see here as collective journalism, either an expert is going to assert some leadership in the view anyways, or the information will remain the incomplete picture of amateurs who might not be able to see all of the nuances. Worse still, as a collective, they rather keep reinforcing their own biases into it.

    Already bias, or even just the accusations of bias, greatly infect the new media. Even is accused of “having an agenda” as if its possible to not have one or that having one must necessarily be a bad thing.

    The evidence, the objective facts, are all there, but assembling them into a coherent picture is always subjective to filters, be they the tools of reason or the gut reaction of instinct and conditioning.

    Eventually, as happens on most political and theocratic discussion sites, one side just gets sick of the other’s unchanging attitudes and leaves or kicks the other out. Divisions, not bonding.

  2. #2 Josh
    November 1, 2006

    I suspect (though I confess that I’m beyond my expertise here) that Dewey would argue that by treating journalism (politics, science, whatever) as a process, and one that includes everyone, we will more rapidly converge on some consensus.

    I agree that the actual practice doesn’t always work out. Cass Sunstein had a neat experiment on this. Deliberating about controversial issues with a like-minded group tended to harden opinions in ways that diverged between populations. Not surprising, I guess, but unfortunate.

    The argument would be that we as a society need more forums that bring people together across social boundaries. Sunstein has written a lot on that topic, especially on the ways that new technologies allow us to further isolate ourselves from dissenting views.

  3. #3 Greg
    November 2, 2006

    Fifteen minutes of exchanging opinions on highly-divisive topics among like-minded, previously-polarized people is not deliberation.

    No challenges to fact, arguments, or conclusions. No incentive, or even possibility, to seek additional information. No external motive, such as avoidance of conflict or possibility of profitable commerce, to soften rigid beliefs. No indication that the participants were even asked to consider negotiating.

    An unpardonable strong implication that this bad learned behaviour is an unalterable basic human characteristic.

    Sunstein’s “experiment” is badly flawed.

    Worse, this sort of behaviour is described in the group facilitation manuals of two decades ago, as an evil to be avoided, along with policies and activities to do so. It is predicable from the various ‘Teacher’ and ‘Prisoner’ experiments. It is described in military- and cult-training manuals, as well as their opposite ‘deprogramming’ manuals. It is visible in films of the Nurmberg Rallies and such. It appears under various guises in cultural and religious literature since almost the beginning of civilization.

  4. #4 Josh
    November 2, 2006

    Sunstein’s experiment is only as flawed as society is. He brought people together from the same community, not based on ideology. These would seem to qualify as the Deweyian public. Groups that started out in basic agreement diverged from that agreement the more they deliberated (defined as “a brief (15 minute) exchange of facts and opinions”).

    This wasn’t presented as a model of how things should be, it’s a description of what can go wrong in group dynamics without even having to invoke external bad-actors like the Teacher or Prisoner experiments do. What connection do you see there?

  5. #5 Greg
    November 3, 2006

    Just to check what I understand you to mean..

    I take your “Groups that started out in basic agreement diverged from that agreement the more they deliberated (defined as “a brief (15 minute) exchange of facts and opinions”).” to mean the opinions within each of the two groups became more diverse. Metaphorically, two clouds of opinion, centred about two poles, became larger, more diffuse clouds; nothing being said about the distance between the poles.

    I understand Sunstein to say the opinions within the groups became less diverse, and the two groups moved as groups further apart. The clouds became tighter, denser, about the two poles; and the poles moved further apart. A different metaphor.. a bimodal distribution of broad, overlapping populations, separated (to some degree) into sharper, more distinct, populations.

    I can also understand your words to mean the same as mine, but, in context of your original remarks on journalism and *shared* experiences, I don’t think you would use those words.

    If I misunderstand you, some of the following may seem to dispute what we agree.

    My objections to Sunstein are several. Most important :

    His conclusions, as I understand them, are well-known, have been well-known for millenia, are in fact loosely implied (as the obverse) in Dewey’s cited thoughts. I wonder why Sunstein would present old knowledge as new? In such hope-killing form?

    He presents this sort of polarization as *the* natural human behaviour. And you agreed with that “unfortunate” conclusion. However, it is only *a* natural human behaviour. Isolated groups will converge their opinions, in the short term. And the convergence will be, in some local sense, ‘more extreme’ because those with more extreme views present them more assertively. However, relieve the isolation (with for example heterodox journalism) and opinions will diverge, being attracted various distances toward perceptions of influences outside the former horizons. The mere passage of time, with random events and random thoughts, will usually cause divergence. Sunstein cherry-picks the known initial polarization. He eliminates choices, consequences, conditions, conversation, and new knowledge.

    I see the bad actors, the ‘teacher’ and the ‘warden’, the malign authorities, as having been not removed but obfuscated. Sunstein notes the results, but not the influences which made one group “liberal” and the other “Bush” (which is in any case a false dichotomy, both in political theory and as evidenced by the medians being “not always so far apart”). Within each group, the roles of teacher and warden, the authorities, are dispersed to the assertive voices of more-extreme opinions, the body-language of the other members agreeing, and in each member himself recognizing agreement. Sunstein’s own role, the very assembling of homodox groups, is ignored.

    “deliberation” is a misnomer, if not misrepresentation. Fifteen minutes (each person) is hardly time to state initial positions (which USians generally state more firmly and more extremely than they believe, to pre-emptively minimize the effects of compromise), certainly not enough for negotiations.

    The experiment is somewhat more flawed than society. Indeed to say, “flawed as society”, is to say that society can be improved, perhaps by public journalism, and that we can expect to become doers rather than spectators.

    The Teacher and Prisoner experiments were not all bad news. Yes, most college students will torture other college students, given permission or compulsion. However, most will also hesitate and resist compulsion. Some will refuse.

    The abnormal conditions which Sunstein presents for normal,,, isolation, homodoxy, lack of deliberation, obfuscated authority,,, all suggest that, once allowed conversation, sharing, and choice, the community will cultivate a natural democratic politics.

    It is Sunstein who isolates, not Dewey. The “consensus” that Dewey sees is not agreement to think alike but to work together.

  6. #6 Josh
    November 3, 2006

    The sentence you quoted was meant to refer to this passage from the blog post: “Before deliberation, the median view, among Boulder groups, was not always so far apart from the median view among Colorado City groups. After deliberation, the division increased significantly.”

    To me, that reads as groups in basic agreement diverging because of even brief interactions with other members of the Deweyan public. I think he would argue that by selecting from naturally existing communities, his role as an agent enforcing homodoxy is limited to non-existent. And yes, it does appear that this is some sort of divergent selection of a (slightly) bimodal distribution with non-trivial overlap.

    I find that interesting because it seems to me that the assumption of Dewey’s public journalism is that deliberation will promote views close to the median, in which case the brief interactions described above ought to result in
    stabilizing selection, but apparently it doesn’t, at least not always.

    You write:

    He presents this sort of polarization as *the* natural human behaviour. And you agreed with that “unfortunate” conclusion. However, it is only *a* natural human behaviour.

    I couldn’t say whether he presents it as the natural human behavior, but I know I don’t. It is a phenomenon that is empirically out there. Sunstein’s argument in general seems to be that new technologies give us as a society fewer reasons to address views other than those of like-minded people (Fox News, partisan blogs, etc.). That removes a path to achieving broad consensus, which strikes me as essentially opposite to the argument Dewey made about the effects of a more public media.

    That isn’t to say that this is inevitable or good. I think Sunstein highlights these examples to encourage people not to isolate themselves ideologically, to work against that tendency and towards a more Deweyan consensus seeking process.

  7. #7 Greg
    November 3, 2006

    Yeah. That is why we have Monastaries and Synagogues and Marxist Revival Meetings and Boot Camps.. to homogenize our minds and pull our skirts back from the Other.

    Dewey was not advocating e-zines within the monastary. He was advocating that the Buddhists and the Jews and the Ches and the GIs trade zines and visit each other.

    Dewey knew what would happen if he were to put a bunch of Boulderites in one room and a bunch of Colorado Citizens in a different room. He could see it all around him. He could see it in history as far back as history can see.

    He also knew what else could happen, what else he could see around him and in history and in his work in philosophy and in education, that if persons are allowed to converse, to talk with each other about each other and about themselves, the tight opinion-knots would loosen, the poles would drift together.. politicians would not be able to goad evolutionists and creationists to riot in the blogs while bureaucrats screw them all behind their backs.

    I didn’t see Sunstein’s tv show. His blog says, this is what people do. His blog does not say, this is what people do when you isolate homodox groups and ask them to rant about knee-jerk cliches. His blog gives no least hint that people behave differently when you give them different circumstances. He could have ask them to “deliberate” on issues where they agree. He could have asked them to consider charitably each the other group’s position. He could have brought them together.

    You started this thread by sketching Dewey’s antidote to Sunstein’s artificial divided citizenry. Dewey tells us what he opposes with his remarks about hired journalists consulting the elites and the (elites’) experts for what to tell the masses to think, and about “the worst indictment of democracy yet written”. He opposes and offers a solution to what Sunstein implies is inalterable.

    Dewey saw democracy crippled by ignorance and trained-intolerance. Sunstein shows us the intolerance, ignoring the ignorance and neglecting to mention the training.

    Dewey offers learning (not teaching) as the solution to ignorance and intolerance. Sunstein offers us nothing, invites us with his silence to accept them insoluable.

    You, I thought, saw Dewey’s point. But then, you presented Sunstein as refuting Dewey.

    I think it is the other way around, Dewey refutes Sunstein. CNN’s and Fox’s relentless jingoism and FBI’s old COINTELPRO programs show that they think so too.

    Remember, Dewey did not say that ‘they’ have to smarten up. He said that we have to learn together.

  8. #8 Josh
    November 3, 2006

    I think it’s odd to regard naturally occurring geographical differences as this totally artificial construct that Sunstein imposed. He selected people from natural communities. Those sorts of conversations happen all the time, they are unavoidable.

    Many people see technology as offering a utopian way around this sort of geographical isolation. But what Sunstein argues in (summarized in this article) is that:

    Is the Internet a wonderful development for democracy? In many ways it certainly is. As a result of the Internet, people can learn far more than they could before, and they can learn it much faster. If you are interested in issues that bear on public policy—environmental quality, wages over time, motor vehicle safety—you can find what you need to know in a matter of seconds. If you are suspicious of the mass media, and want to discuss issues with like-minded people, you can do that, transcending the limitations of geography in ways that could barely be imagined even a decade ago. And if you want to get information to a wide range of people, you can do that via email and websites; this is another sense in which the Internet is a great boon for democracy.

    But in the midst of the celebration, I want to raise a note of caution. I do so by emphasizing one of the most striking powers provided by emerging technologies: the growing power of consumers to “filter” what they see. As a result of the Internet and other technological developments, many people are increasingly engaged in a process of “personalization” that limits their exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing. They filter in, and they also filter out, with unprecedented powers of precision.

    So I think he agrees with you and me and Dewey that world-shrinking technology has the potential to create a better democracy (he said so right there), but that there are flies in the ointment. We don’t tend to want to create that homogeneous set of interactions. We have to force ourselves to want those sorts of interactions, and if we don’t we can be totally isolated in a bubble of people who agree with our biases.

    I do see Dewey’s point. I just don’t think the process of producing a “public” is nearly so simple. Deweyan publics seem to have a tendency to polarize, not to strive toward the mean.

    An example I’d give to show that this is a general process is that very ideologically extreme congresscritters can stay in office forever. The community of a few hundred thousand people who elect that extremist does not actually moderate with time, except when gentrification or other mass movements change the members of the community drastically.

    I’m not saying this to knock Dewey’s ideal down, I’m raising it as a problem to be overcome in achieving Dewey’s goals, and I think Sunstein is doing the same.

    I think you are badly misreading Sunstein, though I’ll take responsibility for not giving a broader context for his experiment.

    I’ll conclude with another quote from the excerpted

    In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a more difficult time addressing social problems and understanding one another.

    The goal is Dewey’s, but there are problems Dewey didn’t necessarily anticipate. You can’t just give people the opportunity to interact in a marketplace of ideas, you have to make sure they actually get out and deal with the full range of ideas out there.

    It seems to me that the blogosphere is a perfect form of Dewey’s public journalism, and yet it’s perhaps more ideologically Balkanized than many geographical areas are. I don’t know what Dewey’s solution to that would be.

  9. #9 Greg
    November 7, 2006

    I came here Saturday night and started, “Putting Sunstein aside, …”. I found I could not put him aside. I can formally, but as you have discovered, he writes about issues important to us.. I would be either mentioning him anyway or transparently avoiding him.

    So, I surfed around and discovered others reading the same script as you and I. When Sunstein’s “experiment” is presented, there is first pessimistic speculation; then somebody or two like me says, yeah, what’s he up to, everybody knows that; and everybody says, no we don’t. There is no point in repeated choruses of yeah and no.

    I think Dewey anticipated the problems you raise. I think he wrote ‘The Public and Its Problems’ to address those particular problems, among others. We need not argue over that. Although I would find it easier than you to look to Dewey for advice. Also, I agree that Dewey shared the curse of intellectual workers everywhere.. a gullible faith in the power of truth.

    Sunstein gives us the authoritarian solution.. force people to experience what they would rather refuse. It doesn’t work. The two most important reasons being, that it annoys them, and that the owners can pay for many more irritating experiences than we can.

    Dewey assumed that people like to learn. You and I think so too. Most of those people out there, though, seem to have suffered a long series of unpleasant learning experiences.

    Dewey also assumed that people going about their daily lives would learn. That, of course, requires a certain amount of independence and freedom which we have not had for many years.

    Dewey believed, too, in error and in examination and revision. Another attitude which appears to be absent in our culture outside the petriedish.

    As a scientist, those can only be causes for excitement.. problems to be described accurately and solved, decribed more accurately and solved again.

    My last point. I attended, sometime ago, a local gathering of active members of a famous multinational environmental organization. It started very well, smallish groups around smallish tables gossiping about local environmental problems and who was benefiting. Then somebody called for beer, and later for music, in the end for shushing those tried to gossip through the music.

    Modern reactionaries don’t much care about books and movies and websites. These things, should they emerge from the cacophony of drugs and noise and goodspeak from the Ministry of Peace, can be avoided or judged irritating. But when small groups meet in kitchens and on streetcorners, gossiping, “they” get worried.

  10. #10 Josh
    November 7, 2006

    I don’t read Sunstein as making an authoritarian case. Here is how he concludes the article I linked above:

    My principal claim here has been that a well-functioning democracy depends on far more than restraints on official censorship of controversial ideas and opinions. It also depends on some kind of public sphere, in which a wide range of speakers have access to a diverse public—and also to particular institutions, and practices, against which they seek to launch objections.

    Emerging technologies, including the Internet, are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more promise than risk, especially because they allow people to widen their horizons. But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such. Whether such dangers will materialize will ultimately depend on the aspirations, for freedom and democracy alike, by whose light we evaluate our practices. What I have sought to establish here is that in a free republic, citizens aspire to a system that provides a wide range of experiences—with people, topics, and ideas—that would not have been selected in advance.

    I see his concern for the public sphere not as opposition to Dewey, but as an extension to Dewey.

    I think that everyone loves learning, but that we are all inclined to prefer to learn things that match our expectations. In an era when we have increasing choice in where and how we learn, a laissez-faire market of ideas will lead to diverging populations. I don’t see that as anti-Dewey, I see it as a challenge to create a public sphere that’s actually Deweyan, that matches Dewey’s expectations.

  11. #11 Greg
    November 8, 2006

    Just to be irritating.. The passage beginning with, “In a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices.” is much more authoritarian than the one you quote most recently. If people love learning, there would be no need to expose people to material which they avoid given freedom to choose, and they would not be irritated by new experiences, although they might be by forced repetition of old experiences.

    I share your hope for a Deweyan public sphere (or something similar, since my political philosophy owes more to Aristotles and the Buddha). However, I can step out into the hallway and wake five men who are terrified to learn anything, except the latest sports statistics and the bra-sizes of the new season’s starlets. And I can tell you why each one is afraid. They are extreme cases. Even so, the joke that ends, “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” obtains its bite not from absurdity but from accuracy.

    I am not trying to persuade you to give up on Dewey. I wish you to apply the scientific method, when the time comes; and to consider that you might share Dewey’s gullible faith in human nature and in truth.

    Enjoy Boyda’s victory. But remember Jimmy Carter.

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