Code TP-5


Reflections on Whitman, Dewey, and Educational Reform: Reclaiming "Democratic Vistas"



            The greatest American epic is not Moby Dick, how the west was won, or how capitalism defeated communism. The greatest American epic is the story of democracy. Harold Bloom (1994) declares "Walt Whitman as Center of the American Canon" (pp. 264ff.). Meanwhile, James E. Miller, Jr. (1992) believes Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is, "America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy." Many consider John Dewey the epic philosopher of democracy. Dewey (1927/1984) in turn writes:

When the machine age has thus perfected its machinery it will be a means of life and not its despotic master. Democracy will come into its own, for democracy is a name for a life of free and enriching communion. It had its seer in Walt Whitman. It will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication (p. 350)

Communion and communication lie at the core of Whitman and Dewey’s dream of democracy. In today’s postindustrial and perhaps postmodern world, the machine age has perfected itself in some despotic ways. The Turing machine (the computer) and the Internet promises instant information and commodity exchange. Theories that the mind is just like a computer and communication just like exchanging information circulate widely. Ironically, though, the single most important idea of the industrial age continues to dominate. What perfected the machine age in the nineteenth century was the idea of standardized interchangeable parts. At the start of the twenty-first century, we have begun to do the same with the human beings who run the machinery of production. They too are but standardized interchangeable parts of the global labor pool. Today, technocrats have perfected the despotic machinery of education.

Human resources are an important variable in the economic production function. My task as a teacher is to take raw materials and refine them into high quality standardized products. My customers, formally students, expect and are willing to pay for this service. I work on the supply side. Least what I am saying seem excessive rhetoric let me mention that I hold my appointment in a College of Human Resources and Education.

Today’s educational reform rhetoric is entirely about standards and outputs that technocrats may measure to assure accountability and quality control. Generally these are norm-referenced tests; that means that given one-hundred students and a good test, the results yield a one-hundred step hierarchy. Exactly fifty-percent of those who take the test will score above the medium no matter how much or little they know. It is a sorting machine. Those sufficiently above "normal" will go to college and on to high paying high status jobs, while those below standard go into wage slavery or worse. Today’s America is obsessed with fixed and final hierarchies, norms, and standards.

In terms of its inner logic, the machine age has perfected itself; there are those who even claim that after capitalism’s victory in the cold war America is at the end of history. Today we appear to live in a new dispensation; the market is God. If so, then I am wrong and democracy is not America’s greatest narrative. That is not so surprising. Instead of a single great hero struggling against well-defined enemies, all that democracy ever gave us was a mass of hopeful average people struggling to overcome themselves. Perhaps they have lost.

I believe Whitman’s essay "Democratic Vistas" is a prophecy of an America that could have been, the start of a mighty epic. Whitman was a passionate outdoor, urban American poet where "American" has an ideal timeless sense. Whitman (1855/1993) asserts this timelessness when he states, "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature" (p. 483). He had a wonderful vision of a New World; whether that New World will ever happen in the United States or anywhere else, the ideal is worth our attention. In the remainder of my paper, I wish to explore that world; for, I believe, America has yet to fulfill its promise as a moral and spiritual power. Educators are meliorist; they want to ameliorate suffering, oppression, and sadness. Meliorist are moral agents and as such require a moral compass to find their way in darkness. I believe Whitman’s democratic ideal provides such guidance to American meliorists whatever their nationality.

Whitman identifies three stages of democracy, the first two of which we have already attained. According to Whitman, the first stage "was the planning and putting on record the political foundations of rights of immense masses of people . . . . This is the American programme, not for classes, but for universal man" (p. 544). Whitman has in mind the Declaration of Independence, the Federal Constitution, and such. Too many confuse democracy with documents. Whitman did not:

20Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools—democracy in all public and private life . . . . But it is not yet . . . the fully-received, their fervid, the absolute faith (p. 527).

Whitman, like Dewey, did not think we would live in a democracy until all our social institutions and projects are democratic, including Universities and public schools.

            The second stage, according to Whitman, "relates to material prosperity, wealth, produce, labor-saving machines . . . intercommunication and trade . . . books, newspapers, a currency for money circulation, etc." (p. 544). Whitman thought we had already crossed this threshold when he wrote in 1871, although our distribution of wealth and resources remains disappointing. Whitman was a working man his whole life who could never afford his own home until threat of prosecution of Leaves of Grass for obscenity ironically boosted sales and royalties; he understood poverty is oppression. Tragically, he also learned that society will oppress those who will sing their own song and not that of others. Whitman’s ideal of democracy sweats and bleeds, it also dances and sings. In his youth, Whitman was a teacher; he learned early that teachers who persist in their ideals suffer, but they also play, laugh, and enjoy good company.

            What comes next is a prophecy of a possibility. As Whitman writes, "We see that while many were supposing things established and completed, really the grandest things always remain; and discover that the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun" (p. 558). Here is how Whitman announces his ideal of a New World:

The Third stage, rising out of the previous ones, to make them and all illustrious, I, now, for one, promulge, announcing a native expression-spirit, getting into form, adult, and through mentality, for these States, self-contain’d, different from others, more expansive, more rich and free, to be evidenced by original authors and poets to come, by American personalities, plenty of them, male and female . . . a sublime and serious Religious Democracy (p. 544).

Whitman’s notion of spiritual democracy lives on. Today, the nation finds itself in a spiritual crisis. Reactions to this crisis range from the emergence of the religious right, to New Age gurus, to faith in mammon and money. I want to explore Whitman’s democratic faith through his trinity of "leveling," idiocrasy," and "adhesion" or love.

I begin with leveling and "idiocrasy," or what he also calls true individuality and personalism. It involves the leveling of hierarchy in favor of "the divine average," as he calls it. Whitman (1871/1993) writes:

For to democracy, the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average, surely joined another principle, equally unyielding, closely tracking the first, indispensable to it, opposite (as the sexes are opposite), whose existence, confronting and ever modifying the other, often clashing and paradoxical, yet neither of highest avail without the other, plainly supplies to these grand cosmic politics of ours, and to the launched forth dangers of republicanism, to-day, or any day, the counterpart and offset whereby Nature restrains the deadly original relentlessness of all her first-class laws. This second principle is individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself — identity — personalism (pp. 528-529).

Cultivating the paradoxical relation between leveling and individualism is crucial for Whitman. Eventually, it is free flowing eros (passionate desire), philia (or friendship), and agape (or the principle of spontaneous creation) which Whitman collapses into an all embracing love he calls "adhesive love." Eros, the least refined form of love, is older than the West. It is one of the mythological personifications appearing in prephilosophical cosmogony. In these cosmogonies individuals are an intimate part of culture and culture an intimate part of the events of nature. In its mythological personification, eros is a force of nature rather than a state of being. In the Eastern Orphic cosmogonies that influenced the emergence of western philosophy, eros is the force that unifies opposites and unites all. Adhesive love and not law or nomos reconciles and unites the opposites of leveling and "idiocrasy."

            What Whitman means by leveling is moral equality; he does not mean that everyone is cognitively, physically, or emotionally equal, that is patently false and undesirable anyway. I will return to why other forms of leveling are as undesirable as moral leveling is democratically necessary in a moment. First, let us see what moral leveling means in response to contemporary educational reform rhetoric. The famous Thorndike principle has dominated American education for nearly a century. It is a statement of metaphysical commitment to measurement: "Whatever exists exists in some amount. To measure it is simply to know its varying amounts."[1][1] The Thorndike principle and norm referenced testing drives the engine of accountability in almost all educational reform. Dewey helps us see why the participatory democrat should reject standardized testing. Dewey (1922/1983) proclaims:

[M]oral equality cannot be conceived on the basis of legal, political and economic arrangements. For all of these are bound to be classificatory; to be concerned with uniformities and statistical averages. Moral equality means incommensurability, the inapplicability of common and quantitative standards (p. 299).

Fixed rules, laws, and standards may inhibit moral equality. There are no standard democratic individuals. Moral equality means everyone has an equal right to have their unique potential realized as fully as possible so they might make their unique contribution to the democratic community. The result, according to Dewey, is an aristocracy of everyone:

Democracy in this sense denotes, one may say, aristocracy carried to its limit. It is a claim that every human being as an individual may be the best for some particular purpose and hence the most fitted to rule, to lead, in that specific respect . . . . It is because our professed aristocrats surrender so gladly to the habit of quantification or comparative classifications that it is easy to detect snobbery of greater or less refinement beneath their professed desire for a régime of distinction (pp. 297-298).

Today, as they have for decades, educational reformers talk Dewey, but do Thorndike. The result is a democratic crisis that does not confine itself to American public schools and universities. Dewey drew the obvious conclusion: "Democracy will not be democracy until education makes it its chief concern to release distinctive aptitudes in art, thought and companionship. At present the intellectual obstacle in the way is the habit of classification and quantitative comparisons" (p. 300). Currently, only a small set of standardized aptitudes comprises the approved curriculum. Instead of individuals with distinctive aptitudes, we get cadres of docile, unreflective, and unimaginative conformists. Individuals sacrifice their uniqueness for the good of the economy instead of fulfilling it for themselves and for their fellow citizens.

Whitman employs the rarely used word "idiocrasy," meaning peculiarity of physical or mental constitution, to describe the uniquely creative element in every individual. The similar word "idiocracy" means personal rule or government. Whitman chooses a poetically prescient expression since it blends the words "democratic" and "idiosyncratic," meaning peculiarity of temperament. Interestingly the word "idiosyncratic" is etymologically rooted to the ancient Greek for mingling or blending. Whitman thought the mingling characteristic of democratic society could secure a multitude of unique, socially self-creating, individuals. Following Whitman, I call the democratic individual who desires to develop their peculiar idiocrasy as well as their self-governing idiocracy an "idiocrate."

            Paradoxically, we all have incommensurable individual potential in common; it is one of the things that puts us all at the same level. We must not forget there is a leveling up as well as a leveling down. A post-industrial, but hopefully not post-democratic, pluralistic society needs to satisfy an endless array of social functions. There are many culturally valuable hierarchies, though we find only few of them in schools or on norm referenced standardized tests. Every individual who wisely realizes her or his unique potential will find some worthy hierarchy upon which she or he alone is properly at the top. What we need to realize our precious idiocratic potential is true independence.

Whitman (1871/1993) wonders, "What is independence?" (p. 545). His short answer is not simple:

Freedom from all laws of bonds except those of one’s own being, control’d by the universal ones. To lands, to man, to woman, what is there at last to each, but the inherent soul, nativity, idiocrasy, free, highest-poised, soaring its own flight, following out itself (p. 545).

This passage is a provocation to become ourselves, to realize our individual, unique potential. It embraces the paradox of freedom by acknowledging that everyone should be free of all bonds except those dictated by their own being. I do think, however, that every human being is a social being and, therefore, there is no private call entirely beyond our bonds to others. Whitman recognizes both negative freedom, freedom from, and positive freedom, freedom for something. Negative freedom is the lesser part of freedom; its only value is to release us to pursue the realization of our capacities. Positive freedom requires discipline, dedication, and desire. Finally, we are always on the way to freedom for as we draw closer to the ideal new democratic vistas endlessly reveal themselves. Freedom serves something higher; it allows us to realize ourselves, and then overcome that self. For Whitman and Dewey, endless growth is the aim of education.

            We are now prepared to understand the paradoxical relation between moral leveling and idiocrasy as well as why it is undesirable to extend moral leveling further. Moral leveling leaves difference, otherness, and alterity in place. Without these, pluralistic democracy is impossible. We could reduce everyone to the same norm, the same standard, the same identity, but that path leads to the oppression of individuality.

The irony is that if we are ever to realize our precious idiocrasy, we need others different from ourselves. They tell the story of their lives, their individual epic, with a different vocabulary, syntax, plot line, scenes, and characters. Culture has us before we have it. Until we meet others different from ourselves, we can only tell the stories we learned from those who are just like us. Until we listen well to what others have to say, our culture and not ourselves author our epic biography. Insofar as each individual realizes their unique potential, they may make their unique contribution to each other and to the greatest American epic. It is precisely here that we perceive the importance of pluralistic democracy and the horror and humiliation of any totalitarian education that normalizes, standardizes, and quantifies all upon a one fixed hierarchy.

            The paradox is that we know ourselves only if we know others and we know others only if we know ourselves. More importantly we actualize our potential only if others actualize the potential of others, and others only actualize their potential if we actualize ours in the transaction. Finally, we truly love ourselves only if we love others and others only if we love ourselves. We need others to sustain our growth and they need us; this need that binds us. So, what unifies leveling with idiosyncratic individuality in service of our needs?

Before answering, let review what we have learned while adding some observations about Western individuality. Leveling does not mean reduction to the lowest common denominator; instead, it means what we all have in common is that we have unique potential. Moral leveling means we each have a moral right to realize our unique potential so we may make our unique contribution to the democratic community. Let us now start from the other side. Whitman’s ideal of individuality is very different from the liberal ideal of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The modern liberal individual is a social atom so disconnected from others he, and it is a "he,quote  must sign a social contract to stop the struggle of all against all in the state of nature. Possessed of innate free will and reason, this individual is born perfect and complete; he does not need others except for trade and protection. Born with inalienable rights, innately free and rational man does not have to earn them, he must only defend them from others. Rational autonomous man is born with a sense of self-possession that serves unbridled capitalism well. Consider the following passage from John Locke (1690/1980):

[E]very man has a property in his own person; this no body [sic] has any right to but himself. The labour [sic] of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property (p. 19).

The whole future of colonialism and capitalism lies hidden inside this passage. Ignoring the historical horrors of centuries, I would only like to point out that there is a logical catastrophe lying in wait in the seventeenth century ideal of the liberal democratic individual. If all of us our born with the same innate freedom, the same rationality, and the same rights, then if we all exercise our rationality and rights fully, we will all think, feel, and act exactly alike.

            Social contracts, constitutions, and law or nomos binds together oddly identical liberal democratic individuals. Adhesiveness or love binds together difference and diversity; law, often oppresses difference by labeling all alterity deviance and punishing it. The individual that knows she needs others to grow is very different from the atomistic individual. Whitman (1871/1993) insists:

Not that half only, individualism, which isolates. There is another half, which is adhesiveness or love that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all. Both are to be vitalized by religion . . . . For I say at the core of democracy, finally, is the religious element . . . . Nor may the scheme step forth, clothed in resplendent beauty and command, till these, bearing the best, the latest fruit, the spiritual, shall fully appear (p. 521).

Whitman seeks spiritual democracy in caring, connecting, and creative communion. Such communion transubstantiates the material into the spiritual:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love, hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it,) that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof (p. 548).

What remains unclear is exactly what Whitman means by spirituality and religious democracy.

            What Whitman has in mind is not dogmatic religion as something apart from nature. His idea is that human nature is a part of nature that continues the creativity of creation in its own creative acts. Spiritual expression involves an intimate relation with the rest of existence in which our creative actions matter. Spirituality requires the creation of dynamic ever-evolving unity while evil is that energy that seeks total pure static unity closed off from the larger flux of events. Each unique individual has some unique contribution to make to the continuing of creation, some contribution to the eternal epic. The task of democracy is to facilitate the growth of each individual to make their contribution. That is spiritual democracy.


Bloom, H. (1994). 0The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.


Dewey, J. (1922/1983). Individuality, Equality And Superiority. Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 13, (295-300). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Dewey, John (1927/1984). The Public and Its Problems. In Jo Ann Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Later Works, Volume 2, (pp. 235-372). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Joncich G. (1968). The Sane Positivist. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.


Locke, J. (1690/1980). Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, In.: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.


Miller, J. E. Jr. (1992). Leaves of Grass: America’s Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twaye Publishers.


Whitman, Walt (1855/1993). Preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In Ellman Crasnow (ed.), Leaves Of Grass And Selected Prose. London: Orion Publishing Group, pp. 483-504.


Whitman, Walt (1871/1993). Democratic Vistas. In Ellman Crasnow (ed.), Leaves Of Grass And Selected Prose. London: Orion Publishing Group, pp. 505-559.


[1][1]           Cited in Joncich (1968, p. 283).