The Intellectual Environment of John Dewey, Part VI: Propaganda

Written by Kerry Ellard on December 17, 2021

In Part IV of this series, I talked about Dewey’s exchange with journalist Walter Lippmann. One of the footnotes in that piece read as follows (emphases added):

“Lippman was also responding to another crisis of the twentieth century: “...During and after World War I, the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘propaganda’ was blurred, causing Lippmann to lose faith in news media, especially newspapers, which are often held up by traditional democratic theorists as a main source by which ostensibly objective information can be disseminated to citizens.”[1] The nineteenth-century American press model was by no means objective or non-partisan, but it had a variety of competing voices. The centralization and nationalization of the press around the turn of the century removed these natural checks on the influence of this kind of propaganda, a problem that has been accelerating ever since. Lippman argued that early 20th-century American citizens were “forced to live in ‘pseudo-environments,’ in which they reduce the world to stereotypes in order to render it intelligible,” a theme Dewey often dwelled on but mainly blamed on the destruction of pre-industrial contact with life.[2] Emerson and Whitman would likely have denied that routing around mass media-created pseudo-environments was so difficult as to make self-government impossible.”

The last line is my own speculation, but it must be conceded that Lippmann and Dewey were truly operating in a different environment than Dewey’s 19th-century kindred spirits.[3] The media had become an entirely different animal by the end of World War I—one we’re all too familiar with today. Dewey and Lippmann’s doubts about the survival of self-government and independent-mindedness were understandable, and cannot be dismissed merely as elitism or a power grab. The success of centralized media manipulation during the war, despite the more benign and promising aspects of mass media technology, had shaken them up. It wasn’t just that the people at the top could be up to no good, or that the complexity and curation of the information environment made a mockery of self-government, but that they’d noticed it was destroying character and social interaction in unexpected, largely unnoticed ways.

As his Laboratory Schools show, Dewey had long been concerned about post-Industrial Revolution children encountering knowledge independently of the context provided by direct experience. His despair over the lack of relevant feedback is often mistaken for a desire that children be constantly entertained and indulged, never pushed into doing anything just because it was something they were expected to be familiar with. But this seemingly inexplicable disregard of the little things one needed to master just to get along in life stemmed from a belief that those things could not actually be learned in such a manner. That context-free knowledge was useful neither to the learner nor to the society’s functioning, and the unreflective obedience it engendered was not a mark of self-discipline and usefulness, but a latent threat to effective action and social stability.

Dewey’s comments on propaganda shed light on the thinking behind his views on education and its relation to democracy, direct experience, literacy, abstract knowledge, and the social nature of intelligence:

“One effect of literacy under existing conditions has been to create in a large number of persons an appetite for the momentary ‘thrills’ caused by impacts that stimulate nerve endings but whose connections with cerebral functions are broken. Then stimulation and excitation are not so ordered that intelligence is produced. At the same time the habit of using judgment is weakened by the habit of depending on external stimuli.…The new mechanisms resulting from application of scientific discoveries have, of course, immensely extended the range and variety of particular events, or ‘news items’ which are brought to bear upon the senses and the emotions connected with them…They are for the most part events about which the individuals who are told of them can do nothing, except to react with a passing emotional excitation. For, because of lack of relation and organization in reference to one another, no imaginative reproduction of the situation is possible, such as might make up for the absence of personal response. Before we engage in too much pity for the inhabitants of our rural regions before the days of invention of modern devices for circulation of information, we should recall that they knew more about the things that affected their own lives than the city dweller of today is likely to know about the causes of his affairs. They did not possess nearly as many separate items of information, but they were compelled to know, in the sense of understanding, the conditions that bore upon the conduct of their own affairs. Today the influences that affect the actions performed by individuals are so remote as to be unknown. We are at the mercy of events acting upon us in unexpected, abrupt, and violent ways.”[4]

After WWI, Dewey’s focus on schools as places for children to develop experience and socially-produced intelligence transitioned naturally to a concern about the state of “public opinion” among adults. In a post-WWI paragraph that I see as central to his worldview, Dewey alluded to Emerson and wrote that “there is no limit to the liberal expansion and confirmation of limited personal intellectual endowment[s] which may proceed from the flow of social intelligence when that circulates . . . in the communications of the local community. That and that only gives reality to public opinion.”

True opinions could only be formed through experience because only the need for effective or intelligible action was guaranteed to prompt someone into consciously exercising their own judgment. While Dewey was fixated on collective intelligence, he understood that “public opinion” could not merely be groupthink if it were to have any value at all. Even if it were socially constructed, this had to mean more than the irrational, arbitrary madness of crowds—it had to represent a satisfactory settlement of community members’ actual interests that permitted them to get on with their lives productively until the next problem arose. Public opinion had to rest on a “reality” substantive enough to make those of “limited personal intellectual endowment” of functional members of the community.[5]

The destructiveness of propaganda was caused by the very thing that had reassured Emerson: that “by the permanence of Nature, minds are trained alike, and made intelligible to each other.” The relative predictability of human cognition had made it easy for 20th-century propagandists to learn to exploit the public en masse. Yet Dewey believed the situation was salvageable if people would confine their focus to things that directly concerned them, about which they were less easily misled and were likely to have formed actual opinions. He made the same argument about experts, and his objection to “expert-managed” public opinion of the kind proposed by Lippmann was the same as his objection to traditional education: context-free knowledge parroted on command was not knowledge, and therefore could not be relied upon to produce effective, predictable action.

But Dewey also came to believe that people could add to their everyday experience with direct, practical experience in resisting media manipulation, if a social movement were constructed for that very purpose, and if scientific habits (i.e., skepticism of claims in the absence of evidence and systematic inquiry into relationships between facts) were more widely promoted to the general public.[6] In 1931, Dewey wrote a four-part article about the deteriorating political situation:

“Control of opinion is the greatest weapon of anti-social forces. We are ruled by headlines, publicity agents and ‘counsellors of public relations.’ Propaganda can be attacked and its force weakened only by one agency: informed publicity. The steady encroachment by organized capital upon guaranteed civil liberties can be met only by organized vigilance on behalf of free speech, free press and peaceable assembly. The forces which are undermining these instrumentalities, upon which all other forms of freedom depend, are so subtle and efficient that there is no hope of recovering these fundamental rights, unless they are made an open issue.”[7]

Again, Dewey’s fear of undue influence is front and center, but this time it is not about the influence of a particular person or traditional authority. Undue influence was no longer a threat that came mainly from the past or predictable entrenched interests —it was itself part of the constantly evolving nature of modern society. Dewey’s society of constant conversations leading to more suitable social forms was threatened by sophisticated information warfare. His reaction to this problem in later life will be discussed further in Part VII of this series.

1. Tony DeCesare, “The Lippmann-Dewey ‘debate’ Revisited: The Problem of Knowledge and the Role of Experts in Modern Democratic Theory,” Philosophical Studies in Education 43 (2012), https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1000304.pdf.

2. See Sean Illing, “Intellectuals have said democracy is failing for a century. They were wrong,” Vox, December 20, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/9/17540448/walter-lippmann-democracy-trump-brexit.

3. I suspect that despite the extent of the changes, Emerson and Whitman would have once again responded by creating a literary counterculture that promoted political unity (according to sound principles) and independent thought. They would have been vocal about the threats of reliance on and abuse of mass media, urging people to create decentralized and personal alternatives, much like we eventually saw happen on a large scale with the internet.

4. John Dewey, Freedom and Culture, 1939.

5. This may have referred to everyone, in Dewey’s view. He seemed to believe that individual thought was of little value unless used for social purposes, because, without interaction, one person could not have knowledge of all aspects of society that affect his or her actions. He also seemed to believe no one was immune to manipulation, or the thoughtless misuse of even basic ideas with which they did not have direct experience. For example, in 1931, he wrote “…a kind of positive halo surrounds scientific endeavors. For it has been held, not without grounds, that general social—or at least national —welfare is thereby promoted. Germany led other countries in physical research; and it was in Germany that scientific advances could be shown to have contributed most directly to national strength and prestige. It was thus possible for some intellectual observers, not particularly naïve, to hold up German universities as models to follow in our own country... I referred above to the role of nationalism in deciding the direction taken by science. The striking instance is of course the organization of scientific men for aid to a nation in time of war.” “Science and Free Culture,” in Dewey, Freedom and Culture.

6. See Dewey, “Science and Free Culture” (“If it is possible for persons to have their beliefs formed on the ground of evidence, procured by systematic and competent inquiry, nothing can be more disastrous socially than that the great majority of persons should have them formed by habit, accidents of circumstance, propaganda, personal and class bias. The existence, even on relatively narrow scale, of a morale of fairmindedness, intellectual integrity, of will to subordinate personal preference to ascertained facts and to share with others what is found out, instead of using it for personal gain, is a challenge of the most searching kind. Why don't a great many more persons have this attitude?”)

7. “The Need for a New Party: I. The Present Crisis; II. The Breakdown of the Old Order; III. Who Might Make a New Party?; IV. Policies for a New Party,” reprinted in John Dewey et al., The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 6, 1925 - 1953: 1931-1932, Essays, Reviews, and Miscellany(Southern Illinois University Press, 2008.)

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.

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