Defining Community (Part 1) – The Common and Communicative: The neoclassical thinking of John Dewey

The word “community” is a great example of a term that everyone uses, but no one has a clear sense of what an actual definition might be. As we become an increasingly communicative and interactive society, there is a general sense that the nature of communities may be changing, but whether this is true and what it means if it is true remains unclear.

Since the REAL School design is a “community school model,” defining community is an essential task for us. We believe that communities of space matter and so do other kinds of communities. Community can be defined by geography, but also by common interest, by shared values, and by historical accident.

John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher and father of progressive education, offers a foundational definition that points us towards the heart of the matter–communication leads to commonalities which allow people to form communities. As Dewey explains is Democracy and Education (1916):

There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common. What they must have in common in order to form a community or society are aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge–a common understanding–like-mindedness as the sociologists say.

Commonality and like-mindedness are, therefore, central to the formation or continuation of community. Dewey continues to explain how such communication and the resulting commonalities develop:

Such things cannot be passed physically from one to another, like bricks; they cannot be shared as persons would share a pie by dividing it into physical pieces. The communication which insures participation in a common understanding is one which secures similar emotional and intellectual dispositions–like ways of responding to expectations and requirements.

Persons do not become a society by living in physical proximity, any more than a man ceases to be socially by being so many feet or miles removed from others. A book or letter may institute a more intimate association between human beings separated thousands of miles from each other than exists between dwellers under the same roof. Individuals do not even compose a social group because they all work for a common end…Consensus demands communication. (pp. 4-5)

Dewey contends that communicated and shared “aims, beliefs, aspirations, knowledge–a common understanding–like-mindedness as the sociologists say” is the essence of community. If this is true, than physical proximity, having been a primary historical cause of communication and sharing, is becoming increasingly less salient as a demarcation of community.

Having said all of this, I still believe that physical space does matter, especially to those without the resources to travel or communicate freely across spacial boundaries. This will be discussed in Part 2 of this series. In Part 2 I discus the role of physical space in the formation or maintenance of modern community. In Part 3, I will talk about the impact of modern technology and social media on youth understandings of community.



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