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Governing Ourselves: a Challenge to . . . Problem-Solve

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American philosopher John Dewey — my candidate for the prototypical U.S. liberal — once said, “We only think when we are confronted with a problem.”

I agree. As a liberal, I insist that taking the time to work (feel, think, talk, et cetera) our way through a problem is more a necessity than a luxury.

Now, allow me to admit up front that I am by nature a contemplative person. It’s not a choice. There are people born to be people of action; there are people born to be people of contemplation.

We need both!

And, let’s face it, liberals tend to process a lot of things in our heads. But John Dewey was onto something, even for the action-oriented: “We only think when we are confronted with a problem.”

Dewey lived a while ago, so let’s update his idea just a little bit. “Problem” has become a problematic word, so let’s use the more optimistic word “challenge” instead.

“We only think when we are confronted with a ‘challenge.’”

If you who have studied Dewey’s constructivist theory of education, you know that in constructivist education — Montessori is the best known — problem-solving is the foundation of instruction. We learn when we do.

Dewey recognized the usefulness of the constructivist paradigm permeating human social life: governing is about problem-solving; science is about problem-solving; art is about problem-solving; philosophy is about problem-solving; politics is about problem-solving; international relations is about problem-solving; managing the family budget is about problem-solving.

The practice of democracy — and, in Dewey’s philosophy, democracy is definitely viewed as a practice — the practice of democracy is about problem-solving.

This deep, deep conviction concerning thinking it through is what makes John Dewey a liberal. And it’s why his thought is still instructive today.

The recent election in Italy. The recent election in France that barely preserved democracy there. The rise of popular and populist nationalist parties all over Central and Western Europe. The turmoil among conservatives in the UK . . . not to mention the uncertainty around the upcoming US midterms.

Liberalism is on the ropes all over the world.

The so-called conservative side has an answer; the so-called liberal side has an answer. I am convinced that old-fashioned, back-to-basics liberalism has a third answer, a middle way that can find compromise without compromising core values, such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Identifying the challenge, then problem-solving. Thinking. Thinking it through. What a concept. Let’s try it some time!

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