Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

April 19, 2001


Disagreeing on the role of universities

To the editor:

A colleague at the University of Pittsburgh has been kind enough to send me the excellent story in the University Times (March 22, 2001) reporting on my address to the plenary session of the University Senate as well as the letter by Mr. Robert Hazo (April 5, 2001). My disagreements with Mr. Hazo are clearly numerous. Rather than discuss them here, let me merely note that passionate, but collegial, dialogue and critique should be characteristic of academic, indeed democratic, discourse. I question whether Mr. Hazo's response to my talk meets that standard. I would like to respond to his angry dismissal of my discussion of Plato's and Dewey's profound differences by quoting from Steven M. Cahn, a leading philosopher of education:

" . . . [of] only two major philosophers who exemplified this principle [Kant's principle that 'the greatest and most difficult problem to which man can devote himself is the problem of education'] in their philosophical work, one was Dewey, the other was Plato. He too [Plato] found it difficult to discuss any important philosophic problem without reference to the appropriateness of various subjects of study, methods of teaching, strategies of learning. But while Dewey's philosophy of education rested on his belief in democracy and the power of scientific method, Plato's philosophy of education rested on his belief in aristocracy and the power of pure reason. Plato proposed a planned society, Dewey a society engaged in continuous planning. Plato considered dialectical speculation to be the means toward the attainment of truth; Dewey maintained that knowledge is only acquired through intelligent action. . . . Suffice it to say that John Dewey is the only thinker ever to construct a philosophy of education comparable in scope and depth to that of Plato."

I believe that Cahn is correct: Plato's philosophy aimed to achieve aristocratic order, Dewey's to achieve democratic community. I further believe that American universities would better educate students to be moral citizens of a democratic society if they put Dewey's ideas into practice. As Professor Hazo surely knows, Plato created his Academy to help assure rule by philosopher kings, not citizens.

Ira Harkavy

Associate Vice President and Director

Center for Community Partnerships

University of Pennsylvania


Letters Policy

Letters should be submitted at least one week prior to publication. Persons criticized in a letter will receive a copy of the letter so that they may prepare a response. If no response is received the letter will be published alone.

Letters can be sent to 308 Bellefield Hall (include hard copy and a disk when possible) or can be sent by e-mail to

The University Times reserves the right to edit letters for clarity or length. Individuals are limited to two published letters per academic term. Unsigned letters will not be accepted for publication.

Leave a Reply