Education and Democracy

There are two traditions of democracy: classical or participatory, and modern proceduralist. The basic principles of democracy in any tradition are a concern for the protection of human rights, the equality of all citizens, the maximization of individual liberty, and the maintenance of popular sovereignty.

Justification for the classical tradition of democracy rests on the view that only through the active participation of individuals in deliberation, consensus and collective action, can democracy be realised. It is seen as an educative form of life, a social way of being, and a moral responsibility. It is premised on a positive view of human nature and the capacity of our species to behave altruistically and with self-direction.

Justification for proceduralist democracy rests on the classical liberal view that only through the primacy of economic freedom and minimal government can democracy be realised. Here, it is argued that by pursuing self interest, the individual ‘…frequently promotes [the interests] of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.’ Smith (1776:758), and that economic liberty and the working of the free market elevate individual freedom and popular sovereignty. (Mandelbaum (2007) This view is premised on a negative view of human nature which holds that our species is inherently selfish.

In practice, the principles of rights, equality, freedom and popular sovereignty, can run counter to each other. In striving to overcome what may be seen as inequalities of birth, wealth, or social capital, for example, the personal freedom of those concerned, and of other members of society, could be compromised. The real problem of democracy lies in reconciling the demands of each of its basic principles with the rest.

Not only are the principles of democracy in conflict with each other, there is a more difficult conflict in the relationship between democracy and capitalism, which also needs to be a focus of reconciliation. Classical liberal democracy restricts economic processes to protect basic rights. This is necessary to any capitalist democracy as capitalism creates a wage dependent class who lack the material benefits, opportunities and political power of the wealthy. Smith (1776:447-8) warns against a true laissez faire economy arguing that ‘The interest of the dealers… in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public.’ The increasing centrality of the market along with increasingly laissez-faire styles of government in more recent times has changed the classical liberal meaning of modern procedural democracy, leading to more extremes of conflict between democracy and capitalism.

Education and schooling have a key role to play in any tradition of democracy. The two are not necessarily synonymous, and in the classical participatory tradition, the educative life is constructed through participation in a wide range of democratic systems and their institutions such as the law, local government, healthcare, security, welfare, wider children’s services, and universities, as well as through schools. To this end, the aim of education is to initiate individuals into the values, attitudes and behaviour appropriate to active participation in democratic institutions and processes. Here, the approach to curriculum development is through process and praxis, through a meaning of community that emphasizes personal networks and relationships, association and communion.  As Dewey (1916: 87) put it, ‘A democracy is more than a form of government: it is primarily a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience’.

In the modern proceduralist tradition, the role of schools is to offer a minority an education appropriate for political leadership, and to initiate the majority into the values, attitudes and behaviour appropriate to their role as producers, workers and consumers. Here, the approach to curriculum development is through outcomes, and a view of community as place (territory) and as marketised networks. In the context of neo-liberal democracy, this presents a particular conflict around the aims of education. Democracy requires citizens who can think critically, whilst the market needs consumers who can be easily influenced by media and advertising. There is also a contradiction in the way in which both schools and universities are now, in England and the US, viewed as providing a market commodity to be bought and sold, at the same time as being viewed as a public good and a social utility.

In my view the ideals of neo-liberalism, which equate personal freedom with economic freedom, and which gives primacy to self-interest and the market, are incompatible with the basic principles of democracy and incompatible with the principles concerning rights and equality in particular. I believe that the relationship between education and democracy should be a reciprocal one, and that democracy is itself an educational principle.

‘Creating a democratic society is now largely a matter of opposing and transcending the contradictions, inadequacies and limitations inherent in the educational ideas, policies and practices prescribed by the New Right. Only if the present generation actively engages in this ‘struggle for democracy’ will future generations have any chance of receiving an education which does not just fit them into the culture and tradition of an aristocratic society that is dead and past, but empowers them to participate in and contribute to the kind of open, pluralistic and democratic society appropriate to the world of the twenty first century’   Carr and Hartnett (1996:200)

Carr, W., and Hartnett, A. (1996) Education and the Struggle for Democracy: The Politics of Educational Ideas.  Buckingham Philadelphia, Open University Press. Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Free Press. Mandelbaum, M
(2007)  Democracies Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government. Public Affairs Smith, A (1776) The Wealth of Nations.

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