DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION
This month we discussed the role of education in maintaining democracy, not just for children, but also for adults who hopefully continue to learn throughout their lives.
We discussed readings from Steve’s The Future of Democracy; Democracy and Education by John Dewey; and an article by Eleanor Roosevelt entitled “Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education.”
Here are some of the questions we considered:
What Is the Role of Education in Democracies?
In addition to skill development, the ultimate educational goal in democracy is imparting a viable idea about what works and what doesn’t to further the interests of the greatest number of people. In democracies, though all are flawed, human and technological progress far exceeds that of countries governed by undemocratic means. In undemocratic societies, values are dictated from the top and therefore less likely to inspire innovation.
How Do We Best Educate Children to Participate in Democracy and to Continue That Participation Into Adulthood?
The ideal of democracy, which is Greek for “government by the people,” is that every human being is valued. That means that the potential of each individual is encouraged by the education system, with the goal of equal treatment for all. Education that contributes to democracy keeps this perspective in mind.
What Are the Attributes of Good Teachers and Effective Teaching That Contribute to the Quality of Lives of Future and Current Citizens and Voters?
Good teaching moves students toward a framework of understanding that promotes growth in skills and constructive ways of interacting with the world. An effective teacher is a model for effective communication who meets students at their current level of understanding and builds confidence by introducing tasks that move toward greater comprehension and effectiveness in the world. This is done not just by instruction, but by engaging each student as an individual whose views are to be valued.
Is There a Core Attitude or View That Can Be Imparted to Students so That They Maintain Both Confidence and Competence Throughout Life?
The best teachers express faith in the ability of their students to succeed, which greatly affects their self-confidence. But students also need guidance via incremental lessons and tasks at a level that allows them to succeed, and then builds skills and confidence with gradually greater challenges. Students need a safe place to make mistakes and learn from them.
What Is the Relationship Between Basic Skills and Greater Understanding for Lifelong Learning?
Basic skills are of course important — reading, writing, and math for example — but when students see the relevance of those skills to their lives it increases their level of understanding and ability to apply their skills in the real world. Learning based on creative projects that considers student interests engages them and sets a pattern so that they feel comfortable implementing their skills throughout their lives.
What Is the Difference Between the Education Systems in Democracies and in Autocracies?
In democracies, education ideally focuses on developing each person’s potential to contribute creatively to the innovation needed to move society forward. Education also prepares students for ongoing respectful dialogue with others that is required in a society where all are considered equal. Democracies work toward including people of all backgrounds in the opportunity to learn. In autocracies, education focuses on ideas and skills that do not contradict the views of authority. Original thinking and the thrust of innovation is limited.
What Is the Relationship Between Emotional and Intellectual Development?
When students are fully engaged in learning, both their minds and emotions are involved. There is a sense of excitement as new discoveries are made by both the individual and group. A good teacher encourages the thrill of discovery by students as they attain skills. This attitude then is brought into their ongoing learning process as they move toward adulthood. But our thoughts and actions often are dominated by fear of failure rather than clarification of a direction and the means to move toward it.
What Is the Role of Truth in Education in Democracies?
We all continually seek greater understanding of our world and ourselves. But what is considered true is different for different parts of the population and changes from one generation to the next. Some ethnic and religious groups are less tolerant than others of variation from their values. It took centuries for science to convince us that the sun doesn’t circle the earth. Understanding that the worldview held by the vast majority of people — including each of us — is limited and subject to change opens us to continued innovation and improvement in our ideas and inventiveness. Effective education moves us further from prejudice and closer to the truth, although we are unlikely to ever arrive at an absolute truth. An important purpose of education is to allow us to navigate the myriad points of view with which we are confronted in an effort to best parse the truth and determine how to act based upon our growing understanding.
How Does Education in Democracy Encourage Greater Independence?
At its best education can move children and adults further in the direction of independence by training them to consider the views they encounter without needing to fully believe them. We can communicate our best ideas of what is true while still are aware of the limits of what we know, rather than just repeating what we believe to be truth.
What Can We Do to Move Toward Greater Democracy in Education?
We can become involved in democratizing education in a number of ways. Those who have children can attend conferences and parent association meetings to support teachers in respectful interactions with children that encourage them to think and create. When possible, we can choose schools that promote these goals. When considering colleges, we can encourage children to consider schools that promote learning how to think rather than what to think. And as adults, we can set an example for democratic ideals by continuing to pursue learning by (1) opening our minds to those around us and their ideas and (2) encouraging meaningful dialogue that focuses on moving our organizations and nations toward the democratic ideals of respect for every human being.
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The book The Future of Democracy can be ordered wherever books are sold.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.