the educative context of a pluralist democracy


A fair bit has been written about political aspects of mainstream schooling in the west.  Most of this is critical, exploring aspects of the hidden curriculum which undermine democratic participation and social justice by teaching students to be complacent, by priviledging certain knowledge over others etc.  This is an important body of work, and I agree with most of it.  But I've been frustrated by the overwhelming focus on critical over constructive perspectives.  We need both.  We need to acknowledge the shortcomings, but to envision a better way of doing things, we also need to step back and look at why things are the way they are.  In theory, our educational policy and legal context have been established to underpin a certain approach to education which was deamed appropriate to the kind of country we wanted.  I think it's time to revisit some of these underlying principles, especially in light of issues related to sustainability and globalization, but this little excerpt takes a more appreciative approach as a kind of baseline focused on civic and liberal democratic values.  Essentially, this essay looks at what the underpinning values and principles are, and how they are manifested and reflected in the way we do education in the west.

Underpinnings and Objectives

Individual and community.

At a fundamental level, a pluralist democracy requires the balancing of individual rights and freedoms with responsibilities to one another.  Liberalism asserts that individual persons are the sole intrinsic objects of moral concern.  "[L]iberals do not believe that societies matter, morally, independently of the benefits they bring to the individuals who compose those societies” (Brighouse, 2000, p. 5).  This viewpoint does not necessarily conflict with positions that see an inherent worth in things like democracy, culture, or community, since things which benefit individuals without violating the rights of other individuals also tend to end up benefiting society as a whole, and vice versa (Callan, 1997).  The following discussion will therefore focus on liberal perspectives, as one of the dominant ideologies influencing our education systems.

Autonomy and ethical servility.

Much of the emphasis in the literature on civic education is on development of autonomy—how students will grow and learn to live lives of meaning—while not infringing on the autonomous and meaningful lives of others (Callan, 1997; Dewey, 1916; Gutmann, 1999).  Autonomy is fundamental to most social goods, as well as to the individual's right to live a meaningful life, because it implies both a capacity for choice regarding one's life, and a capacity to understand and tolerate the lives chosen by others (Brighouse, 2000; Callan, 1997).  

However, while autonomy is highly desirable, it is not necessary that all children become fully autonomous adults (Brighouse, 2000; Callan,1997).  Individuals can live genuinely meaningful and moral lives short of autonomy, simply by overcoming ethical servility to their parents (Callan, 1997).  However, "if children are brought up to be non-servile but not autonomous, many will find themselves unable to live well within the constraints they effectively face, and will thus be deprived of the opportunity to live well” (Brighouse, 2000, p. 8).  While an education that promotes autonomy may risk violating certain parental rights (Brighouse, 2000), justice requires that all citizens have real opportunities to become autonomous (Brighouse, 2000).  As such, liberal ideals may find their best expression in an autonomy-facilitating education (Brighouse, 2000).

Civic virtues.

While autonomy is a primary focus of civic education, the liberal rhetoric around the expected goods of education is organized around rights.  Beyond just facilitating autonomy, civic education in this context must also cultivate virtues that will help to balance and resolve tension between autonomous rights holders (Callan, 1997).  Callan (1997) outlines a model of civic virtues, in which justice is the core and autonomy is the foundation.  The model includes: justice; integrity; reciprocity; acceptance of the burdens of judgment; patriotism; tolerance; and reasonableness (Callan, 1997).  

Some of these virtues are debated.  While Noddings (1984) has advocated for ethics based on a concept of care rather than justice, Callan (1997) argues that justice worth having implicitly embraces the concept of care.  Brighouse (2000) targets the idea of tolerance—the buffer zone between what is reasonable and what is outright intolerable.  In lieu of tolerance, Brighouse proposes the idea of "mutual civic respect" since "when we are merely tolerant we refrain from coercing those with whom we disagree, but when we accord them civic respect we take them, and their ideas, seriously” (Brighouse, 2000, p. 79), which provides more meaningful and satisfying engagement for both parties.  This kind of debate over specifics serves to validate a more general picture of type of individual that our society would hope to develop through education. 

Civic engagement and social justice.

In addition to civic virtues, education also has an important role to play in cultivating civic engagement (Becker & Couto, 1996; Dewey, 1916; Lund & Carr; 2008).  Representative democracy is predicated on the participation of citizens not only in elections, but also in other aspects of public life, civil society, sharing of different perspectives, and deliberative processes (Gutmann, 1999).  This places additional demands on the education system to prepare students carry out these functions effectively (Gutmann, 1999).

Beyond minimal engagement in public life, recent literature (see Kahn, 2010; Lund & Carr, 2008; Noddings, 2005) has called to question civic education that does not actively respond to social injustices.  Social justice goes beyond justice based on reciprocity and acceptance of the burdens of judgment because it targets the underlying circumstances of inequalities (Brighouse, 2000).  The educational response to social justice is two-fold.  First, the system needs to ensure that educational quality and opportunity should not be affected significantly by circumstances over which a student has no control (Brighouse, 2000).  Second, it also requires that education provide students with critical exposure to social justice issues and help students develop the capacities to respond to them (Kahn, 2000; Lund & Carr, 2008; Noddings, 2005).  Its fairly easy to see how these values are being debated an enacted, or not, through the discussion and policy development--especially in teh states--around private and charter schools, funding for special needs, and common standards. 

Manifestations and Reflections

With the preceding discussion as a backdrop, this section will explore some of the ways in which these underpinning beliefs and values find expression in our education systems.  While the analysis will touch on possible shortcomings through reference to the hidden curriculum, the emphasis is on how these values have helped to shape our educational practice.

Civic virtues in our education system and institutions.

Education systems reflect the institutionalized beliefs and values of the societies in which they are established.  Those beliefs and values frame the debate around educational policy and practice, eventually becoming institutionalized as formal policy or law, and subsequently being transmitted to the next generation through the ensuing education processes (Illich, 1970).  Sometimes taken for granted aspects of education in Alberta, such as compulsory schooling, bilingual and Catholic offerings, and even the provincial authority over education, are all policy decisions that were based on certain values.  The very fact that such things can be taken for granted speaks to the profound manner in which institutionalized values are transmitted.  More contemporary issues such as school choice, charters, public funding for private schools, and inner city school closures evoke stronger feelings (see Brighouse, 2000; Ravich, 2010); however, the related policy decisions may well be taken for granted by the next generation.  Such debates reflect the pluralist nature of our society, and the expression of liberal democratic ideals in which the values and rights of different groups are justified through moral dialogue (Gutmann, 1999).

While much of the democratic interface of our education systems is at the system level, through elected representatives, the proposed research is focused primarily at the school and classroom level.  Proponents of liberal ideals such as rights and justice, and their democratic expression, argue that schools themselves must be further democratized (Apple & Beane, 2007; Becker & Couto, 1996).  Their claim is two-fold.  First, that this democratization is an important part children’s civic education, in order to give them experiences with, as well as understandings of, democracy (Apple & Beane, 2007; Becker & Couto, 1996).  Second, that teachers as well as students have a right to participatory engagement in school life (Apple & Beane, 2007).  The school-based practice of democracy begins with opening up governance structures to broader-based participatory processes involving teachers, students, and parents (Apple & Beane, 2007; Becker & Couto, 1996).  However, recent literature takes a more civically engaged perspective, arguing that students should have opportunities to engage with social justice issues, even becoming actively involved in their communities, as part of the practice of democracy which starts in school (Apple & Beane, 2007; Becker & Couto, 1996; Lund & Carr, 2008).

Pedagogy, autonomy, and civic virtues. 

While pedagogy at the classroom level depends heavily on the teacher, and education in our pluralist society is subject to a great many influences, the general idea of student-centered pedagogy has been widely embraced by mainstream education.  This approach has strong relevance to liberalism and civic education because of its emphasis on the development of each child’s capacities, and therefore, autonomy.  

One of the theorists who has been most profoundly influential in this area is John Dewey.  Dewey (1897) saw the importance of autonomy, and sought to articulate an educational approach which would best cultivate it—he felt that one of the primary goals of education was to prepare the child for their future life, meaning, "to give him command of himself … to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities” (Dewey, 1897, p. 6).  While Dewey is strongly associated child-centered approaches, he was also critical of extremes in this regard (Dewey, 1938), seeing the child and the curriculum as two aspects of the same educational process (Dewey, 1902).  He sought their unity through his approach to experiential education—learning by doing—which he elaborated through his concept of inquiry (Dewey, 1929).  

Dewey foreshadowed the ideas of tacit teaching and the educative context in his discussion of experiential learning.  "The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences” (Dewey, 1897, p. 9).  This quote articulates the teacher's active role in relation to these "influences", while maintaining the teacher's dialogic role in relation to the students.  Dewey related traditional teacher-centered classrooms to autocratic societies, and outlined the importance of providing students experiences that allowed them to grow and learn within a context that prepared them for adult life in democratic society.  Thus, he claimed, an important role of the teacher is in the careful preparation of such a learning context (Dewey, 1938)—the preparation of the physical and social educative context.

What is most relevant to the proposed research is the connection between these pedagogical approaches and the underlying liberal, pluralist, and democratic ideals.  Dewey’s idea that education should prepare the child for adult life in a democratic society is consistent with the ideals of an autonomy-facilitating education, in that it focuses on the development of individual capacities in a non-abstract manner and in relation to personal experiences; and it is relevant to other civic virtues in that it positions learning in relation to participation in a relevant social context.

Curriculum and content.

While the proposed research is concerned primarily with the hidden curriculum, the contents of explicit/formal curricula warrant some discussion in this context.  There is a tacit side to any curriculum, which relates to what contents are included, what is omitted, how the selected contents are structured and presented (Apple, 1990).

The liberal argument for public schooling holds that while education delivers public goods, it is the importance of education to living a good life that compels societies to educate their citizens (Brighouse, 2000; Callan, 1997).  In addition, however, the provision of a common educational foundation is intended to provide citizens with the common understandings required for democratic and deliberative processes (Callan, 1997; Gutmann, 1999).  While the scope of this common core creates a tension between groups, there is relative consensus about the basic requirement (Gutmann, 1999).

Looking beyond autonomy to democracy, an obvious requirement for this common core would be that children develop a basic understanding of democratic institutions and their role in them.  However, this in turn suggests that children need to develop the capacities to effectively and intelligently participate in those institutions.  The Alberta curriculum illustrates these points.  It provides a broad common foundation for students, compatible with the development of autonomy; and the social studies curriculum is infused with democratic rhetoric such as, "social participation as a democratic practice" (Alberta Education, 2005, p. 9) and "age-appropriate behaviour for social involvement as responsible citizens contributing to their community" (Alberta Education, 2005, p. 5).  

However, the requirements of a pluralist democracy go well beyond this.  "Since democracy involves the informed consent of people, a democratic curriculum [needs to emphasize] access to a wide range of information and the right of those of varied opinion to have their viewpoints heard” (Apple & Beane, 2007, p. 14).  This then raises the question of what viewpoints are necessary, reasonable, and tolerable within this core.  Defining the core necessarily excludes some viewpoints and favours others, leading to the legitimization of a narrow range of "high status" knowledge (Apple, 1990), and marginalizing voices from outside the dominant culture or perspectives (Apple & Buras, 2006).  While not all viewpoints would meet the criteria of reasonableness (Callan, 1997), the tension around what should be included should be mitigated and revisited through ongoing processes of dialogue and justification (Gutmann, 1999).  

The common core debate underscores the inherent political-ness of education (see Shor, 1992), and challenges civically engaged teachers to accept their own role as a political one.  In order to help students to overcome ethical servility (in this case to the state), it therefore becomes necessary for teachers to help students develop the capacity to critically analyze mandated content through the teaching of critical thinking skills and media literacy (Chomsky, 2003; Kuehn, 2002), as a form of intellectual self defense for children (Chomsky, 2003).  Progressive work in the field of civic education calls for teachers and students to go further, and confront social justice issues in their classrooms and communities (Apple and Beane, 2007; Lund & Carr, 2008), not only as a means of learning about these issues, but as the practice of democracy itself.  Moreover, democratic ideals are no longer simply domestic issues (Ichilov, 1998; Noddings, 2005).  As the concept of citizenship continues to evolve with the rapid growth of global and online identities, and as social justice and environmental issues are increasingly acknowledged to operate on a global scale (Kahn, 2010; Morin, 2000), the contents of an acceptable common core to civic education continue to need redefinition (Gutmann, 1999; Morin, 2000; Noddings, 2005). 

Testing and accountability.

Student assessment is seldom discussed as an expression of liberal or pluralist ideals.  Rather, it is frequently critiqued as being practiced in a manner quite contrary to those ideals through the distortion of taught curricula (Ravich, 2010) and their reinforcement of artificial hierarchies (Illich, 1970; Ollman, 2001).  While these accusations may be justifiable, a fairer analysis would also need to consider other uses and forms of assessment.  The Alberta Assessment Consortium, for example, supports increased emphasis on formative assessment, including a range of methods that actively involve students.  While in practice, some teachers may not live up to such ideals (see Webber, Aitken, Lupart, & Scott, 2009), there are a number of initiatives which reflect the interest of educational leaders in using assessment to support student autonomy.  For example, the Calgary Board of Education’s advocacy of student portfolios and student-led conferences (Calgary Board of Education, 2009, 2012) certainly resonates more strongly with idea of nurturing autonomy than it does with a punitive filtering mechanism.  

As with other areas of practice, student assessment is subject to a variety of influences.  Some of these are reflective of liberal democratic ideals, focused on child development.  Others may reflect a more conservative agenda, emphasizing accountability for a narrowly defined core or basic skills (Ravich, 2010).  Still others may be devised to obscure a covert political agenda—as with the accusation that the “No Child Left Behind” policy was a Trojan Horse for the charter/privatization movement (Miner, 2003).


The preceding discussion explored several aspects of mainstream educational practice in an attempt relate those practices to liberal ideals that underpin our society.  An exhaustive analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, and many more of the relevant aspects of school practice are discussed in the literature on the hidden curriculum.  While this literature tends to work backwards from unintended consequences to compare them to political ideals, I have tried to work in the other direction, to see where those ideals are reflected (encoded) in educational practice.  As this discussion pertained to the dominant mainstream, it provides a background to alternative educational approaches discussed in other posts.  It is a function of this system, our liberal foundations, and our pluralist society, that such alternative options are available.


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