conceptualizing education for democracy


Education's role in democracy is simple to understand, but the mechanism for fulfilling this role is harder to conceptualize. On the one hand, we recognize that citizens need a sound education to participate effectively in democratic life. But on the other hand, the specific learning required cannot be fully elaborated in terms of knowledge and skills in the existing subject disciplines. How, within our current curricula, are we expected to cultivate the requisite civic virtues, things like autonomy, justice, and civic respect? Where, within the framework of our current subject disciplines, do we acknowledge the importance of students becoming engaged critically with issues of democratic importance?

Most contemporary approaches to education mask the political concern over how we are cultivating our citizens, with a technical concern over efficiency in teaching content. However, when we ask ourselves about the fundamental role of education in a democratic society, we can easily recognize the importance of the latter over the former. This is to say, it is cultivating our young people rather than stuffing them, that matters most.

The implementation of education for democracy therefore focuses more on the development of democratic citizenship characteristics than on any particular body of content. Education for democracy is not a course. Rather, it is an approach to education. This approach certainly includes some distinguishable content--citizens must have an understanding of democratic institutions and processes in order to participate effectively in them--however, much more than its content, education for democracy should be identifiable by a distinctive context which it provides for the cultivation of young citizens. It is this context, the schooling situation into which students are immersed day after day, which socializes them into democratic dispositions--ways of thinking, perspectives, and patterns of behavior. 

These dispositions are taught and learned, but not in the way that we normally think about teaching and learning. They are not, at least not entirely,  imparted directly or explicitly by teachers. The learning of dispositions takes place at a deeper level, often tacitly, through students' experiences in school. Much of what students learn in school is never spoken of in class, giving rise to the term "hidden curriculum". Children learn what they live, and they internalize the values, practices, and policies of the school. Children learning in an autocratic classroom are conditioned to become passive, complacent, and even apathetic. Authoritarian or unnecessarily punitive school discipline policies condition children to be fearful and hide certain behaviours and tendencies away from authority figures. Socialization into democratic citizenship requires that students are immersed in a school and classroom context which upholds democratic principles, models democratic processes, and provides students with experiences doing democracy in a safe environment where they can learn without serious risk. 

Therefore, while education for democracy certainly includes some content matter related to the practice of democracy, the main task of a EfD curriculum is not to systematically lay out this content for consumption. Rather, the main task of an EfD curriculum should be to systematically outline an approach to education--a way of educating that will immerse students in a context which is conducive to democratic development. The structure of an EfD curriculum should therefor provide a structure for that context, and guidance for teachers as to how the schooling context could be reoriented to better support the cultivation of democratic citizens. Content, while relevant to EfD, is secondary to context. And the primary mode of education for democracy is environmental--tacit teaching, through the careful preparation of the educative context.