Blue Ridge Journal
BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment

Education for Democracy

Part One:  The demands of democracy –
the goals of education

July 2009

"Democracy"  without a well-educated and well-informed public is an insidious and dangerous sham.  To awaken in the American public both the possibility and the hunger for informed participation in the democratic process, it's past time to inject a new educational philosophy into U.S. school systems.

The Hazards of Democracy

"Democracy" has become a watchword around the globe over the past fifty years.  Peoples everywhere have embraced the idea that the only legitimate form of government is one selected and empowered by the people.  But putting this idea into practice has more often than not resulted in parodies of "democracy", where the people are as powerless as before.

While tyrants have long thought democracy a dangerous idea, it turns out that the real danger in democracy is to the citizens, not to the rulers.  Whereas in an authoritarian state the people know their place, know who holds the power, and know the limitations on their freedom, the hazard in a declared "democracy" is that the people now think they hold power, where this is usually not the case at all.  Very typically, the people are duped and the power players operate as before, but with greater safety from revolution, since the people are told their government is democratic.  And this is the insidious hazard of democracy:  The illusion of power in the people, when they are in fact largely powerless and open to manipulation and control by the power elite due to their unpreparedness for democracy

Democracy cannot succeed in a society without a great deal of preparation.  What is the meaning of the ballot box where the voters have little knowledge of either the issues, the political philosophies, or the individuals that are being contested?  Or where abusive exercise of power by incumbents, through rewards or fear, makes the election process anything but free?  Or, as in the United States and most "western" countries, where the general education of the voting public is so inadequate that they are swayed in their electoral decisions by mindless campaign bumper stickers, rally oratory, and TV spot ads?  "Democracy" under such conditions becomes a ruse exercised by charismatic hawkers of political pap and power brokers who manipulate voters by recognizing and attacking their fatal weak point: their lack of ability and understanding to make informed decisions.

Democracy is a demanding idea, neither easy nor natural.  Despite Jefferson's lofty words in the Declaration of Independence, useful though they were as arguments against colonialism, all are not "created equal", nor is anyone "endowed by their Creator" with rights.  The equality and rights, to the extent they are guaranteed in a democracy, are very much man-made, and are guaranteed by their creator, i.e., the democratic society.  Preserving, maintaining, guaranteeing, employing, and refining these rights is the difficult business of each generation of citizens in a democracy.  It would be easy to imagine that the western model of democracy has advanced beyond the possibility of reversion to totalitarianism, but this notion is unhistorical.  Democracy is frail, and without a prepared and vigilant citizenry a putative democratic society may revert to a more historically natural state, i.e., amassing of uncontrolled power in the hands of a few; because there will always be those who seek such power for themselves at the expense of democratic principles.  Achieving and safeguarding democratic liberties requires work, involvement, and commitment by the citizens, and it requires preparation of each new generation to ensure the survival of democratic forms and rights.

Above all, democracy is demanding and difficult because it shifts the ultimate authority and power of decision-making from the few to the many.  It makes every citizen a policy-maker, and as always, poorly trained and informed policy-makers make for poor policy.  In the case of "representative democracy" – the only kind of democracy that has a chance at functioning in complex societies – the problem for the citizens is magnified: Not only must they be informed and capable of understanding the needs of society, but they must be capable of withstanding the onslaught of their elected representatives and their parties, who – as universal experience shows – will be working with all their might to deceive and defraud the voters for their own benefit and advancement.  This is one of the paradoxes of current forms of democracy: that the politicians who benefit from being able to hoodwink the citizenry are at the same time the ones we must turn to in order to ensure that citizens are educated to the point where they are unreceptive to the politicians' deceptions.  Not an easy task, but we will assume that enough upright politicians may be found to shame legislators into acting as they should.

The Educational Needs of Democracy

If citizens in a democracy need preparation for their power-wielding role, two questions must be asked:

  1. What comprises such preparation?  and
  2. How is this to be ensured?
As to the first question, the short answer is that the young adult must understand the actual workings of society, must gain appreciation for the values, history, and fragility of our national experiment in popular government, i.e., representative democracy, and above all, must learn to think critically and objectively.

(A caveat:  This note does not intend to deal with the whole of children's education, which properly includes the traditional learning of fundamental skills and the arts and sciences.  We are discussing here specific areas that are critical to make a lasting success of a democratic society, but which have been given short shrift in contemporary elementary and secondary education.  These areas of emphasis need to be woven into the school syllabus at all levels.)

The answer to the second question above must be that this preparation must be part of the twelve years of formal education that we give all our children.  At the end of those years (graduation from high school in America) we must expect the youth, though not yet mature, to be able to take his or her place as a responsible member of society, and, having the right to vote, to be able to exercise this right in a rational manner.

The above goals have unfortunately not been guiding principles behind current American educational policy.  Current policy is not directed at making our young people rational, critical thinkers, nor is it intended to ensure that young people understand and appreciate the philosophical underpinnings (and the fragility) of democracy as well as the concrete, actual workings of our society.  Those need to be among the more important goals of our children's education, because they are fundamental to our society's success.  They need to be achieved at the completion of high school, at which point we then can consider the graduate properly educated for adult life.

This is not the place to review the unfortunate retrogression in educational standards that, to a degree, have turned our universities into virtual trade schools, our community colleges into remedial high school extensions, and have given us high school graduates who barely possess the knowledge they should have had entering high school.  It is important that a thorough general education be achieved during the formative twelve years of schooling, because many youths will not, and ought not, immediately take further education.  Improved education for the general citizenry will be achieved, not by wasting the time of young people in their twenties with another four years of watered-down, degraded college courses, but by improving and rationalizing their education in the first twelve years.  Twelve years is a long time;  there's no reason why that much focused study should not give an excellent general education.  Improving our expectation and teaching at all levels through high school, which will also make the school day more interesting, will free up universities to concentrate on actual higher specialty education, which ought to be their business, but that's a discussion for another day.

As suggested above, I offer three vital "democracy" goals for elementary/secondary education:

  1. Learning the skill of critical thinking.
  2. Understanding "democracy", its values and its hazards.
  3. Understanding the structure and practical working of our society.
Here are a few thoughts about each of these essential goals.
  1. Learning the skill of critical thinking.
    Every student will not become a philosopher, but every student can learn what it means to think independently and critically.  Most students should be able to learn how to distinguish bunk from genuine information or argumentation.  Naturally, this kind of education will be seen as a direct assault on the advertising industry, and in a way it is: Independent, critical thinkers are notoriously resistant to meaningless advertising blurbs.  (However, the ad industry can still count on greed, envy, lust, vanity, and of course love, as emotions that usually respond on a different plane from where critical thinking reigns, so all is not lost.)  Learning the skill of critical, objective thinking involves unbiased exposure to various modes of thought, it includes instruction in logic, in statistics, and study of the means of deception that admen and salespeople, preachers, charismatic cult-leaders, and above all politicians routinely make use of in attempting to influence the individual and the "masses".  When such charlatans attempt to invade and abuse a young person's labile mind with professionally crafted, subtle deceit, the skill of independent, critical – "Socratic" if you will – reason is the sole defence that will withstand such attacks.  It is fundamental to all other education, and it needs to be given early and constant emphasis.

    And who teaches these skills?  Not all teachers seem well equipped in this area.  First, all teachers ought to have special instruction in critical thinking both in their preparation and as part of their ongoing education.  Second – a point that will be further explored in a following essay – schools need to free themselves and their students from the paralyzing notion that only certificated teachers are allowed to communicate with students.  Every community is full of human resources, often retired persons, who have valuable things to teach, persons who can talk from actual life experience.  We need to learn to use them in the educational process.

    Some parents may object:  they don't fancy having their children instructed in thinking freely and objectively.  The right to pass on the family biases to their children is dear to the heart of many parents; indeed, wars are continuing to be fought over this (religious biases, mostly) in parts of the world.  Fear that such biases may get lost when a youth begins to think independently are probably well founded, but such objections have been raised against education of all sorts from time immemorial.  The answer has always been that the right of the young person to an independent and fulfilling life trumps the "right" of parents to prevent this.

  2. Understanding "democracy", its values and its hazards.
    Since the 1970s, ethical and moral values have disappeared from the instructional content in U.S. public schools, on the theory that these are relative concepts, about which there may not be unanimous agreement.  (A similar effect is connected to our love for litigation:  the notion that law is everything in social relations; that societal mores don't count.)  But schools may have been too eager to drop all value content; there are after all some standards about which there is general agreement.  One such which can hardly be disputed is the value of democracy as the cornerstone of American social and governmental philosophy, and celebration of this idea ought to find its way back into the school syllabus.  It is of greatest importance that youths-becoming-adults understand the painful, gradual development of this idea, both in America and elsewhere, and at the same time grasp the tenuous nature of the freedoms which it affords us – granted and warranted not by any deity (in which case we wouldn't have to work to maintain them), but by ourselves, through our society.  It is precisely the fact that we ourselves are the grantors and guardians of our own liberties that make them so fragile.

    But understanding democracy means not only safeguarding one's rights, but also appreciating that democracy implies citizen duties.  The word "duty" is not much used in schools any more; it needs to be reinstated.  Young people cannot be expected to become positively contributing members of society unless they grasp that they have duties to the society that grants and guarantees their rights.  Duties of participation and compliance with democratic norms, while exercising their rights within those norms.  Democracy, the most difficult basis for societal organization, can't survive without citizen participation.  Our schools need to inculcate this idea as a mantra for life.  Ayn Rand was dead wrong:  Her heroes (in "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged") were powerful loners who felt contempt for "the masses".  They were proud of their freedom, apparently unaware that they had that freedom only because of the society which they loathed.  There's a lot of that same lack of understanding in the U.S.  It's time that our schools teach about the preciousness, the fragility, the imperfection, and the needed care and continued improvement of our democracy.

  3. Understanding the structure and practical working of our society.
    A key goal of educators needs to be that young people graduating high school be prepared to start their adult lives.  They've been given the right to vote, usually within a year of graduation, which implies that society considers them to be sufficiently mature to understand the issues of the day.  They're also expected to be able to hold a job and set up their own household.  But to do that, they need to be familiar with many aspects of our complex, modern life, such as the following, all of which need to be taught in school.  Currently, it appears that most of these necessities are ignored in the school syllabus.

    Many youths have suffered from having to learn about household finances "on the job".  But it's too complex, and there are too many serious mistakes that can be made.  The schools need to teach about everyday financial planning and management, including insurance, credit, contracts and mortgage.  About taxes and tax-deferments; about savings, investment, and yes, even about pension.  All these and more financial matters quickly become crucial to the young person starting a household; our recent history shows clearly the many destructive traps that unprepared young people may fall into.  If youths are not familiar with basic financial issues, our educational program has not done its job.

    Similarly, both the general framework of law and the details of law and ordinances that are most likely to affect the young adult - such as common neighborhood ordinances, type-of-ownership law, etc., must be studied in school.  The difference between federal and state law, and local ordinances, should be understood, and how these differ from agency regulations.

    The structure of local government is especially important to understand, and above all the means of citizen input to local government and to the process of adopting regulations.  One cannot be an effective member of a democracy if one doesn't know how to make one's voice heard, something that appears to have been largely forgotten by the schools.  My observation is that even many citizens of mature age are unacquainted with the workings of their local government, and with their opportunity to affect local public decisions; probably as a result of never having become familiar with this in their younger years.  Consider just a few of the important local public issues that a citizen should understand, but that our schools typically do not teach about:  Local land use planning/zoning and development; road, street, and park development, police/public safety and fire protection coverage, availability of public health and social services, citizens' school decisions, business mix & attraction, property tax rates, etc.  It's true that we elect representatives to deal with these matters, but without a basic understanding of how such decision-making works, the citizen is neither motivated nor able to make any useful input to the process.  The responsibility of our educational system to teach the real workings of our democracy should be obvious, and is crucial to our democracy's long-term success.

    Perhaps a surprising inclusion in an educational program, this special aspect of local government eats a big chunk of a citizen's tax dollars.  The young householder quickly finds it necessary to deal with providers of water, gas, electricity, heating and cooling, telecommunications, garbage and sewage services, etc.  Understanding such community functions as drinking water and wastewater treatment, and solid waste recycling, landfilling, or incineration – along with the environmental issues attending these – is so basic to preparedness for adult life that it seems inconceivable that young people should leave their 12-year preparatory period without an understanding of these operations  But that seems to be the case.

    Life milestones:
    This point is so self-evident that I'll only remark in passing that our educational program must ensure that its graduates are at least somewhat prepared for major milestones in life:  Marriage, child-rearing, emergencies, ageing, and death.  Each of these carry responsibilities, and it's sad to see young people quite unprepared for them.  They deserve better.

I'm neither idealist nor utopian, but I believe strongly that social progress must involve setting best-case goals, and then discovering why we're not reaching them.  In that process of self-analysis we will discover much about ourselves.  In asking why we're unable to include everything that's desired in a twelve-year education program, we may find that it would require a lot more teachers, which would cost more money than we have available.  And in asking why money is not available, we may discover that we're spending about half the planet's war budget, partly to beat back partisans in their own country who are fighting us because we stationed American troops around the world in the first place, in a seemingly aggressive and imperialistic fashion.  Sure, we know they're there to do the Lord's work, but people around the world don't know that, and the result is that "America" is now the answer almost everywhere to the poll question, "Which country constitutes the greatest threat to world peace?"  That's what we have achieved, and it's why we've neglected to educate our kids.  We haven't had the money.

© 2009 H. Paul Lillebo

BRJ Front Page See all Essays Send a Comment