Has Education for Democracy Failed? 

Cards for Democracy
Published on
November 15, 2017
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Has Education for Democracy Failed?

Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard

This week I attended the interesting World Forum for Democracy, yet another conference in which speakers deplore the so-called “disaffection of young people for politics and elections”.

In my view, young people may be disaffected with voting, but not with politics.

Their behavior reflects the fact that the act of voting is in fact a most disempowering way to participate in a democracy. We are witnessing a shift in young peoples’ democratic conduct towards what they consider to be true participation. Most civics education today at best educates young people to be voters, not to participate in a democracy. Considering today’s enormous disruptions and challenges, educating children to be ‘good voters’ is no longer a reasonable answer.

In the current political situation, many of us who share humanistic values are left with a feeling of bitterness when it is time to cast a ballot in political elections and be confronted with so little choice.

An identical scenario seems to unfold in most “western democracies”: an electoral scenario in which your only freedom as a citizen is to either vote for “the establishment elite” (the status quo, the so-called ‘candidate of finance’ who prones the continuance of globalised capitalism and the pursuit of a ‘kleptocracy’), or abstain/cast a blank ballot and thus support the extreme, most often far right, candidate that openly stirs up exclusion, division, discrimination, sexism, xenophobia and racism (the ‘candidate of hate’ as some call the far right candidates). This is a disempowering agony that we go through election after election. The system is infantilising citizens.

We witness a shift in young citizens’ discourse on elections.

In the turmoil of the latest election cycles in Europe and the US, with ‘third party’ voters preventing liberals from winning the elections, many far right intolerant candidates were put into power. Alarmed by the repetition of this scenario all over the western world, I started to engage regularly with ‘millennials’ (as they are often stereotypically called in the media) and these 4 main arguments are the most frequent basis of their electoral conduct:

  • We are not going to be “trapped” to cast a vote to counter hate, xenophobia and racism.
  • Let people get what they deserve.
  • Anyone who is not part of ‘the elite’ is better than anyone who is ‘the elite’.
  • We should stop dramatising the far right; crying ‘Hitler!’ is a ‘scarecrow tactic’ to make us vote for ‘the elite’.

For a baby boomer, this is deeply disturbing: avid users of social media – we’re talking about Reddit, 4chan, and such fora, farther than Facebook and Twitter – are becoming so used to Nazi references that they are ‘desensitized’ and no longer consider the matter to be serious. Are we witnessing the slow and seemingly inexorable banalisation of the kind of evil that seeps in and corrupts every and any attempt at founding a just and democratic society? What pushes us to make political choices that sacrifices fragile peace at the altar of our aspirations for absolute radical change? Is putting a xenophobe into power another privilege of the (white) majority over all minorities?

The arguments are simplistic because the choices we are given are meaningless: voting no longer has anything to do with democracy and participation. Even as we witness the result of massive abstention by young voters, we also observe many young people engaging in political action in new and  unconventional ways, by creating alternative ways to live together, new economies, new communities, new ‘independent’ schools, permacultures, etc.

Nonetheless, this political disorder is a wake up call for the educators who are concerned with human rights. It has awakened a sense of urgency that education should have something to do to deal with this situation and to shape a better future. What it is we are doing now is not the answer.

We get the matrix we deserve. As teachers and education professionals we are presented with a red pill and a blue pill. We ought to search and find ways of addressing the flawed political matrix and imagine another matrix. When political systems show that they have reached their ultimate limit, we can hope that the next generations of citizens will be the ones to recreate new political structures to address the ‘disruptions’ of our time (O. Scharmer) and find a way to lead that links intelligence from the head, the hand and the heart, moving from “ego-systems to eco-systems”. We should get to work to identify the competences that are needed to drive tomorrow’s democratic matrix, one in which social justice and the development of each person’s potential has a chance.

I have come across innovative initiatives in education that go beyond the citizenship education that is failing our chance a getting a better future.

Following are 5 initiatives and activities to develop competences (attitudes, skills and knowledge) that may help next generations build a new matrix. They have in common that they go beyond teaching about democracy and creating educated voters. They educate for democracy and through democracy.

This is a most important and most creative area for teachers and educators. In order to understand laws and constitutions, young people and adults should experience writing and editing articles of the constitution. They become aware of what is in the constitution, how it shapes our society, what balance of powers it creates (that is whether this constitution serves the interest of the people or only of the few…), and what should be changed. In the process, writers become political adults. E. Chouard, in ‘Les Ateliers constituants’ says: “Nothing energises me as much as political meetings during which voters (i.e. children) become free constituents (i.e. adults)”.

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There are many current movements experimenting new economical and political ways of living together. These include permaculture, decision by consent, holacracy, sociocracy, cooperative learning, collective intelligence… Some groups of educators are creating momentum in researching how these new structures can enrich educational environments. These structures call for whole school approaches as well as they can be tried out on the classroom level, such as ‘sociocracy for schools’ for example. See these videos from ‘Wondering schools’ (in English) and this initiative ‘Sociocracy in a preschool’ (in French and Spanish).

Many young people in the west have no experience of what dictatorship is; some may take the rule of law for granted. Teachers may help students to understand what dictatorship, autocracy, is, how it works, on what premise it rises to power and with what means it does it (propaganda, fear mongering…). There are many resources to start with we have chosen one for this blog: ‘Debunking dictatorship

When voters who don’t feel they ought to vote because others would do the ‘dirty job’ of voting for the ‘elite’ against the far right for them, it works… until it doesn’t. Such thinking is known in social psychology as ‘diffusion of responsibility’, where a person can decide to be a bystander because (s)he thinks others will take responsibility for acting in his/her place. Learning to address diffusion of responsibility involves competences of accountability, being responsible for own actions, knowing that every citizen is co-responsible for the political environment we live in.

When the evil of racism and discrimination is seen as no worse than the evil of capitalism, then the creation of a category of scapegoats responsible for all problems of society becomes acceptable  to those who are not part of an ethnic or racial minority. It allows voters to exercise their ‘white privilege’ to not vote against racist candidates. Students could become more aware of the plight of minorities, the everyday bias, injustice, and the loss that a society brings upon itself when it renders part of its population invisible (those who are perceived as different and menace to national identity) or hated. It also involves developing an understanding that once exclusion becomes policy, one cannot control to whom the policy is applied; today immigrants or Muslims, tomorrow any person with a difference… after tomorrow, the poor of all backgrounds and origins? For activities building intercultural competence, visit TASKs for Democracy.

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