A Call for Democratic Education

Since the polarized 2016 election, many people have suggested what schools can do to promote civility, critical thinking and civic engagement. This educator says democratic education might be the most important way to go.

Since the 2016 presidential election, the internet has been abuzz with calls for more and better education: more philosophy, more civics, more history, more media literacy, to list a few. Looking at the history of American public education, such calls make sense. Americans have long viewed public schools as the primary site of moral and cultural development—the institution that cures social ills, protects public health and safety, and ensures the transition of our democratic republic from one generation to the next. Yet, despite the calls for philosophy, civics, history and the liberal arts more generally, the most desperate need of all in our schools is democratic education.

As the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA) describes it, democratic education incorporates the “values of meaningful participation, personal initiative, and equality and justice for all” into the classroom. People have been calling for democratic education in the United States since at least the early 20th century. Under the impression that democratic behavior is not necessarily natural behavior, educational scholars such as John Dewey explained that learning isolated facts and bits of knowledge was a form of mental captivity. In such a system, students were made to perform rote tasks that were socially important, but not necessarily relevant or interesting to students. Dewey knew that such passive learning would not be enough to prepare students for the rigorous duties of democratic life, and he called upon schools to engage students in active, democratic practices.

Michael Apple and James Beane explain in Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education that democracy in present-day schools “has fallen on hard times.” While schools may teach about democracy—for example, the three branches of government or the line of succession to the presidency, topics often tucked away in civics and government classes—schools rarely engage students in democracy.

Dewey’s calls for democratic education were made at a distinctly different time with vastly different concerns and constraints. It begs the question, “What might democratic practice look like in a 21st-century classroom characterized by standardized testing and high-stakes accountability?” Indeed, if we find Dewey’s ideas compelling, it is worth exploring how we might define democratic education for a new era.

Such a definition might begin with the assumption that a democratic classroom requires scaffolding by a skilled and knowledgeable teacher who plays a critical role in guiding students to the best possible choices. Students and teachers in a democratic classroom must constantly negotiate the complexities of democratic life. As a result, democratic classrooms should be participatory—characterized by student choice, action, and deliberation. Deliberative classrooms promote discussion and generally see difference as a virtue. While democratic classrooms are deliberative and thus open to various perspectives, they are also, in scholar Amy Gutmann’s terms, nonrepressive and nondiscriminatory. These principles set limits on individual liberty and the “tyranny of the majority” by considering any suggested policy, statement or action that would repress a student’s potential participation to be outside the bounds of democratic discourse.

Because of this emphasis on nondiscrimination, democratic classrooms are moral. They reinforce the democratic values of diversity, liberty, justice and equality. They are also empathetic, as empathy is necessary for the promotion of the common good and is key to democratic deliberation and collaboration. Lastly, democratic classrooms are critical: They promote a type of thinking that encourages students to question their worldviews, to think critically about their opinions and to realize that their ways of thinking and living are not predetermined, neutral or natural, but rather culturally and historically constituted.

In our deeply divided political environment, democratic classrooms are necessary to engage future civic participants in the processes of a democracy. Resources to begin making the elementary classroom more democratic can be found across the web. These resources include ways to co-create classroom rules with students, develop democratic classroom meetings and establish responsive classrooms. Books such as Civic Education in the Elementary Grades: Promoting Student Engagement in an Era of Accountability and Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades offer portraits of democratic practice in the classroom. Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards and curricular tool, Perspectives for a Diverse America, are two examples for grades K­–12. 

Many educators have likely wondered how to proceed in this new era, and many will settle into summer planning for the next school year soon enough. My hope is that they will incorporate democratic education into their classroom procedures and curricula. In the words of Isaac Graves, “To create a more just, sustainable and democratic world, we need democratic education.” And we need it now more than ever.

Schroeder is a doctoral candidate in curriculum, teaching and teacher education at the University of Florida and is a former secondary English and social studies teacher. She is researching democratic education, the social context of education and pre-service social studies education.

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