Democratic education is a process of teaching and learning that directly empowers the learner. As a political idea, democracy invests power in the people. Democracy does not do away with authority, it simply makes authority responsive to the needs, demands, and interests of the people subject to its power. The same with democratic education; it views the learner as something more than a subject who exists in relation to an authority figure. Democratic education is about freeing the powers of the individual from external constraint, so that learning take shape through direct experience and participation. As democratic political life makes life meaningful for citizens, democratic education makes life meaningful for students, as nothing is imposed through force, coercion, or imposition. Instead, students arrive at understanding through critical and creative inquiry, through cooperation and collaboration, and through a dynamic and ongoing exchange of ideas. This process helps develop the student’s intellectual, moral, and social intelligence.
Of course there are many other features of democratic education, including its practical applications, its implications for teaching, and its value in terms of moral development, social belonging, and leadership. Then there’s the issue of scale; democratic education on the macro level might mean the importance of a universal education that prepares students to be responsible citizens and productive members of society; on a micro level, democratic education might simply refer to how a school operates as an institution; what forms of leadership the school employs, the diversity of its curricula, the teaching styles, and the academic culture more broadly.
There is also democratic education that sees edification and enlightenment of learners as its end goals, and democratic education which approaches the liberation and transformation of learners and societies as political necessities. In WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Developed) societies, democratic education tends towards the latter, as the social order is relatively stable; in countries with a history of repression and colonialism, education is “the practice of freedom,” to quote Freire. Education for democracy is about the development of critical consciousness. It is a vital necessity, rather than a privilege. So the meaning of democratic education, as with many things, depends on where you’re standing, where you’re looking, and where you stand in the social, political, or economic order.
The meaning of democratic education also depends, to some degree, on your attitude towards authority, and your conceptions of the social order. If you believe in a meritocratic values;, then education will be a race to the top, and you will associate academic accomplishments with influence, power, and esteem. The students who succeed in a competitive academic environment, will be those who deserve to direct the course of democratic life, either as politicians, business leaders, or scholars. A meritocratic conception of authority views “the better class of men” as necessary for the governance, tradition, and the transmission of values. A liberal egalitarian conception of democratic education sees the school, as with society, as an organic whole, where students have rights and responsibilities, and norms of justice and fairness guide the political and moral life of the community. Each individual develops his or her capacities, dignifies the rights of others, and directs their energy to personal and social progress. Authority in this case is necessary only to maintain the democratic structure of society, and protect the freedom and rights of community members.
But all this is getting a bit too academic. The most important “authority dynamic” in schools is the teacher’s relationship to the student. Everything begins there. It doesn’t really matter how much training a teacher has received in pedagogy and instruction; nor does it matter if the teacher is an expert in the intellectual or artistic field he or she teaches; what matters, as a first principle, is how the activity of learning takes shape, and whether what is being taught, is actually being registered as meaningful and personally relevant from the perspective of the learner. This begs the following questions:
- Is the learning process a reciprocal exchange, or is it a downward transmission?
- Does the teacher empower the student to construct understanding, or simply register pre-existing views?
- Is the teacher sensitive to the cultural and social landscape of the learner?
- Does the teacher encourage diverse forms of understanding?
- Is the teacher willing to learn from his or her students, and encounter the knowledge as they might?
To be continued.