7 steps to education for democracy for all

Education should be an engine for democracy and not just for business, argues Democracy Matters participant in the World Forum for Democracy 2016 in Strasbourg this November.

Titus Alexander
2 October 2016


US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, left, talks to Medellin's mayor Sergio Fajado during a visit to the Medellin, Colombia in 2007.Luis Benavides/Press Association. All rights reserved.The arts of persuasion, influencing and organizing are taught in business schools to help people compete in the market, but not in ordinary schools to help people take part in democracy. As a result, commerce is stronger than democracy.

It is remarkable how little difference there is between schools in authoritarian societies and many schools in democracies.

The market offers abundant diversity and innovation, but in politics the choice is between a few tarnished brands offering unconvincing promises at election time. Of course politics is about more than elections. Governments make decisions every day which affect everyone. Businesses employ lobbyists to promote their interests at all times. They also fund politicians, the media, think tanks and pressure groups to amplify their influence all year round.

Citizens rely on the media, political parties and civil society associations to keep them informed and represent them, but most people feel powerless to influence events and pay little attention to politics.


The playing fields of democracy, in other words, slope steeply in favour of people with money. International IDEA, an independent research institute on democracy, concluded recently that ‘the greater the influence of money on politics, the less influence the average citizen has’ and identified money as one of the greatest threats to democracy.  Lobbying by business is inevitable and necessary, since governments affect almost every aspect of their work. But for democracy to flourish, every citizen needs to be able to learn politic skills and organise, to have greater equality of influence with the most powerful. Practical politics is a basic skill in the modern world. But like literacy in the Middle Ages, only a small minority learn how to do it.

Practical politics is a basic skill in the modern world. But like literacy in the Middle Ages, only a small minority learn how to do it. If it was universal, everyone would know how the system works and how to influence decisions that affect their lives. Democratic rights and freedoms without the ability to use them is like owning a car without being able to drive.

A century ago the American educator John Dewey argued that schools should ‘be a miniature community, an embryonic society’ where pupils develop ‘social power and insight’. In Democracy and Education, he advocated the “study of economics, civics, and politics, to bring the future worker into touch with the problems of the day and the various methods proposed for its improvement. Above all, it would train power of re-adaptation to changing conditions so that future workers would not become blindly subject to a fate imposed upon them.’

Dewey inspired generations of teachers, but education for democracy and political literacy are still marginal in most education systems, confined to low-status lessons in citizenship, weak school councils and occasional community activities.  There are many brilliant exceptions, but it is remarkable how little difference there is between schools in authoritarian societies and many schools in democracies. Undemocratic models of education are entrenched through systems of funding, testing and inspection that make it difficult for people to respond to rapid change.

An engine for democracy

If we are confident about democracy as the fundamental principle governing society, then learning to practice democracy must become a golden thread throughout education. What this means varies for different stages of education, types of institution, places and people, but there are many examples from which to learn. The following seven steps suggest a strategy for transforming education into an engine of democracy, drawing on examples from across the world.

1.  Teach practical politics at university

As the pinnacle of education, universities influence learning across society. They educate people who will take leadership roles in business, politics and public service. They train teachers for all areas of education. Most journalists and commentators develop their intellectual foundations at university. More than half (58 per cent) of all young adults in OECD countries are expected to enter university-level education. In many developing countries a quarter of young people could pursue advanced study in the next ten years. This gives leaders in higher education a special responsibility for the education and welfare of humanity.

Academic freedom gives universities more scope to develop education for democracy than any other sector. But there are many other reasons why students should learn practical politics, from improving job prospects and increasing research impact to restoring trust in democracy.

A growing number of jobs need political skills alongside professional knowledge. Political skills are also necessary to improve the impact of research. Smoking, obesity and climate change are just three examples where established interests have prevented politicians from accepting the policy implications of research, leading to avoidable harm.

European universities could learn from America’s Campus Compact, founded in 1985 to promote the civic purposes of higher education and ‘renew our role as agents of our democracy’. It has a membership of 1,200 colleges that link academic courses to community service learning. The American Democracy Project (ADP) was started in 2002 by state colleges and universities (AASCU) in cooperation with the New York Times, to develop political efficacy and ‘prepare students to become informed, engaged, and active citizens’. It reaches more than one and a half million students a year.

Higher education needs to draw on experienced campaigners and politicians to create an action-oriented curriculum equivalent to the best business courses to strengthen democratic education. It also needs to work with educators in schools, communities and the media to make politicians live up to their commitments.

2.   Make politicians and institutions meet their commitments

The World Forum for Democracy is an opportunity to help politicians and institutions meet existing commitments to education for democracy. Most politicians and institutions are not aware of these, so we need to bring them to their attention, ask what they are doing, and help them do it.

The Council of Europe’s Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education was adopted in May 2010. A plan for ‘Securing Democracy Through Education’ and Reference Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture was adopted by the Ministerial meeting in April 2016, which agreed “To provide all learners in education and training with the necessary competences (values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding) that will enable them to engage as active citizens in democratic and diverse societies and increase their chances of succeeding in their working lives” (§14). (The Council of Europe pre-dates the EU and is not affected by the UK’s vote to leave the EU.)

In 2012 the US Department of Education published a Road Map and Call to Action for ‘civic learning and democratic engagement from grade school to graduate school, with special attention to the federal role and civic learning in higher education’. It urges ‘action civics’ and sets out nine steps for action. Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said ‘[There is a] happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.’

These policy commitments provide a framework for developing provision, but it is also important to get specific commitments from every education authority and institution to:

1)     Adopt local policies to promote education for democracy and political skills;

2)     Set up courses, workshops, democracy hubs and other support for political participation;

3)     Secure funding to sustain them.

Germany and Scandinavia have a substantial commitment to political education from which we can learn.

3.  Create an alliance for learning democracy

There are many initiatives for education in citizenship, democracy, public participation, advocacy and campaigning, focused on a specific sector, project or phase of education. We need to work together to share experiences and influence policy.

Democracy Matters UK was created in 2009 by chief officers and members of some 30 organisations across adult and community education, citizenship education in schools and community development. We had some influence on the government elected in 2010 and campaigned successfully to stop spending cuts to adult education.

However, the financial crash and spending cuts also closed many member organisations and left the rest severely reduced. But there is still a need for an umbrella body to bring all sectors and initiatives in education for democracy, and Democracy Matters is keen to play.

4.  Produce a high profile report

Public policy often turns on the basis of a report which builds consensus across the political spectrum and sets out a clear plan of action. Public policy often turns on a report which builds consensus across the political spectrum and sets out a clear plan of action. In the United States the Truman Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy (1948) established a network of public community colleges. In the UK the Crick Report on education for citizenship in England (1998) set out a bold vision to change the “political culture of this country” and introduced citizenship as a new subject in the National Curriculum.

It is time to lobby the Speakers of the House of Commons, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies to set up a Commission on Learning for Democracy to work out what we need in the UK and set out an agenda for action.

5.  Create democratic schools from the inside out


John Dewey at the University of Chicago,1902. Wikicommons/Eva Watson-Schütze. Original photograph from the John Dewey Photograph Collection, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Public domain. The demand for creativity, independent thinking and teamwork in a knowledge economy creates a new institutional logic that is less hierarchical, more open, flexible and collaborative. Smart policy-makers and school leaders can see that everyone needs political skills of influencing, organizing, public speaking and negotiating.

The worldwide trend to give schools greater autonomy enables them to become more democratic as schools recognize that pupil confidence, participation and voice increase attainment. In the United States charter schools such as Democracy Prep in Harlem, New York, and Trillium in Portland, Oregon, promote civic participation as well as academic achievement. In the UK there are now more than 444 co-operative trust schools based on democratic governance, equal participation and accountability. Schools where pupils are able to take responsibility and participate have higher attainment.

A ten-year study by NFER has also shown that the most successful approach to citizenship education in the United Kingdom ‘is embedded in the curriculum, has links to student participation across the school/college, and encourages links with the wider community’. There is also evidence that schools where pupils are able to take responsibility and participate have higher attainment.

Dewey’s insights about democratic education and learning about ‘problems of the day’ are more relevant today than a century ago. Authoritarian capitalism, as pursued by China, Russia and other countries, presents a credible alternative to democratic freedoms and self-government. Western democracies have many flaws and often do not live up to their own ideals, but the values of pluralism, tolerance and human rights enable people with conflicting interests to resolve problems by peaceful means. To do so effectively, however, people need to learn political skills.

6.  Strengthen community learning

Education institutions can also help to renew their communities. Colombia’s Co-operative University was founded in 1983 to ‘improve the quality of life of communities through the solidarity economy’ by ‘training politically oriented professionals, that is, citizens who think and act autonomously about societal issues that promote the greater good’. Its values are solidarity, equality, respect for diversity and freedom.

Its values are solidarity, equality, respect for diversity and freedom. Professional development includes political awareness, ‘because we believe that politics is the key to encourage participation and focus collective energy, and to provide space for the expression of people’s necessities and aspirations. It is a mechanism for making collective decisions and, in short, it is the way to rethink and restructure society for the good of all’. The university runs community projects with people who do not have higher education. The city built a modern metro and cable-car system to connect poor neighbourhoods with the wealthier lower plains.

In the city of Medellin, change started when power shifted from the national government to elected city mayors in 1988. Sergio Fajardo was a mathematician and journalist who challenged the city government to provide poor and rich with the same quality of education, transport and architecture. The city built a modern metro and cable-car system to connect poor neighbourhoods with the wealthier lower plains. In 2003 Fajardo was elected mayor on an anti-corruption platform. He had prepared a targeted programme of action. He created civic-pacts between city administrators and neighbourhoods to meet local needs and address problems such as school improvement.

Community leaders and officials identified initiatives together and agreed who would do what. Local communities decided how to spend some of the city’s budget in a participatory budgeting process. The civic pacts were designed as ‘pedagogical exercises’ to show what people had a right to expect from government and the importance of public participation.

In the UK local communities, businesses, trade unions, schools and universities are working together through Student Community Hubs and organisations like Citizens UK to provide training in community organising and political skills to tackle challenges such as the living wage, housing, refugees and crime.

7.  Political education through the media

Finally, the media play a big role in public political education, influencing public perceptions about what and who matters in politics. Public service media could do more to give people reliable information on issues and also campaigns, strategies and tools for action, so that people can make up their own minds about issues and take action.

Toronto activist Dave Meslin gives an entertaining TED talk on how the media can help people engage with politics. The web makes it easy for news stories to have a link to background information, different sides on the issue, who is campaigning for what and how to get involved. Universities could help compile impartial information to create partnerships for democracy.

Just do it!

Many educational movements, like adult literacy, circle time, co-operative schools, computing and world studies, were spread by practitioners long before they got official support.

No one needs permission to create education for democracy within existing courses and institutions. But it is important to proceed politically, to get sufficient support to succeed. Three major lessons I have learnt from case studies in my book on education for practical politics are to:

  1. Create a project that meets a clear need, take small steps and build through success;
  2. Wherever possible, get external funding and allies, so that no one is threatened, and if possible share external funding within your institution to give other people an interest in its success.
  3. Get at least one patron with the power to protect your project.

If possible, present your project in terms of your organization’s mission, strategic plans and policy, rather than in opposition to it, or you make yourself a target of suspicion or opposition. It is better to work within established rhetoric while pushing the boundaries in practice. It is better to work within established rhetoric while pushing the boundaries in practice. What matters is that people learn how the political system works, who has power and how to have influence, so that they can think and act for themselves on the basis of evidence and insight.

You also need to identify people who could block your project and get their support, or at least their understanding. They can be surprisingly supportive, if you treat them with respect and explain what you are doing in terms they understand. But don’t assume that natural allies will be supportive. They may see you as a competitor, or want it run their way, or fear it may interfere with their plans. In practical politics you can never make assumptions about who are your allies or opponents. Always check them out, if possible in person, and get their support on the record.

Education for democracy, like democracy itself, will take political effort to become established as a golden thread running through society, but the time is ripe and possibilities are legion. Wherever you are in the education system, just do it, and connect with others to create a movement.

To make the case for a Commission on Learning for Democracy, Democracy Matters is conducting a short survey and discussing skills for democracy in London from 12.30 to 2.30 pm on Thursday, October 20. For details and to book please go to Eventbrite.

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a citizens’ newsroom. Register here.

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