Introducing this week's theme: World Forum for Democracy on "Democracy and Equality: Does Education Matter ?"

Since November's World Forum for Democracy 2016, openDemocracy has been exploring how education can rebuild democracy in a world of deepening inequalities. This week, we brought our latest evidence together.

En Liang Khong
3 March 2017


Journey to discover the history of voting rights in an east London School. Rosie Goodhart and Florence Pennant. Some rights reserved.

This week we explore democracy in crisis, not just in Turkey, Russia, India or Egypt, but in its heartlands. So for Part 2, "Democracy and Education", we have a different theme every day this week, to try to embrace some of the larger implications of the 'seismic quakes and perpetual uncertainty' that have followed Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in June 2016, and the election of Donald Trump as US president in November. Our last special week on "Education and Democracy" began with the educational dilemmas of Brexit Britain, and we return to that theme with a new sense of urgency, as the prognosis on the UK's deepening inequality remains bleak. This week-end we have been reminded of the huge differences between talking the talk and walking the walk on inequality, the challenge of bridging the divide between the winners and the losers, and the importance of finding new forms of democratic scrutiny to help make this transition. This coincides with new messages from across the Atlantic about a politics of polarisation and manufactured paranoia designed to set back the pluralization and democratization of America, in which the political class and the media seem ever-more complicit.

We chart our course with the help of the conclusions of the World Forum for Democracy 2016 in Strasbourg: conclusions about tolerance and respect for pluralism; about focusing on creating knowledge together, collaborating not competing; the importance of a global education and the sustainable development goals; the centrality and urgency of a participatory education for a participatory democracy. We do this in the company of many new friends who are committed to finding new ways to overcome some very old social and economic inequalities, plus many cultural new ones.

Monday, Democracy in crisis

In top slot today, Stephen McCloskey argues that the social and economic inequalities that have fed the growing popular disconnect with mainstream politics manifested by Brexit and Trump, demand more from education. He suggests a wider adoption of the radical, participative, empowering and action-oriented educational approach of Paulo Freire. Critical educator Sara Carpenter unravels this relationship between learning and political participation. For the movements she is investigating, it is not just a question of broadening people's participation, but deepening their thinking is urgent. From Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter through to global anti-Trump protests, we are living in a ‘movement moment’ which is a precious resource. Graham Martin, in 'Our crisis of democracy is a crisis in education' picks up the themes of the world to be gained if we prize collaboration over 'instructionism' in the first part of his openDemocracy interview.

In four snap shots of education in a polarised Brexit Britain, Melissa Benn draws another key related distinction between the kind of socially functional education that John Dewey inspired, one that grounded the whole community, and the 'Gove-ian academy' that promises to lift people up and out of a milieu that can only hold them back. Callum Gurr knows all about this conundrum, and isn't convinced that bringing back grammar schools will help; while Ted Cantle shows us how this links to the 'parallel lives' which are increasingly exacerbating the segregation of our communities. It remains for Rosie Goodhart and Florence Pennant to give us a glimpse of what it is like today to teach pupils about democracy in an east London school and make them care! History comes in useful.

Two more pieces turn to the future, and ask us to consider the impact of crisis in western democracies on China. Stein Ringen warns that thanks to democracies like those of the US and Britain neglecting the imperative of constant reform, "income and wealth has been redistributed to the rich and ultra-rich, leaving the middle class, not to mention the poor, behind in neglect and humiliation'. As a result,  "Chinese dictators have been given a godsend of democratic weakness". Francesco Grillo and his colleagues are looking closely at the impact of these seismic shifts on education, and a fascinating story begins to emerge. Could it be that liberal democracy can no longer renew the contract between states and citizens in the technological revolution that is under way, and that China (and Singapore too) have begun to grasp a much more profound universal challenge, how to best harvest human capital in all our societies?

Tuesday, Dialogue to mend and build democracy

Siamak Ahmadi and Hassan Asfour tell us about Dialogue in Schools, the support system which they founded to address urgent contemporary challenges: the need to reach out to disadvantaged youth, 90% of whom in Germany have a migrant background, and to help them ‘regain self-efficacy’; to help people understand the other person from another country, and their mutual interdependence; to combat extremist ideologies. They use dialogue to do this, but with an educational philosophy derived from a very particular historic lesson from Germany’s past, “a tough lesson – that the opposite to war is dialogue.”

Robin Wilson, coming from Belfast, knows all about this. In 2006 he wrote a chapter on dialogue in What Works for Reconciliation – dialogue as potentially the most powerful solvent of lethal stereotypes and enemy images, and what the enabling conditions for success might be. This was when a ‘safe space’ was the process in which enemies met the Other face to face, and tried to find a different way forward. As power-sharing falls apart in Stormont, Robin looks at the absence of enabling education in the broadest sense, and what lessons we can draw. Bosnia's 'two schools under one roof' provides a stark example of the underlying logic: Tea Hadžiristić takes us on a visit to schools where pupils "enter in different entrances or must use different stairwells, or risk disciplinary action – by teachers or other students."

But there are key aspects of this condition which are general in the most advanced democracies. “One of my frustrations with the current political system is that most people are alienated from deliberation, they don’t ever have a chance to practice deliberation. We don’t do it in school, we don’t do it in the workplace, and we don’t do it in our political system”, Richard Bartlett tells Marco Deseriis in the first of a series of interviews exploring participatory forms of decision-making software. Bartlett’s Loomio and a flexible Adhocracy as introduced to us here by managing director Rouven Brües, are changing our politics.

Then there is the opposite of dialogue. It is surely no accident that Peter Emerson, who explains to us how the Brexit referendum only told us that the British people profoundly disagreed, is also based in a Belfast still full of walls. Meanwhile in Wales, instead of being a treasured fruit of diversity, the Welsh ‘language world’ is seen by some as a threat to the consolidation of a monocultural National Us. We are reminded of Siamak Ahmadi's conviction that the key feature of an extremist ideology is its determination not to be "open to criticism, up for another opinion, for another perspective", in contrast to any living science. Huw L Williams looks at the arguments, party politics, historic legacies and inequalities that have brought his political culture to this point. Lastly, Lynda Stone, addressing a conference commemorating one hundred years since John Dewey’s ‘Democracy and Education’ was published, talks about school practices in the States, the need for reform and the problems of getting there – problems which have only multiplied since Trump’s election. She introduces us to the ‘silent lunch’ widely deployed in American elementary schools: “In some schools you get ten minutes of ‘silent lunch’: in others the entire lunch period is silent. Can you imagine engendering a feeling of community and democracy when kids can’t even talk to one another? It’s just disgusting.”

Wednesday, Universities and contested knowledge

From the US to South Africa and the UK, a global student movement has emerged around the demand to ‘decolonise’ higher education. This has extended from campaigning to remove statues and plaques commemorating university sponsors from an age of colonial brutality, to interrogating curriculum content itself. Within the debate in South Africa, terms like decolonise and transform, and syllabus and curriculum have been used interchangeably. We need to define what we mean first, says Emmanuel Mgqwashu, a professor at Rhodes University. Whose responsibility is it to decolonise, and for what purpose? Joanna Williams takes a much sharper view. The process of contesting what is important for students to know is one of the most fruitful debates to be had, she acknowledges. But, she argues, the ‘decolonise the curriculum’ movement re-racialises knowledge – and the university – in a most regressive way.

Ahdaf Soueif, writer and activist, reminds us that “the Young Global Collective” who are so much more aware of the interconnectedness of the world, in both its problems and solutions, are up against a power system that “has its ideas, arguments, discourse and justifications in place. And embedded within it are the power structures with which it protects and continuously justifies and consolidates itself: the governments, the intelligence, police, security and military establishments, the legal and financial systems that underpin them – and the media.” The Arab uprisings were a profound shock to this system, and the Turkish regime has been involved ever since in a turn towards authoritarianism which has set out to remove all trace of the academic and intellectual renaissance for which it was partly responsible. Burcu Degirmen and Alperen Atik chronicle this repressive record of academic closure to date, while Antonio Marchesi, president of Amnesty International in Italy, explores the tragedy of Giulio Regeni’s murder, which casts such a shadow not just over Egypt.

The impact of recent and not so recent MENA history on Middle Eastern studies in the US raises many questions for the discipline, but also for the role of academics at a time when "'watchlists’ have been surfacing,… targeting several ‘leftist’ and Middle Eastern studies experts and students", as compiled by ‘ultra-right’ Trump supporters. Tarek Ghanem explores the implications. Lastly Mona Abaza commences a series of in-depth interviews with social scientists attempting to pursue research in the Middle East. Benjamin Geer shares with Mona a memorable account of his equally unwelcome attempts to research ‘nationalism’ within the region, and outside it.

Thursday, Global inequalities

When you hear about the hurdles separating 24-yr.old Ehab from further education, beginning with his flight to avoid Syrian army call-up, you can see why he calls Kiron an “amazing life-line”. You can also see how Markus Kressler, Kiron co-founder, justifies the ambition to give a hand-up to refugees wanting to study, one day on a global basis, on the grounds that they “deserve it after all the things they have been through”. But at every level, the Kiron family, working together, creates a ‘positive outlook’ that as Markus confides, is not so easy to explain.

Ana Martiningui and Salvatore Nigro, in their devastating overview of the lack of educational and employment opportunities throughout the Middle East, the region whose population is “one of the youngest worldwide”, offer us another perspective on the “massive increase in the number of refugees ” that brought Kiron into being. The sheer numbers of those in flight, displaced, the high percentages of unemployed – “a staggering 64.8% in the case of young females” in Egypt, are an ongoing reproach to the world that looked on fascinated as the Arab uprisings rolled across the region.

Eleanor Salter shows us one glimpse of the human fallout in her account of those who attempt to look after the refugee children who arrive on the small Greek island of Chios. Shamefully for Europe, one of their hardest tasks is to shield the children who may have escaped torture and forced labour as child soldiers, from “vicious attacks from local gangs of fascists”.

Something has to be done, but Alex Nunn gives us very little assurance that a body like the IMF will contribute anything substantial any time soon to this gargantuan systemic task of combatting inequality: ( see also today: Tackling inequality.) On the contrary, it seems that the very world of education is hostage to the bureaucratic and profiteering machinations of the ‘instructionists’, who may have a part to play in our affairs, but should never be entrusted with our education. In part two of his openDemocracy interview, ‘The Uberfication of education’, Graham Brown-Martin explains why not, concluding his tour de horizon of this world which is also a tour de force, by inviting us to, “Imagine a corporation which owns the entire programming of young people from nursery school to university!”

What is the alternative? The concept of ‘global citizenship education’(GCED) is a complex undertaking, that encompasses everything from IT-literacy to the promotion of peace and diversity. Alexandra Stenbock-Fermor reports from a UNESCO conference in Bangkok, exploring how GCED, inspired as is Kiron by the Sustainable Development Goals, suggests a deep overhaul of our modes of thought, teaching and outlook on the world, all necessary for a sustainable future.

We move to Mexico, next, to sites of struggle where alternative education has become, as Guadalupe Olivier and Sergio Tamayo tell us, in itself an act of resistance in education: “The first two have arisen from local teachers’ struggles, based on dissident sectors of the national teachers’ union... The last two result from community struggles mostly waged by indigenous populations.” Manuel Garza Zepeda picks up the thread, ten years after Oaxaca’s famous popular revolt with its origins in the teachers’ struggle, and finds teachers still backed by popular support and looking for “others ways of doing" .

But we finish our look at global inequalities back in the developed west, with its prison populations. Haven Distribution, since 1996, have been making a simple but significant contribution to UK prison education: buying and sending books to prisoners. Here Luke Billingham explains their commitment to prisoner self-education, despite all the barriers. And why they too,’just want to help’.

Friday, Post-truth looking forward

We began the week with Ted Cantle arguing that “In a world of hate, fear and ‘alternative facts’, education really does matter”. But is the truth easy to find when many of the old certainties are disappearing fast, in our democracies, online, in the media and in academe? Many people still cling to a world where the centre holds, ‘facts’ reside in the middle ground, and extremisms spread away to right and to left. But now, everyone is accusing everyone else of being responsible for the delusions which so sway our lives. Didier Eribon in his Confessions for our times, Returning to Reims, surely a candidate for book of the month in the run-up to the French presidential elections, describes how instead of an aggregation of individual voices to express the ‘general will’, “a class war is carried out at the ballot box, a practice of confrontation is produced election after election” in which one group considers another “an adversary who is defending its own interests in opposition to one’s own.”

How then to find the truth for ourselves and our societies? In such circumstances, the last thing any of us needs is to be offered informational escape by filter bubbles from inconvenient contradictions, or, as Zahir Janmohamed warned last December, to be united in our convictions behind some strong man. Instead, with Benjamin Greer, be alert to the dengerous imaginary of the "unreal nation"; as Siamak Ahmadi urges, seek dialogue not war, learn to analyse discussion and discourse, “be open to criticism, up for another opinion, for another perspective”; or, as Richard Bartlett argues, admit that most of us have never practised democracy – “never practiced making a compromise, making a negotiation, coming to a ’good enough’ consensus between disparate parties” –  shun walls and silent lunches, and start now, in its deepest and broadest sense to cultivate ‘civility’.

On the last day of this taking stock of ‘Democracy and education’, we search for different ways to ‘take back control’ of the truth. If we are increasingly trapped in ‘filter bubbles’ – the personalisation tools from companies like Facebook and Google that isolate us into separate realities – how do we break out? Some designers have created software to combat this – but have they gone far enough in their critical enquiry? How they interpret democracy, argues Engin Bozdag, limits these tools.

Daniel R. McCarthy and Matthew Fluck pursue filter bubble logic, warning that a normalizing of extreme polarity can’t be countered just by clinging to the facts, but requires the political empowerment of citizens. David Ridley agrees, again returning to the work of John Dewey, to argue that what is needed, “is a new form of co-operative inquiry that both reconstructs democracy from within and re-creates the public in the process. What is needed is an ‘intelligent populism’.” For Dewey, he reminds us,“humanising technology was the most pressing task of modern society.” By contrast, Justin Schlosberg echoes the conviction of another US sociologist, C Wright Mills, that “concentrated power in late capitalist democracies was invisible, and no longer to be found in the observable decision-making and conflicts of day-to-day partisan politics.” In a world of so-called fake news and post-truth politics, he maintains that the influence of largely invisible qualities of concentrated power over media, public and policy agendas, warrants renewed and urgent scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian philosopher of post-Fascism, Gaspar Miklos Tamás, has been infuriated by the debate raging over the nature of populism, and is drawing the line at the erasure of "any difference between oppression and emancipation”. While it is understandable that we might be wrong-footed by the current “uprising of the élite against The People, and not vice versa”, Left betrayal is less forgiveable – we should remember 1914.

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