How Education Has Failed Democracy
The imperative of survival drives every society to teach their
young the knowledge, skills, and values appropriate to their way
of life. For modern, complex societies formal public education
serves this purpose.1 Western governments continue
to spend considerable amounts of their GDP on education2
but increasingly measure the success of their investment through
students' performance scores in areas such as math and science
and in valuations of the earnings of graduates. Results are then
used as leverage to determine public spending on education and
to justify increased control on school activities. It is ideology
rather than idea that has dominated the North American approach
to education reform for more than a decade. While publicly supported
schools battle conserving forces, education for democracy continues
to struggle against the dominance of education for and by the
Many and varied philosophies of education compete for the public
purse and professional attention, but the primary struggle is
embodied in the tension between education and training. Ungerleider
(2003) says of the choices we are making, "it is about training
students for the future, rather than about educating them
for the future" (p.109). The former has a narrow application
and scope, and is limiting, while the latter "involves the
acquisition of knowledge and its application to issues and problems
both familiar and unanticipated"(210). Education is more
appropriate to preparation for democratic living because living
in association with others inevitably produces continual challenges.
Such challenges require insight into experience and the environment
and call on a quality of imagination that can suggest approaches
to living in ways that present training-oriented approaches inhibit.
Such collective imagination as is required for fuelling healthy
democratic participation in education, is presently difficult
to find, and as such, fails the fullness of Dewey's idea of the
free individual in a free society, and also the implications of
his ideas for democratic education. An individual maturing in
personal authority and authenticity learns to solve problems of
living primarily through moral learning3 or what I
am inclined to call a common sense kind of wisdom, or what Barber
would call education for liberty. This includes learning associated
with emotion, deliberation, creativity, and ethics, and denies
neither a knowledge base nor standard literacies. Quite the contrary,
if we are to live in association with other individuals it is
necessary to share at least some common ground. Democratic and
educative community, in the absence of anything common to communicate
about, cannot really be called community or educative at all.
Under such circumstances there is little more than geographical
proximity. To this extent it is necessary that students receive
training in basic skills and cultural knowledge as tools to living
fuller with others. To have common ground should never preclude
difference, but should make differences between individuals more
richly and democratically meaningful. This, I would argue, was
Dewey's intention and an idea expressed even earlier by de Toqueville
(1848/1969): He said, "In democratic countries knowledge
of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge;
on its progress depends that of all the others" (p. 157).
Instead, contemporary educational reform emphasizes basic skills
as a means to achieve only a limited conception of democracy.
Literacy, skills training, standardization, high stakes testing,
charter schools, choice, and accountability, all mask efforts
to control and actually limit participation in public education.
The value behind many educational changes is market competition
and domination, not democratic association and participation.
Even postsecondary education has succumbed to an academia-for-careers
approach. These schemes emphasize a slight-of-hand approach to
citizenry and democracy. In other words, what is actually a bureaucratic
form of structured participation is cleverly cloaked in the rhetoric
of strong citizenship and democratic conduct. This also tends
to favor private interests over the public good. When even teacher
education programs are virtually devoid of foundational studies,
it becomes more and more difficult to put our hopes in ground-level
reforms based in teacher action, because they too are increasingly
becoming deskilled in programs that are more careerist and training-based,
rather than programs that are immersed in a richer and more deeply
meaningful professional and democratic sensibility. It is a matter,
as Bode (2002) says, of becoming aware of the dangers of "being
nurtured in habits that are incompatible with a genuinely democratic
philosophy" (p. 92).
Certainly, the challenge becomes ever more prescient that we
continue to learn to live together on a shared, but shrinking
planet, and that we continue the struggle of educating our young
in a democratic spirit. We must pursue literacy and disciplinary
knowledge because they are as necessary to the development of
individual authority and authenticity (opposed to purely external
mandates) as they are to living commonly with others who are also
"free and equal" (Dewey, 1916/1985). Education is indeed
the moral enterprise that many before me have acknowledged. Our
reform efforts must attend to the intellectual and moral forces
to change the system(s) of education that we are a part of if
we intend education to have the impact on life that is its potential.
1 Barrow (1981) and Holmes (1986) were able to list
educational purposes as functions schools perform.
2 According to OECD, Canada ranked first among the
G-7 countries in 1999 with respect to the percentage of the
GDP allocated to education, followed by the United States. In
2001, governments as a whole in Canada spent 15% of their total
expenditure on education compared to 17% for health. Until 2000,
they had spent more on education than health. Stats Can. data.
Arnstein, D. (1995) Democracy and the arts of schooling.
New York: State University of New York Press, Albany.
Barrow, R. (1981) The philosophy of schooling. New
York: John Wiley.
Barber, B. R. (2001) An aristocracy of everyone. In Stephen
John Goodlad, ed. The last best hope. San Francisco:
Bode, Boyd H. (2002) Reorientation in education. In
Stephen John Goodlad, ed. The last best hope. San
Dewey, J. (1916/1985) Democracy and education. (Vol.
9). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Fullan, M. (2003) Change forces with a vengeance. New York:
Holmes, M. (1986) The secondary school in contemporary western
society: Constraints, imperatives and prospects. Curriculum
Inquiry, 15(1), 17-36.
Lawton, D. & Gordon, P. (2002) A history of western educational
ideas. Portland: Woburn Press.
Parker, W. Ed. (1996) Educating the democratic mind. New
York: State University of New York Press, Albany.
Ungerleider, C. (2003) Failing our kids: How we are ruining
our public schools. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Susan Sydor is assistant professor in the Faculty of Education,
Brock University. Her research interests include Educational
Law, Organizational Studies, and Educational Administration.
She is particularly interested in the relationship of the
group to the individual and issues of justice, equity, fairness,