Professing Education


How Education Has Failed Democracy

Susan Sydor

Brock University

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 marketplace.

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: Jossey-Bass.

Bode, Boyd H. (2002) Reorientation in education. In

Stephen John Goodlad, ed. The last best hope. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (1916/1985) Democracy and education. (Vol. 9). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fullan, M. (2003) Change forces with a vengeance. New York: Routledge.

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, and freedom.