Is it Possible or Desirable to Teach for Democracy Today?

Friday November 30, 2007
8:30 A.M.

NCSS International Assembly


International practitioners summarize diverse perspectives (Dewey, Foucault, Taba, Haley,  Freire, Reich, Lynd, Lunacharsky, etc.) followed by collective discussions. A plenary session concludes. New scholars are especially welcome. Our goal is to cross borders: age, social position, nation, sex/gender, and race, for discussions of theories and practices of education for democracy.


This roundtable is designed to facilitate discussions among  scholars crossing borders of nations, k12 education, university students, new and established professors, addressing an issue always facing social studies educators: democracy. Presenters have expertise on key viewpoints in the field, Dewey or Freire for example, yet each will treat the discussion not merely as an educational outlook, but a problem to be addressed, particularly in today’s concrete conditions of developing social and educational relations, in which social practice assails matters of democracy from all sides. We begin the session with an introductory statement from a renowned social studies author, presenting the question of democracy: Is it reasonable or possible, today, to promote education for citizenship in a democracy, or is democracy now the new religion, a mask for invasion, exploitation, and false divisions, a hothouse for witless forms of nationalism, a phrase turned hollow by distorted practice in schools and out?
“ the name of democracy and individual freedom, the few as a result of their superior possessions and powers had in fact made it impossible for the masses of men (sic) to realize personal capacities and to count in the social order.” (John Dewey, 1908).

The intersection of school and society grows more clear as both are tested in crises of war, the economy, the environment, and rising inequality. Chalmers Johnson in “Nemesis,” argues that imperialism, which he defines as atavistic militarism coupled with hubris, destroys democracy in the homeland. He suggests this is made possible because the citizenry is denied access to information and ready to become instruments of their own oppression within a tyranny because they are mis-educated to the point they cannot connect cause and effect. The eradication of history and social studies from the school curriculum, noted in 2006 by the president of the American Historical Association, David McCullough, might be a troublesome indicator.

In schools, where teaching democratic and critical citizens is written into most mission statements, it appears that undemocratic methods (teaching to high-stakes tests aimed at achieving curricular standards established by undemocratic means—as in Rush Limbaugh’s rejection of the history standards, and subsequently, their rejection by Congress) are openly employed in order to reach purportedly democratic conclusions.

Some surveys indicate that restrictions on academic freedom linked to promises of educator accountability through high-stakes testing are popular among U.S. citizens asked about higher education policies in major universities. A popular democracy that would assail the tradition of academic freedom must be seen as a problem.

At the same time, classroom teachers, professors, and other education workers seek to swim upstream to nevertheless teach toward democracy and social justice. But in the existing social conditions of this new century, it may be necessary to reconsider what democracy is, and whether it is socially or educationally a worthy goal.

The word “democracy” has become a spear-point for invasions: military and economic warfare. While the US invaded Iraq, initially, under banners to destroy weapons of mass destruction, the discourse quickly became a war for freedom and democracy. That invasion was affirmed in 2004, democratically, overwhelmingly with the re-election of President Bush.

More or less democratic elections in, for example, Afghanistan, restored war-lords to power which quickly led to the renewal of the poppy fields. In Palestine, the more or less democratic election of Hammas led to an immediate cut-off of vital funding to the PLA, an interesting intersection of democracy and economics. In Latin America, the US funded National Endowment for Democracy was a key player in repeated attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela, while the U.S. press decried the democratic “leftward drift,” in Latin America, i.e., in Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia. In China, where “democracy,” has become synonymous with free market reforms, peasants are being driven from the land, arriving homeless and without skills in large cities, the Communist Party unable to offer them education or hope. There were more urban and rural uprisings in China in 2005 than any time in recorded past history.

Around the world, the democracy of the USA props up dictatorships, in Saudi Arabia for example, while listing the democratically elected government of Iran as part of an axis of evil.

The initial invasion of Iraq II was very popular in the U.S., and that popularity was in turn used to boost political fortunes, to win budget proposals which eventually led to a bid to cut the education budget dramatically, and to add momentum for further warfare, perhaps on Iran. The popularity of war was presented as a democratic expression in the U.S., which could be seen as a maneuver to exclude Iraqis and Iranians from the vote. We note that in 2004, the assembled members of CUFA voted to insist that the USA leave Iraq immediately. That vote was reaffirmed, and posted on the CUFA web site, in 2006.

In the US, democratic elections can be portrayed as, not so much elections, but options among impoverished voters as to which plutocrat will oppress them least. In addition, vote fraud allegations, especially in pivotal states like Ohio and Florida, harken back to turn of the twentieth century criticism of Tammany politicians, while, the corruption of legislators, like the notorious defense-criminal congressman Randy Cunningham of San Diego, coupled with the repeated convictions of local politicians for pension fraud, as, again, in San Diego, point back to the past century’s Lincoln Steffens, reporting on the Shame of the Cities.

In schools, labor studies are typically the domain of social studies educators in both the U.S. and Canada. One might expect a high-water mark of democracy would be the union movement, especially for the mass of working people who might otherwise be somewhat disenfranchised by the enormity and costs of national electoral campaigns, particularly the educator-union movement. On one hand, however, labor studies are even more eradicated from the curricula than history. On the other hand, the essence of labor studies can be deceptive when measured by democracy.

In the U.S., as in South Africa and Canada, to lesser degrees, experiences of viable union democracy collapse when met by kleptocratic leadership, vote fraud, powerful mob connections, a long tradition of many forms of internal corruption, union ties to intelligence agencies, and structures that shatter democratic possibilities.

In South Africa, the promises of democracy, reconciliation, and a better life that carried the African National Congress to an overwhelming “revolutionary,” democratic electoral victory in 1994 have run foul of rising inequality, the privatization of public necessities (like the school system, water supply and health systems) that were won in the midst of the freedom struggles once led by the ANC.

If democracy is now a shape-shifting metaphor, the problem can become greater when seen through the eyes of those dedicated to social change and social justice. How is it possible, for example, to win a democratic society, using organizational methods promoting democratic practices, when faced with an undemocratic and ruthless opposition? If democracy is, at the end of the day an atomizing, isolating concept, in contradiction to collective action, how might democratic educators organize to defend the freedom that must serve as the base for learning anything significant?

Hence the question: Is it desirable to teach for democracy today? This question leads to other questions that should trouble social studies educators: Why have school?  What is the social context of schooling? What value do education workers create? What, now, is the purpose of government? Who is served?

Our presenters represent an international perspective, including members from South Africa, the U.S., Israel, Japan, and Canada, which allows us to focus attention on the world-wide regimentation of the curricula, and Taylorist methods of supervision that undermine struggles for democracy in theory and practice. Moreover, the global massive commercialization of public schooling, brought on in part by an increasingly unjust tax system, and the militarization of schools, brought on by a society openly dedicated to perpetual war, can be seen as processes which contradict the struggle for democracy in schools.

Dewey, Counts, Foucault, Taba, Haley, Marx, Lunacharsky, Debord, Reich, Mandela, Freire, and others, represented by experts on our panel, all sought to link school and society, and to one degree or another, to use democratic schooling as a wedge for more democratic societies.

Dewey, Counts, Taba, and Haley all worked in the US, through theory and practice. Each was active in the US labor movement. Each offered passionate testimony on the necessity of school-based democracy, and each sought a more egalitarian, democratic society. Each encountered problems our presenters will discuss.

Freire, Lunacharsky, Mandela, and Reich, all very different, but all worked internationally, focused their work on social justice won through educational activities. Freire’s theories of education through critical consciousness were adopted by revolutionaries from Grenada to West Africa, and his constructivist ideas were often implemented by bank training programs.

Lunacharsky led education in the earliest days of the Soviet Union. He attempted to use Deweyian methods to support the loftier claims of the revolution. He was quickly removed by Stalin. Mandela’s ANC led educational activities during the freedom struggle, even during the “liberation before education,” days, and is now in charge of education in South Africa, which now follows the British system of high-stakes examinations. Reich, the social psychologist, was expelled from Germany, the USSR, and much of Europe for his radical educational views. The school, Summerhill, was designed with his vision in mind.

Foucault and Debord, both theorists of encapsulation, and self-encapsulation, were not educators, but their historical and theoretical work drives much of liberal and radical education theory today.

Clearly, none of these viewpoints have been fully satisfactory. But each one can offer a special insight to spark discussions of pressing needs of social studies educators.