Defining what democracy means is a broad question. I believe the answer relies on the individuals experience in a so-called democratic society. We all have been told what, when and how to do something throughout the course of lives whether it be from our parents, teachers or public officials. Our current educational system is built upon a hierarchical framework of authoritarian rule, and it is prone to look down upon others’ shortcomings. It has been said that democracy is not something we are born to know. It is, however, an idea that has to be practiced to perfection.
In my view, a democratic education means the freedom to explore, create and obtain knowledge through life’s experiences within the school and community. In a democratic school, students experience meaningful participation in a learning environment not solely governed by adults. In the article, What is Democratic Education?, Ron Miller furthers this point, “When individuals are bound by limitations, expectations or rules they had no part in establishing, they cannot be said to live in a democratic environment; therefore they do not teach democracy.”
If freedom is the main component of a democratic education, how can teachers teach with limited authority? As Dewey states in Experience and Education, “Guidance given by the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it. In other words, students should have guided responsibilities in an environment in which they spend so much of their time.
In reflection, I can recall the many times I’ve told my students that I was just their guide through the maze of learning how music works. However, I tend to have stern words for the un-disciplined student; too much freedom could lead to disaster. Ideally, we want our students to have real life experiences in school that connect directly to their life outside of school, without limitations. In Democracy & Education, Dewey states:
Outside of school, pupils meet with natural facts and principals in connection with various modes of human action. In all social activities in which they have shared they have had to understand the material and process involved. To start them in school with a rupture of this intimate process breaks the continuity of mental development makes the student feel an indescribable unreality in his studies, and deprives him of the normal motive for interest in them.
In my opinion, Dewey is suggesting that the opportunities of education should lead students to their occupations in life, or create a clear pathway to their aspirations. With this in mind, defining what is an education for democracy comes into perspective.
In 1987, American scholars from various fields drafted what is called Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles. Its purpose was to provide insight to teachers and schools as they prepare to instill democratic values in our students. According to this document, it is imperative that our students be reconnected to the roots of democracy through a re-structured curriculum that teaches the truth about American history. As this document states, the American story is told by those who sacrificed all they possessed to define the meaning of democracy: History imparts a deeper understanding of the truly radical ideas upon which democracy is built, and of the institutions established to bring life and permanence to those ideas. The study of history of the past connects students consciously with those who came before them. However, as our world continues to evolve and change, the content of knowledge they are responsible for can be quite overwhelming to grasp. Therefore, in my opinion, the content of knowledge embedded into the social studies curriculum needs to be carefully streamlined from grade to grade. What I mean is, students need to learn about the exertions for democracy.
Many textbooks are filled with unnecessary topics that rarely define the meaning of democracy. In a study from historian Diane Ravitch and observations from her book, The Language Police, the American story has been comprised:
The new textbooks have adopted the “three worlds meet” paradigm that UCLA library center advocated as part of it’s  proposed national standards for U.S history. In the new textbooks, democratic values and ideals compete with a welter of themes about geography,cultural, diversity, economic development, technology, and global relations.
With The Language Police, Ravitch exposes the political corrective-ness in which writers of textbooks and their publishers are influence by pressure groups to water-down methods to what our students are to learn. These textbooks are carefully crafted to reflect their unrealistic vision of the past. Both Ravitch and Dewey share common ground in relationships to past and present ideals of learning. Dewey makes his comparisons between traditional and progressive education and Ravitch outlines how pressure groups of today distort the truth about our past in school textbooks.
Finally, if we are to be a society that breeds the democratic student in our schools, educated teachers and administrators must practice it. Teachers must be masters of their subjects to eliminate the censorship that today’s textbooks cover. Administrators must do away with authoritative rule to allow students take part in what they are to learn. As we all know, practicing builds confidence, and confidence overcomes fear.
Dewey, John., (1997). Experience & education, First Touchstone Edition, New York, N.Y.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education, p. 294. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from http://www2.hn.psu.edu/faculty/jmanis/johndewey/dem&ed.pdf
McPike, Elizabeth., (1987). Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles, The Albert Shanker Institute, Washington, DC.
Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police, How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Random House, 2003. p.152
Miller, Ron. What is Democratic Education? Paths of Learning: Written in 2007 for a proposed book on democratic schools. Retrieved December 8, 2010, from http://www.pathsoflearning.net/articles_What_Is_Democratic_Education.pdf