democratic education – some discussion

Helfenbein and Shudak ask: “What are the challenges to teaching democracy within […] a dynamic and fluid social order?” Put another way, in what ways have the reconstruction and reinvention of contemporary society called for reconstructing/reinventing democratic education?” (p.6)

“…as social studies educators,” they declare, “it is easy to agree that the connection between democracy and education is the necessity to know and identify political ambition that perverts democracy into tyranny, ambitions that systematically seek to strip people of their critical faculties. However, the connection between education and democracy, not set in any stone beyond individuals’ tenuous historical memory, finds itself under attack—all the more reason perhaps to set such an understanding in stone, one that could guide the social studies.” (p.9)

A couple of other points they make, which I find interesting include:

The connection, then, between democracy and liberty is that a democratically organized society is one wherein ordinary citizens are in a position, borrowing from the International IDEA Democracy Assessment, to popularly control “public decisions and decision makers (Beetham et al. 2001, 4). Ostensibly, the decisions controlled are ones affecting their condition of liberty, of what persons can and cannot do. And because a democracy is predicated on the idea that people cannot be forced to be free by others (a dilemma when closed cultures migrate to open societies), decisions must be made by the ordinary citizens, and those decisions being made must be informed by a sense of their impact on other persons, thus Jefferson’s concern with education to establish and ensure enlightened self-rule.” (p.11)

“Our point in this section is to suggest that democracy, itself, is already within a process of being reimagined. As the political is necessarily pedagogical, we are always and already within an ideological struggle for what these fundamental terms mean. As the language of the political Right and, in particular, the neoconservative Right insists that the world, itself, is operating differently after the attacks of 9–11, teaching democracy requires an investigation of those logics (see Kornfield 2005; Shudak and Helfenbein 2005) and, ultimately, we suggest, a counterlogic, a way of rearticulating the terrain.” (p.12)

“…we offer that both the current administration’s foreign policy in regards to Iraq (and others) and its continued and seemingly contradictory policy of educational reform follow the ideological trajectory—including its rhetorical obfuscations—of Empire. This is the challenge to democracy affecting social studies educators.
To begin such a comparison, we quickly note that the conquest of Iraq was characterized by an extensive bombing campaign, dubbed “shock and awe,” that targeted not only military targets, but infrastructure as well. Following the so-called liberation of Iraq, much media attention was given to the widespread looting of public and private facilities unchecked by the U.S. military. Naomi Klein (2003) and others have pointed out that the policy of the U.S.-led coalition on a post-war Iraq has been one of reconstruction, but it increasingly looks to be a reconstruction on the ruins of Iraqi infrastructure (including schools!). The more that is destroyed (or deconstructed, if the reader will forgive the pun) the easier—and more rhetorically logical in the conventional wisdom—the goal of reconstruction. Klein (2003) points out that “the country is being treated as a blank state on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign owned, and open for business”. Certainly disturbing in its own right, and perhaps more urgent at the moment, it seems one could draw a parallel conclusion about the educational reform policies of the current administration, specifically No Child Left Behind.” (p.15)

“…we have identified democracy as a theoretical and organizational context. In this article, it is considered a negotiated terrain of organizational sovereignty. Teachers help students navigate such a context by educating their students […] to constantly reimagine democracy, and thus reshape its contours and power of organizing.” (p.16)

How does one teach something that must be lived? How, borrowing from Bode (1939), does the classroom clarify democracy and make it conscious of itself? The answer, again, is context. It is the teacher’s job to identify for and with the students their context, their lifeworlds, and to help them make the necessary connections with democracy. The bridge to knowing democracy is again found through liberty.
The connection between liberty and democracy, two essentially contested terms, is action. Arguably, the history of democracy in the United States, as imported from Britain, is the history of liberal thought and resistance against repressive state intervention curbing and controlling free human (inter)action—liberty. Removing liberty from the abstract,Dewey ([1935] 1964b) comments that, “If one wants to know what the condition of liberty is at a given time, one has to examine what persons can do and what they cannot do” (111) Understanding that both democracy and liberty are historically relative terms that must continually be redefined, the exercise for Dewey is one that challenges students to come to know democracy through liberty and in terms of effective action. Presumably, he would have students look at effective action as positive difference-making action in their lives that is done with others, and to look at it as power to control their lives; a power and control that is exercised in communion with others for the benefit of individuals. Such actions are innumerable.
Knowing democracy through the aforementioned sense of liberty squares nicely with the understanding of democracy as developed by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). They would have people understand democracy in terms of two simple principles: that democracy is characterized by the “popular control over public decision making and decision makers” as well as “equality between citizens in the exercise of that control (Beetham et al. 2001, 3). This form of practice, however, falls flat on its face if students (and citizens) are [-p.18] unable to identify effective action and its outlets, and are unable or unwilling to justify why such action is necessary in their lives. One next characteristic of practicing democracy is identifying the institutional means through which effective action is possible. One of the difficulties we have come across in our classrooms concerning the teaching of democracy is that, although students are able to recite common textbook definitions of democracy, they are not too adept at identifying institutional means of realizing democracy.” (pp.17-18)

Effective democratic action can occur through institutions promoting civil and political rights, but first students need to be aware of what those rights are and how to tap into those groups and organizations that help protect them. Easily identifiable economic and social rights systems include those around elections, political party affiliation and participation, and nongovernmental organizations.” (p.19)

In what ways is democracy itself challenged by the changing and fluid social order, and how are the terms of engagement, education, and democracy changing as the world changes? In what ways does this impact public schools and schooling?” (p.21)

NOTE: I have omitted the many references these authors make to ‘social studies teachers’ (mostly when they refer to teachers doing something, they refer to social studies teachers specifically).

Ref: Robert J. Helfenbein & Nicholas J. Shudak (2009): Reconstructing/Reimagining Democratic Education: From Context to Theory to Practice, Educational Studies: A Journal of the American Educational Studies Association, 45:1, 5-23

ABSTRACT: “Many have suggested that issues of democracy are fundamentally related to school curricula and contexts (Conant, 1948; Dewey, 1944; Dimitriadis and Carlson, 2003; West, 2004). Current social theorists have suggested that a globalized social, economic, and cultural structure has necessitated a rethinking of the relationships between individuals, communities, and institutions. It follows, then, that the premise that democracy must be reinvented (Dewey [1937] 1964; Foucault 2003; Hardt and Negri, 2000) necessarily leads to new notions of curriculum, schools, and education itself. This article argues that thinking through these notions as ways in which to engage the social studies may prove fruitful for those working within critical approaches to education. This cultural studies approach holds as fundamental to our argument that the shifting nature of the political, as part of a greater social structure, simultaneously affects and requires a reimagining of the pedagogical.” (p.5)


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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