About Democratic Education

Democracy is not just a political arrangement. It is a huge mistake to think about democracy purely in terms of political process, because then we miss the requirement of embedding this socially. Fareed Zakaria made the point that the failure of exported democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq was because it did not precede with constitutionalism and rule of law, as it did in the mature democracies in the West. But, I shall argue, that constitutionalism and rule of law did not come from nowhere. It was a result of long struggles or violent revolutions, and sometimes, it came from concessions made in the fear of impending revolution. And, indeed, the dynamic that produced the revolutionary stirrings, and the liberal instincts for constitutionalism, were firmly embedded in the social dynamics of education and economic participation.

Now, as we look to make democracy as a deliberate rather than an emergent phenomena, we must look beyond the mere mechanics to these aspects of social dynamic. The various attempts at exporting constitutionalism, following the thinking of Mr Zakaria and others, have manifestly failed to take roots in the absence of the social context. And, indeed, while we looked away and busied ourselves with political engineering, the social context of democracy weakened - not just in the Middle East and Central Asia, where our hearts and minds were focused, but also in the American Heartland and Western Europe, and in poster democracies such as India and South Africa. And, one could point to the two factors - an overtly technocratic education and economic exclusion - as what would have gone wrong across these countries.

Despite such failures, we continue to look for solutions in the wrong places. The current conversation about democracy has moved over from constitutionalism to economic development, but its proponents have failed to understand the difference between development and inclusion, and indeed, between jobs, which they think this is about, and participation. Often, the coincidence that the Western countries got rich at the same time as they became democratic is interpreted wrongly as a causal relationship - they became democratic because they got rich (see my argument about why India is democratic here) - and not the other way round, they became rich as their political and economic participation complimented each other. The point is, of course, the mere growth of GDP does not guarantee democracy, as we see from examples ranging from Saudi Arabia to China. And, jobs - as a statistical figure - do not mean economic participation, as many of the jobs could just be about mere existence of a fairly fragile kind. So, the twin thrust of policy - to enhance GDP and to create jobs - which China, for one, did pretty well so far, is misdirected as far as development of democracy is concerned. 

Indeed, there are some who would argue that democracy in itself can not be the goal. This may sound problematic, but the view from Wall Street and from the Forbidden City may be in agreement here. Dambisa Moyo would indeed argue that democracy and freedom are wrong aspirations when people don't have enough to eat, and China provides a much better model for African countries, for example, than England. This technocratic view is in ascendancy right now, and it sounds sweet not just to China, but to American Bankers pedalling globalisation and assorted politicians in Delhi and London as well. This view takes not just historical context, but its social significance out of democracy too - and development becomes a mere technocratic thing, to be delivered by a select, preferably expat, elite, and to be consumed by all. This is indeed not a vision informed by aspirations of participation or inclusion, but consumption and that all-pervasive thing, jobs.

The point, indeed, is that there is no such thing as development without participation. An economy, or a society if we concede its existence, can not be driven to a course optimal for everyone without the participation of everyone. If we let politicians decide for ourselves, they run it to their own pleasure and profit. We let bankers do it for us, they are the ones who run away with money. And, whatever system we settle for other than democratic participation will eventually - and now that history has indeed accelerated, this may happen in short order - produce a system that would lead to social breakdown. And, Mrs Thatcher may have believed that there is no such thing as society, but we, and our economies, survive only because of it.

This, then, brings the discussion to the point of education, which needs to enable, and create conditions for, democratic participation. Without it, the economic participation and decision making that we need to maintain social stability may quickly degenerate into anarchy. And, yet, we are indeed moving away from a model of education to create citizens - and merely directing our students to be consumers and job-seekers, who give up their own economic well-being to powers-that-be (not the invisible hand of the market, but the very visible interests of global bankers) and political participation to a class of people who seek arbitrage in such disconnection. This is indeed the problem of democratic education - how to restore the social, economic and political participation of the students and reverse the narrow notions of democracy to be best left to some operatives and restore the issues of freedom and responsibility to the centre-stage. 

And, indeed, as with democracy itself, we have a problem of self-interested rhetoric obscuring real issues. There is a school of thought, and Fareed Zakaria has now joined in, that a particular kind of education, liberal education, is key to such democratic participation. The point is that the proponents of Liberal Education are indeed to blame primarily for its marginal status now, because this was designed to be an education in privilege (culture) for the privileged and by the privileged (cloaked in a specialist language and obscure concepts divorced from concerns of ordinary life). The argument for a democratic education, as I am making here, is not the argument for liberal education in a particular form. In fact, such elitism is as anti-democratic as any other, and such either-or logic reconfirms the myth that democracy needs special education rather than being the bedrock of any education, and indeed, that democracy needs a special elite to spearhead it.

In fact, this division, that there is one education for those who think, and another for those who have to carry out the orders, classified under the label of vocationalism, is what constrains democracy and keep the gates closed on participation. That democracy is for every one to participate, some of whom may have to get a professional education and a business career to survive, should be accepted and actively pursued. As democracies today are very different from democracies in the early twentieth century, when most of our education philosophies were conceived, our education needs to be very different today - non-sectarian, open and inclusive. The point is, of course, while we keep moaning about the crisis of democracy, we do not do enough to promote educational participation (as we do not do enough for economic participation) and instead, contend ourselves in the false comfort of excellence, which, in and by itself, means nothing.


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