Education for Democracy

By Nathan Woods

Democracy is a political and moral system that values freedom, equality, and individual human rights. In this article, I will consider what knowledge should be included in a curriculum for democracy.

What is democracy and why is it desirable?

Democracy is a political and a moral system. Politically it is a form of government, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Lincoln 1863, as cited in Wolff, 1996, p. 68). Government of the people is limited to a specific population, or jurisdiction, and political interference in the affairs of those outside this jurisdiction, including other sovereign states, is seen as problematic. A government by the people is one in which the people play a participatory role in their governance, by way of direct, ongoing, participation, or by electing representatives to govern on their behalf. A government for the people is  concerned with the welfare of the people; it governs in their interest, rather than in the interest of a privileged few (Wolff, 1996). As a moral system, democracy values diversity, freedom, equality, and individual human rights.

There are a number of tensions inherent in the idea of democracy. Because the public is made up of individuals who have different needs, interests, and aspirations, public policy will affect people differently. The interests of a minority may come into conflict with the interests of the majority, resulting in  ‘a tyranny of the majority’. Different motivations mean some citizens may vote according to their idea of the ‘common good’, others may vote according to their personal interests, leading to a system of illogical and incoherent decision making (Wolff, 1996).

Plato highlighted a further tension when he described democracy as the rule of the mob. He compared the democratic state to a drunken pleasure cruise, where “the crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm” (Plato, as cited in Wolff, 1996, p. 73) even though “he has never learned the art of navigation” (Plato, as cited Wolff, 1996, p. 73). For Plato, deferring important political decisions to the ‘mob’ was reckless. A far better form of government, he thought, was rule by an enlightened elite.

Although humans are complex and multifaceted creatures, there are two broad views of human nature that can influence our understanding of democracy and of the role of education in a democracy. On the one hand, there is a constrained view of human nature, which depicts people as self-centered and focused on maximizing their interests (Sergiovanni, 1998). Proponents of this view believe that the limitations of human nature need to be acknowledged, and that measures should be put in place to control people to ensure the smooth running of society. The unconstrained view of human nature, on the other hand, depicts people as basically good, moral creatures, who are empathetic and concerned for the wellbeing of others (Sergiovanni, 1998). People who hold this view believe that authoritarian social structures are limiting and bring out the worst in people. They prefer social practices that emphasize trust and cooperation.

Some people have promoted a limited, or elite, form of democracy, based on a constrained view of human nature. They believe the ‘mob’ is incapable of effective self-governance and must to be controlled, or manipulated, by a powerful and enlightened elite. They fear that left unchecked the ‘mob’ could become dangerous and threaten the social order. According to Lippmann, “The public must be put in its place so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps no more, so that each of us may live free from the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd” (as cited in Callan, 2008, p. 78). For Schumpeter, the masses must be encouraged to trust their superiors and refrain from “political back-seat driving” (Schumpeeter, as cited in Callan, 2008, p. 79) which would make smooth and efficient governance impossible.

This form of democracy relies often on hegemonic discourses that normalize and legitimize the existing social order, to ensure that citizens become complicit in their own subordination. For instance, the term democracy, ambiguous as it is, can be used to normalize corporatism, competition, and consumerism, while deemphasizing collective responsibility, and obscuring existing structural inequalities – increasingly neoliberal politicians seek to define democracy in this way. This form of ‘elite’ democracy, however, is democratic in name only, because core democratic values such as freedom and equality are diminished.

An alternative to elite (or pseudo) democracy is a genuine and ‘open’ approach to democracy that embraces freedom, equality, and diversity, and acknowledges that although these ideals may never be realised fully, they are still worth fighting for. In this approach, efforts are made to strengthen democracy and to guard it against corruption. Citizens are encouraged to play an active role in preserving the integrity of their institutions; they accept that democracy places duties and obligations upon them, including an obligation to preserve the rights of others. This  is based on an unconstrained view of human nature, or, at least, a belief “in the capacity of ordinary individuals to direct the affairs of their society” (Kovacs, 2009, p. 9).

Any form of government that places too much power in the hands of a minority is a dangerous alternative to a genuine democracy – as history has revealed clearly, unchecked power invites corruption. Although Plato, Lippmann, and Schumpeter may believe that the proper philosophical training of a benevolent elite will make them resistant to, or above, temptation, “full and proper public scrutiny, in the face of an empowered electorate, is a far more reliable remedy” (Wolff, 1996, p. 76). It is also difficult to see how we could ever establish legitimate grounds for authoritarian rule, as Wolff has pointed out:

In past centuries human beings may have been prepared to accept that certain people had a natural right to rule. Perhaps they were thought to have been appointed by God. But this is not a line of reasoning we are now prepared to accept. We will accept that individuals have a right to rule only if they have been appointed by the people, and are recallable by the people. That is, only democracy allows us an answer we can accept to the question ‘why should these people rule?’ (1996).

Authoritarian rule is unacceptable in a genuine democratic society, where everyone is considered equal and in possession of the same basic rights.

What is ‘education for democracy’?

Education for democracy is based on a belief that education plays a crucial role in sustaining and strengthening a democratic way of life. Jefferson expressed the idea this way: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education” (Jefferson, as cited in Ravitch, 2008, p. 44). To participate effectively in a democracy, citizens need to develop an understanding of the social, legal, and political systems that underpin society, and they need to be able to deliberate effectively on range of issues. Education for democracy, therefore, aims to produce “knowing and conscious democratic actors” (Edelstein, 2011, p. 130).

 What knowledge is most important in education for democracy?

Educators influenced by  an academic orientation believe that the academic disciplines play a central role in education for democracy. According to Whitfield, “Initiation into the disciplines of knowledge, our vehicle for becoming fully human, is the worthwhile activity for the curriculum of general education. It provides the base upon which the person can develop to realize his full stature as a free mind and as a citizen” (as cited in Schiro, 2013, p. 21). The disciplines are thought to represent the best knowledge available to humans – i.e., knowledge that will help people to explain and understand the world. The ability to think critically, “to transcend the present and imagine the future” (Rata, 2012, p. 113), is thought to rest upon learners’ “abstract objective knowledge” (Rata, 2012, p. 120), which is “developed when young people have access to the disciplines of the sciences, arts and humanities” (Rata, 2012, p. 120). For the scholar academics, disciplinary knowledge is valuable both intrinsically and extrinsically; it enriches peoples’ minds and provides them with access to a range of important social and cultural resources (Rata, 2012).

However, proponents of the scholar academic orientation have been criticized for failing to recognize that the academic curriculum is, in fact, a cultural invention. Critics claim that a selection of knowledge from the arts, sciences, and humanities represents a ‘socio-cultural construction’, one that often reflects a dominant Western ideology, rather than objective “universal human knowledge” (Rata, 2012, p. 120). By emphasizing the academic disciplines the curriculum becomes inevitably “someone’s construction of what is important to know and how it should be used” (Beane & Apple, 1999, p. 87) – certain kinds of knowledge are given a “high status” (Beane & Apple, 1999, p. 87) and  “endorsed by the dominant culture” (Beane & Apple, 1999, p. 87). Thus, the scholar academics are accused of imposing a particular set of values on learners – the values the scholar academics themselves prioritise – while other important individual, social, and cultural needs and interests are neglected, or silenced.

Learner-centered educators, in contrast, believe that knowledge is constructed by individuals personally as they interact with their physical and social worlds. They believe the curriculum should respond to learners’ current needs and interests, and should not be imposed upon them by others. Because learning is seen as a personal, holistic, process, the environment in which learning occurs is crucial. As learners make sense of the world, they are given opportunities to experience life in a democratic community. The environment is designed, in part, to cultivate “the competences…that empower children and adolescents to interact peacefully and successfully and live a good and productive life in a community of equals” (Edelstein, 2011, p. 129). For learner-centered educators democratic education forms habits that can be inculcated only when learners work and live together democratically. However, student-centered educators are not always clear about how learners’ ‘needs’ and ‘interests’ are to be determined, and once again, they fail to recognize that someone, or some group, will inevitably need to make decisions about which skills competencies to include or exclude from the curriculum.

Social reconstructionists believe that knowledge is “socially constructed, culturally mediated, and historically situated” (McLaren, as cited in Schiro, 2013, p. 189); knowledge is, inevitably, interconnected with peoples’ beliefs and values – including their beliefs about what society is and ought to be. For this reason the curriculum should be based on a vision of a  more just and equitable society. According to Freire, such a vision will be local, rather than objective and universal. Freire wrote:

 The starting point for organizing the program content of education…must be the present, existential, concrete situation, reflecting the aspiration of the people. Utilizing certain basic contradictions, we must pose this existential, concrete, present situation to the people as a problem which challenges them and requires a response, not just at the intellectual level, but at the level of action (as cited in Schiro, 2013, p. 181).

For Freire and other social reconstructionists the purpose of the curriculum is not to describe the world objectively, but to help communities of learners to develop a critical awareness “of the way in which power can be mobilized for the purposes of human liberation” (McLaren and Giroux, as cited in Schiro, 2013, p. 169) , a process Freire called “conscientisation” – i.e., becoming fully conscious and aware.

Learner-centered and social reconstructionist orientations are problematic in a genuine democracy. If learners are socially, culturally and historically situated beings, then the decision by learner-centered educators to base the curriculum on learners’ current needs and interests can constrains their autonomy in various ways. Learners who do not possess a broad base of powerful knowledge are likely to see the world through a narrow social and cultural lens. They will be exposed to, and shaped by, dominant cultural influences beyond their control – the mass media being an obvious example. In contrast, initiation into the academic disciplines provides learners with the knowledge and intellectual tools to become propaganda proof.

The social reconstructionists also go too far in politicizing the curriculum. By basing the curriculum on a vision of a better future society, they impose a political agenda on their learners. Null and Ravitch (2012) have argued that “the school has but one way to cure the ills of society and that is by making men intelligent…because no school as such can organize industry, or settle the matter of wage and income, can found homes or furnish parents, can establish justice or make a civilized world” (Null and Ravitch, as cited in Schiro, 2013, p. 38). For Null and Ravitch, issues related to the distribution of resources, the environment, justice, and equity, are wider social issues and, as such, should be dealt with by society at large. The role of schools, they believe, is to ‘educate’ and not to ‘indoctrinate’.

Recently, scholar academics such as Michael Young (2010), Elizabeth Rata (2012), and Frank Furedi (2013), have called for a return to a curriculum based on the academic disciplines. They are concerned that other orientations have led to a ‘dumbing down’ of the curriculum. Furthermore, according to Rata, the claim that the academic disciplines represent an ideological, or value laden, understanding of the world is mistaken:

Knowledge developed within the specialized procedures of codes of practice is not just an ongoing construction in the interests of its constructers. There is a ‘knowledge product’ that can be known objectively and that is independent of the knower…the scientific idea must be capable of standing independently from the person who created it, those who defend it and the social and historical situation within which it was created…This is possible because of another feature of scientific disciplinary procedures: the processes of review and criticism that occur over time and that allow for the separation of the ideas from their original socio-historical location (2012, p. 120)

Young (2010) distinguished between ‘powerful knowledge’ and ‘knowledge of the powerful’. According to Young, powerful knowledge is knowledge that helps people to understand, explain, and predict social and physical phenomena. Knowledge of the powerful, on the other hand, refers to knowledge that is owned and controlled by dominant social and cultural groups.

Although the academic disciplines may represent ‘powerful knowledge’ that goes beyond “a construction in the interest of its constructors”, the scholar academics are still presented with the problem of selection. There are simply too many subjects contained in the academic disciplines to allow teachers to cover all of them, and even within a single subject, such as history, mathematics, or geography, there will be a huge variety of options to choose from in deciding what, specifically, to include in the curriculum, and, given the reality that the school week is approximately 27.5 hours duration, every inclusion will mean that something is excluded . Decisions about which subjects, and which aspects of individual subjects should be included will always reflect some individual’s or group’s vision of what knowledge is the most valuable. Those in positions of power or influence would be able to shape the curriculum for their own reasons and purposes.   As we have seen, it is difficult to establish legitimate, democratic, grounds for the imposition of a ‘value laden’ curriculum on learners, who will possess a diverse range of social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional needs, interests, and aspirations.

Curriculum as process

A difficulty in deciding what should be taught in schools has led some scholars to suggest that a more important consideration is how knowledge is presented. According to Kelly, “there can be no equality, even of respect, in a context where one version of knowledge, values and culture is deemed to be superior to all others and, as a result, imposed (emphasis added) on every member of society through the education system” (Kelly, 1995, p. 103). For Kelly, knowledge should be presented to learners in a politically free, non-threatening, environment. Beane and Apple have suggested that learners should be “encouraged to ask questions like: Who said this? Why did they say it? Why should we believe this? and Who benefits if we believe this and act upon it?” (1999, p. 83). In this way, the curriculum is seen as something that unfolds naturally as groups and individuals interact with each other in democratic ways. This approach also challenges the long-standing distinction between ‘high status’ and ‘low status’ subjects.

However, it is important to acknowledge the central role of the academic disciplines in education for democracy. In New Zealand research shows the a new curriculum (MOE, 2007) has downgraded the place of knowledge in schools (Priestly, M., & Sinnema, C., 2014). This is a dangerous and undeomocratic move. In this article in the NZ Herald, Associate Professor Elizabeth Rata explains why:


In this essay I have argued that democracy is based on a genuine commitment to freedom, equality, and human rights. Therefore, education for democracy cannot and should not be based on attempts to control, ‘shape’ or manipulate learners. However, a commitment to education for democracy produces challenges for educators when it comes to making decisions about what knowledge to include, or exclude, from the curriculum. As we have seen, such decisions can be based on a range of beliefs: that some knowledge is more important, or powerful, than other knowledge; that the immediate needs and interests of learners should determine the content of the curriculum; or, that a vision of a better future society should inform decisions about what to include in the curriculum. An alternative is to view the curriculum as a process rather than as a product. This view recognizes that decisions about what and how to teach should always be open to criticism and debate. However, knowledge, by definition, cannot be imposed; it is something that is shared. To maintain and open and genuine democratic society the knowledge base of the academic disciplines needs to be placed at the heart of pubic education in New Zealand.


Beane, J. A., & Apple, M. W. (1999). The case for democratic schools. In J. A. Beane & M. W. Apple (Eds.), Democratic schools lessons from the chalkface. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Callan, E. (2008). American democracy, education, and utopianism. In D. Coutier & J. Weins (Eds.), Why do we educate? Renewing the conversation. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Edelstein, W. (2011). Education for democracy: reasons and strategies. European Journal of Education, 46(1).

Inglis, P., & Wilinsky, J. (2006). Soup kitchen democracy: Practical, critical lessons in theory. In K. Cooper & R. White (Eds.), The practical critical educator: Critical inquiry and educational practice. Netherlands: Springer.

Kelly, A. V. (1995). Education and democracy. Principles and practices. London: Paul Chapman Ltd.

Kovacs, P. (2009). Education for democracy: It is not an issue of dare; It is an issue of can. Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(1).

Rata, E. (2012). The politics of knowledge in education. British Educational Research Journal, 38(1), 103-124.

Priestly, M., & Sinnema, C. (2014). Downgraded curriculum? An analysis of knowledge in new curricula in Scotland and New Zealand. The Curriculum Journal. doi: 10.1080/09585176.2013.872047

Ravitch, D. (2008). Education and democracy: the United States of America as a historical case study. In D. Coulter & J. Weins (Eds.), Why do we educate? Renewing the conversation. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Schiro, M. (2013). Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1998). Organization, market and community as strategies for change: What works best for deep change in schools. In A. Hargraves (Ed.), International Handbook for Educational Change. Great Britain: Kluwer Publishers.

Vowles, J. (2004). Civic engagement in New Zealand: Decline or demise? Paper presented at the Inaugural professorial address, University of Auckland.

Wolff, J. (1996). An introduction to political philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Young, M. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45(1), 11-27.


1 Comment

Filed under General, Our research

One response to “Education for Democracy

  1. j. weeks

    Well written article describing democratic education. I particularly liked the contrast and critiques made between learner-centered and social deconstructionist orientations, and the idea of “curriculum as process” as opposed to “product.”

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