An article on improving education about democracy has been published in The Conversation by Edda Sant, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. Reports of the death of democracy, whether greatly exaggerated or not, are a motif of our times. The impossible equation we are all trying to balance is the relationship between populism, the rule of law, expert opinion and truth. In a feverishly polarised atmosphere, neither side takes responsibility for its substantial part of the mess. So perhaps improving education is the way forward.
Such arguments tend to throw out paradoxes. Proponents of critical thinking may be found displaying a notable lack of it and instead encouraging something approaching indoctrination. However, this not Sant’s position. Instead, Sant’s view is possibly even more dangerous.
Firstly, what can we agree on? I am happy to support the following sentiment:
“Promoting democracy has always been one of the tasks of schools within democratic systems. But this demand is now on the rise. Indeed, across the globe teachers in schools are expected to engage students as democratic citizens. It’s hoped such lessons about democracy and what it is to be a good citizen will help to combat growing support for totalitarian and radical views.”
This seems uncontroversial. Yes, there are education systems that would not seek to promote democracy but they exist in undemocratic countries. Some people may differ, but I suggest it is a marginal and eccentric view to propose that education systems in democratic countries should be neutral on democracy. Let’s promote the idea.
Yet, what’s this? According to Sant, the promotion of democracy is in opposition to an alternative focus of schools in democratic systems:
“…when topics such as patriotism or historical conflicts are presented as ideas to be debated rather than facts to be learnt, students have time to form opinions and democracy benefits… Part of the problem is that in recent decades, there has been an increasing insistence on standardised tests… As a consequence, students learn there is a single correct answer for everything, including politics and democracy.”
Instead, we should apparently follow the example of, say, Brazil, where, “members of the school community democratically agree on school rules.”
I am not convinced that school rules represent the greatest democratic fulcrum of our times. What they do represent is the kind of topic that school students can construct a coherent argument about without much support because they know about the issues involved. This is why, in the absence of a properly sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum, standardised writing assessments tend to ask students about whether schools should have uniforms or whether dogs make better pets than cats.
However, if we want to learn, as Sant suggests, from historical conflicts, then we hit a snag. Take the War of 1812, for instance. What would it take for students to have an opinion on something like that? First of all, you would need to know that it was a war between Great Britain and the United States. You would need to know about the Chesapeake-Leopard affair and the Little Belt affair, the British naval blockade of Napoleonic France (and hence some conception of what Napoleonic France was, how it arose out of the French revolution and why it was an antagonist of Britian). You would need to understand the context of the westward expansion of the U.S. and how this led to Britain forging alliances with first nations peoples. And you may want to be able to illustrate your argument with some vivid details such as the British attack on the White House.
But all these things you would need to know could be described as ‘facts’ – the kind of facts you might be expected to know for an exam. Yes, constructing an argument relies on more than just knowing facts, but you still need to know those facts otherwise what kind of argument can you construct? It has always been this way. Classic essay questions have involved students of history in evaluating the causes of the first world war or discussing whether the bombing of Hiroshima was justifiable. This is how history has traditionally been taught and Sant’s idea that exams cause students to learn a single correct answer to such questions is faintly absurd. We might prompt our notional history students with, “The War of 1812 was the result of British naval arrogance. Discuss.” We would not expect much from any responses in the absence of sufficient facts.
And it is odd to cite knowledge of facts as part of the problem in an argument about democratic malaise. One of the criticisms of populists such as Trump is their apparent disdain for facts or their preference for manufacturing their own alternative facts. If there is one thing that we may call upon to see us through the current mess it may indeed be facts. A populace educated to the point of knowing lots of facts and being able to deploy those facts in sophisticated arguments may take a dimmer view of demagoguery. I hope so.