The false and damaging choice between facts and democracy


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.

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8 thoughts on “The false and damaging choice between facts and democracy

  1. As I commented on my blog a little while back, this is the current inversion that we’re dealing with in Ed academic circles:

    indoctrination – kids actually learning things

    education for democracy – kids being indoctrinated

  2. Robert says:

    In a democracy people are expected to make informed choices to influence policy (either directly through referenda, or indirectly through their chosen representatives) on some pretty complex subjects (for example, climate change.) As such, a democracy benefits from a well informed public.

    So, by educating the public, schools are already promoting democracy. You do not need to “engage students as democratic citizens” to do so.

  3. David F says:

    We’re seeing more talk in the US about “active civics education,” meaning PBL for civics classes. Meanwhile, none of my students (and even some of my colleagues) are aware of how the impeachment process works…

    • kesheck says:

      What a great point, David.

      I had a former colleague – a 6th grade History teacher – who was deep into PBL dogma tell me in all seriousness, and without a trace of irony, that his students were working on a project that would take most of the semester to complete and would cover just months of U.S. history. How are students supposed to gain the depth of knowledge that Greg describes here when instructional time is being used so inefficiently?

      I despair for our future.

  4. One of the best suggestions for democracy – is to lower the voting age to 16. This is not because 16 year olds need better representation or have more better ideas. It is because they are a captive audience and if they are indoctrinated to vote will likely do so for life.

    I use the term indoctrinated because that is exactly what someone pro democracy should want. All people indoctrinated to vote. Someone who is not prioritizing democracy could argue it is better to persuade people to vote but voting is a funny thing – for most people their voting or not will never change an outcome so persuasion is quite difficult. Voting as an unquestioned civic duty is much simpler.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Harry.

      Or you can make voting compulsory, as it is in Australia. A better solution than having the voting age reduced.

      I’m all for the voting age to go to 16, but along with it come all the other rights — smoking, drinking, joining the army etc. It is ludicrous to assert 16 year-olds are mature enough to vote, but not mature enough to be in charge of themselves.

      • I am not asserting they are all mature enough. I suspect some 30 year olds are not. The argument is the lack of maturity is not as big a threat to democracy as poor voter turnout.

        Even Australia and Belgium with compulsory voting are at about 80% so have room to do better.
        http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/voter-turnout-by-country/

        In other countries lowering the voting age may be more palatable than making it compulsory.

        If you look at how politicians spend their campaign funds – on road signs that simply state their colours and allegiance the main thrust of democracy is not mature selection of the wisest to lead us.

        It is more about checks on power. And if one in five people are not doing their bit then we are all missing out.

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