Educating for Democracy: With or without Social Justice

Article excerpt

Introduction

Increasingly, there is an explicit, as well as an implicit, need to stress democratic values and engagement in education in order to bolster democracy (Portelli & Solomon, 2001). Students, and society at-large, understand that the world in which we live needs to be problematized, better understood, and more effectively connected, especially in light of the obvious inter-dependence between nations, entrenched social, political, military and economic problems, and the quest for human rights and dignity (Gandin & Apple, 2002). With neo-liberal trends blanketing education-systems internationally (Torres, 2005), there is also the counter-current of some educators, marginalized groups and progressive forces requesting a greater emphasis on citizenship, democracy and social justice in education (McLaren, 2007; Vincent, 2003). The debate over the role of education in democratic citizenship education (2) is, therefore, shrouded in controversy (Sears & Hughes, 2006), with some arguing for more competition, higher standards, greater accountability, and the infusion of business in education, and others maintaining that education should be more responsive to the needs of all students, serving as a leveling force to off-set the cultural capital (Delpit, 1996) that some students bring with them to school (Bales, 2006). This latter perspective advocates a more holistic, dynamic as opposed to prescriptive, and focused approach for enhancing student engagement related to social justice (Ayers, Hunt, & Quinn, 1988).

This article builds on research related to the perceptions, perspectives, and experiences of educators in relation to democracy in education (Carr, 2006a), which, it is argued, can be viewed as having a significant impact on what students in elementary and secondary schools learn about democracy (McLaren, 2007; Regenspan, 2002), and, importantly, how they are engaged in democracy (Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). Is there a connection between the formal curriculum and civic engagement? (Apple, 1996). How does democratic education for students manifest itself in relation to the interest-level, background, and engagement of educators? (Thornton, 2006). In other words, to what degree does the level of democratic experience in schools rely on the capacity and interest of educators to become involved in work that inculcates values and experiences aimed at fostering democratic engagement? (Dewey, 1997). Lastly, and of particular interest to this research, I am concerned with the connection that educators make between democracy and social justice in education (Guttman, 1999; Regenspan, 2002).

There are four sections to this article. First, there is a brief overview of some of the salient issues and concerns framing the context and debate on democracy and social justice in education. Second, the approach and methodology for this research is presented. Although reference to the research related to the sample of College of Education students (Carr, 2006a) is made, the primary focus of this paper is on a sample of faculty-members in the same College of Education. Being able to compare and validate diverse findings and perspectives between the two samples provides for a more in-depth and triangulated research. Third, the findings and analysis are presented. Lastly, the final section serves as a discussion of the research, including suggesting policy and curriculum implications, and highlighting the role of teacher education in the debate.

Thick and Thin Democracy

Democracy can be defined in a thick or thin way (Gandin & Apple, 2002), emphasizing formal and informal aspects as well as a plurality of perspectives. The thick interpretation involves a more holistic, inclusive, participatory, and critical engagement, one that avoids jingoistic patriotism (Westheimer, 2006) and a passive, prescriptive curriculum and learning experience (Apple, 1996). This version of thick democracy reflects a concern for political literacy (Guttman, 1999), emancipatory engagement (Giroux, 1988), and political action (McLaren, 2007) that critics of the traditional or thin conception of democratic education have articulated. …