Democracy and Education: Uneasy Bedfellows

Article excerpt

It's all over the papers - young people aren't voting. It's the fault of the media leaving negative perceptions. It's the fault of the school curriculum for not teaching enough civics. It's the fault of Elections Canada for not making registration easy enough. It's the fault of politicians for not addressing youth issues. Are we pinning the blame on the wrong donkey? Maybe the problem is so imbedded in our institutions that we can't really see it.

The dynamic of schools as places where democracy is taught but not practised is deeply entrenched. While medical patients and legal clients have increasingly assumed the role of participants in, rather than just recipients of, both health and legal services, students have not seen a similar change in their role vis à vis the education system. Does this have anything to do with the lack of youth participation in the electoral process? Well, it probably does.

Educational researcher Alison Cook-Sather says it's a question of trust - "whether or not adults trust young people to be good (or not), to have and use relevant knowledge (or not), and to be responsible (or not)."1 The frustration this lack of trust causes for today's youth is clear in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen by Mike Sornberger, an Ottawa high school student who was serving as a student trustee at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board at the time:

"Teenagers are interested; teenagers watch the world around them. We have opinions, views and political leanings. We are people, but are often pigeon-holed as inattentive, uncaring delinquents ... This attitude is common and leads to indifference toward teenagers by some adults. They believe we have no opinion; so any opinion we may express is immaterial."2

This theme issue of Our Schools/Our Selves focuses on this dilemma with articles about the relationship between democracy and schools. In our cover article, Joel Westheimer, who holds the Ottawa University Research Chair in Democracy and Education, points out that we need to understand the different types of citizenship. For example, law-abiding individuals and those who challenge injustices by challenging the law can both be called "good citizens." The former are as likely to be encouraged by leaders in a totalitarian regime as by those in a democracy. The latter, although recognized by democracies as essential to the system, still pose a problem to which police riot squads have recently been the solution. Or have they?

Westheimer points out that different strategies will promote (or not) different types of citizenship. Encouraging students to help the poor does not necessarily lead to a critical examination of economic policies that lead to poverty or vice versa. Similar questions about the kinds of citizen being promoted by various programs appear in articles by Barbara Hillman, Heather-jane Robertson and Desmond Morion. Brian Howe offers a rights-oriented strategy currently being introduced in several jurisdictions.

Educational policy-making processes, whether top-down or participatory, embed goals and objectives that then manifest themselves in programs and curricula Ursula Franklin has described these processes as technologies of practice. They involve "organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations and, most of all, a mindset"' José Clóvis de Azevedo and Daniel Schugurensky offer a model for Citizen Schools which evolved from the participatory budgeting process in Pono Ategre, Brazil - a mindset which demanded the radical democratization of schools. Laura Pinto compares this model to one closer to home in Ontario - dominated by policy elites and distanced from communites. Heather Menzies observes changes in the patterns of interaction in her university level seminar courses and suggests that our own education system, combined with recent social changes, may be leading us to a technocracy rather than a citizenry. We need more classroom dialogue, she says, to reroot our knowledge "back into the realm of living bodies, the life of society and the living earth" - perhaps the kind of dialogue Azevedo and Schugurensky describe. …