EVER wonder why democratic societies are unrivaled in expanding knowledge and creativity? There is a simple yet vital link between democracy and education, and it is found in how we learn best. If you have studied educational psychology or learning theory, you probably have insight into the causes of this phenomenon. If your instructional practices include such things as self-directed learning, self-reflection, or action research, you are probably well aware of the practical mechanism underlying this productivity even if you don't know it by name.
It is a fundamental belief under our system of governance that education is necessary for democracy. Less recognized is the equally important principle that democracy is necessary for education. Looking closely at the relationship between democracy and education reveals a common foundation in a learning mechanism that is as important for classroom practice as it is for a democratic society.
In Democracy and Education, Dewey defines education as the "reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience." (1) Education, like democracy, is fundamentally empowerment. Both provide the participants with the means to shape and direct their experiences.
The educational process in a democratic society, even in the most autocratic of classrooms and institutions, is grounded in basic freedoms. These freedoms exist beyond the particular classroom and institution, if not within them. From a learning perspective, the most important of these freedoms is the freedom to choose, to act on that choice, and to experience the results of those actions. Instructional practices that include self-reflection and action research are based on the idea that we learn by following our thoughts and actions and examining their consequences. By choosing a course of action and experiencing the results, our beliefs and understandings about the world, how it works, and how we fit into it are reinforced or modified.
In describing "intelligence," Jean Piaget echoes this fundamental play between thinking, acting, and learning: "The essential functions of intelligence consist in understanding and in inventing, in other words in building up structures by structuring reality." (2) We learn by constructing meaning from our experiences. We reconstruct, reorganize, and direct our experiences as we attempt to make sense of our world. Our understanding of the world is constructed through what we make of our experiences, how we interpret them, and how these interpretations are integrated into our knowledge and beliefs. These learnings provide the mental structures and dispositions that influence and direct subsequent experience.
We continually make choices in all of our thoughts and actions. Ulric Neisser wrote about the "perceptual cycle" of learning: of all the possibilities presented in our environment, our thought processes or mental structures guide our perceptual awareness, which samples the available information. As we choose to focus our attention, what we experience serves to modify or reinforce these structures, which guide further perceptual exploration and experience. (3)
This fundamental learning mechanism underlies the rich and productive relationship between democracy and education. Learning is the process of constructing meaning or structuring reality. It is necessarily a self-directed process contingent on individual choice and action.
The critical connection between democracy and education is that democratic social institutions are produced and sustained by the same progressive mechanism: the freedom to learn from experience, to build on experience, and to use this knowledge to direct the course of subsequent experience. …