Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Social Foundations of Education and Democracy: Teacher Education for the Development of Democratically Oriented Teachers

Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Social Foundations of Education and Democracy: Teacher Education for the Development of Democratically Oriented Teachers

Article excerpt

There is only one road to democracy: education. (Barber 1997)


I am a teacher educator who for 10 years regularly taught a Social Foundations course to Master's-level education students at a small liberal arts college in the northeast U.S. One of the course foci was, of course, democracy and education. To introduce the topic, I first asked the students to collectively define democracy. Although they often struggled, for the purposes of schooling, at least, we often arrived at a definition that looked something like this: democracy (n): the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1985).

Several years ago I began to use a short piece by Ron Miller to more directly connect this definition of democracy with schooling. Drawing on his review of "eight great books on democratic education," Miller (1995) contends that democratic schools are characterized by:

* Engaged, relevant, socially responsible learning;

* Cooperation within a supportive and caring environment;

* Accommodation to diverse learning styles;

* Celebration of cultural [and other kinds of] diversity; and

* A fair distribution of resources.

When I shared this list with my students, no one was ever able to name a school in which all these characteristics are in place; in fact, they frequently noted that in many schools, none of these apply. If that is an accurate assessment of schooling in the U.S. today, and I believe it is, and if it is important to have democratic schools--again, I believe it is--what can Social Foundations teacher educators do to support the development of teachers attuned to and grounded in an education for democracy? And, to that end, how can we make our own (teacher education) classrooms more democratic?

The Background

Throughout the history of public schooling in the United States, maintaining our democracy has been cited as one of the fundamental justifications for public support for schools (Miller, 1997; Silberman, 1973; Soder, Goodlad, & McMannon, 2001). The pioneers of public education--among them Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey--argued that schools were, in fact, essential to the health and well-being of the republic. This is because relevant, problem-posing, multi-faceted education--democratic education--is central to democratic life; it is necessary for enfranchised citizenship, and for teaching students how to play an active role in the economic, cultural, and political life of the nation (Dewey, 1916; Giroux, 1988; Mills, 1956; Noddings, 2005). A democratic state requires the education of critical, thoughtful citizens who can define their own purposes and are able and willing to act upon their ideas (Eisner, 2001; Freire, 1986; Giroux, 1994).

Thus, in a democracy, we need an education that helps children find their own voices and communicate their own messages, that celebrates the hundred or more languages of children (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993). We need an education that supports the development of students who are gloriously different individuals who will enrich our world by posing and solving problems in ways we have never tried. And we need teachers who promote improvisation, surprise, and diversity of educational outcomes as educational virtues (Eisner, 2001, p. 372). In sum, democratic education ought to liberate humans rather than domesticate them; it should unfit them to be slaves, to paraphrase Frederick Douglass.

Certain habits of the heart and mind are central to democratic education and able to be inculcated early on as well as expanded upon as one grows in knowledge, life experiences, and capabilities: informed skepticism, a willing suspension of prior belief; informed empathy, stepping into the shoes of others without judging and with a genuine desire to understand; and an interest in and ability to utilize imagination, envisioning how things could be different--and better (Greene, 1973; Meier, 1996). …

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