Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What Does Democracy Mean to Prospective Elementary Teachers?

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What Does Democracy Mean to Prospective Elementary Teachers?

Article excerpt

Dewey (1916, 1927) argued that the school should be a democracy in microcosm in which pupils learn particular processes, values, and attitudes to live effectively as citizens in a democratic society. By democracy, Dewey meant a form of active community life, a way of being and living with others. He emphasized that democracy entails habits of the mind that citizens must cultivate throughout their lives as they participate in institutions and groups in which they have a voice in setting goals, sharing knowledge, communicating, and taking direct action. Most important, Dewey envisioned democracy as a creative and constructive process for which citizens needed practical judgment, a shared fund of civic knowledge, and deliberative skills and dispositions, much of which must be learned in schools. Pupils should not simply learn about democracy as a form of government.

Parker (1996a, 1996b) raises important questions about educating children for the demands of an increasingly diverse society that is struggling to realize the democratic ideal (1996b, p. 2). He argues that the view of citizenship in the United States must be pluralistic and allow for a wide range of cultural and ethnic identities. The nation must strive for democratic political community within cultural pluralism (1996b, p. 20). Parker asserts that the school's first moral obligation is to give children an education equipping them to take advantage of their citizenship (1996b, p. 2). Like Dewey, he emphasizes the potential of public schools to provide children with a civic apprenticeship where democratic minds are cultivated. According to Parker, schools already possess the bedrocks of democratic living--diversity and mutuality (1996b, pp. 2, 10). When problems arise in schools, discussion is necessary; students gradually can be initiated into the democratic community and into increasingly critical levels of civic competence--that is, wondering and worrying together about how we ought to live (1996b, pp. 10-11).

We believe public schools are laboratories for children to learn the meaning of democracy. To help students construct sophisticated conceptions of democracy, teachers must hold sophisticated conceptions. Our research focuses on teachers' understandings of democracy. An elaboration of the particular conceptions of democracy that inform our study follows.

Meanings of Political Democracy That Inform Our Study

Diamond (1996) and Fishkin (1991) outline key features of liberal democracy that establish a knowledge base for understanding political democracy. According to Diamond, key features include regular, free, and fair elections and universal suffrage; protection of the rule of law; constitutionalism; accountability of elected officials; extensive provisions for political and civic pluralism and for individual and group freedoms; constitutional checks and balances in the branches of government; and political equality under the law and through an independent judiciary. Diamond (1996) argues that "true democracy" allows all groups to express their interests in the political process and permits citizens to have ongoing, multiple means for expression of their interests. Citizens also must have unfettered access to alternative sources of information (pp. 23-24). Diamond, like Dewey, asserts that true democracy is developmental and has a continued capacity for reform. Good governance must be consolidated over time.

Fishkin (1991) outlines three conditions that must be satisfied to constitute a fully realized democratic system (p. 29): political equality in which the system grants equal consideration to everyone's preferences and grants everyone appropriately equal opportunities to formulate preferences (pp. 30-31); non-tyranny, the choosing of policies that impose no severe deprivations on anyone; and deliberation, in which the system assures informed and negotiated democratic choices.

Broader Meanings of Democracy: Pluralist Citizens hip Education and Critical Democracy

Meanings of democracy beyond the political stem partly from Dewey's notion of democracy as a way of living. …

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