What is Democracy?
Any effort at democracy education must begin with a clear picture of what is to be taught and learned. It is therefore crucial that those designing education programs, and those who will be teaching in them, possess an informed understanding of democracy.
“Democracy” is a term that is often misunderstood and misused. Totalitarian and military regimes, for example, may call themselves ‘democratic republics’ and showcase constitutions promising rights and freedoms that are, in reality nonexistent. Furthermore, in countries emerging from totalitarianism, where oppression has been the norm for decades, there is a tendency to view democracy simplistically, as a guarantee of individual freedom, even license, rather than as a complex interplay of ideas, institutions, obligations, rights, and actions.
Democracy is a system of self government where the citizens are equal and political decisions are made by majority rule, but always with the protection of minority rights. In its purest form, democracy affords citizens the opportunity to participate directly in the decision making process. This is called direct democracy.
Given the size and complexity of today’s societies, it is generally more practical for citizens to elect representatives who will govern and make decisions on their behalf. Representative democracy relies on regular, free, fair, and competitive elections to hold the Government accountable to the people.
In a democracy, the government exists to serve the people, not the other way round. Since democratic government derives its authority from the consent of the governed, the people have the capacity to change the government peacefully when they lose confidence in it. And they need not fear a bullet if they try.
Democratic citizens are expected to participate in the political life of their society and to lend their influence to the public debate. They may do this by choosing representatives to the government; joining political parties, labour unions, and other voluntary organizations; serving on juries in civil or criminal trials; even running for public office themselves. To participate effectively, people must inform themselves about the issues affecting society and be able to weigh self – interest and factional interest against concern for the public good. They must be tolerant of dissenting views and be able to cooperate and compromise. They must exhibit respect for law and legitimate authority as well as for privacy and property.
Democracy is thus more than a system of government. It is a way of living and working together. And, it is only when the manifold responsibilities of democratic life are taken seriously by citizens that its rights and rewards will be meaningful.
In order for people to understand and appreciate their opportunities and responsibilities as democratic citizens, they must receive a sound education.
Such an education seeks not only to familiarize people with the precepts and practices of democracy, but also to produce citizens who are principled, independent, inquisitive, and analytic in their outlook.
Education for democracy should not be viewed as an isolated subject, taught for a short time each day and otherwise ignored. It is linked to nearly everything else that students learn in school. In short, good democracy education is part of good education in general.
Education for democracy occurs in a variety of venues. The most common environment is the schools, which, in a democracy, are not controlled by government alone. Democratic governments do provide schooling for their citizens - which must be equally accessible to all, and not be used as a vehicle for government propaganda – but democracy allows for alternatives as well.
School based democracy education can take many forms. Within the school curriculum, the history, principles, and practice of democracy may be treated as a distinct course of study or worked into a number of other disciplines (including history, geography, economics, literature, and social studies).
Alternatively, these ideas may be viewed as a theme around which an entire history/social studies curriculum can be organized.
The curriculum should cover four fundamental areas if students are to have sufficient understanding of and appreciation for democracy.
First, adequate attention must be paid to the roots and branches of the democratic idea. Students must learn where and how the principles of democracy were born, paying close attention to the circumstances in which they emerged. Democracy should be traced from its various strands in the classical world of the Greeks and Romans.
Second, the curriculum must help students explore how the ideas of democracy have been translated into institutions and practices around the world.
Third, the curriculum must explore the history of democracy in the students’ own country.
Fourth, students need to understand the current condition of democracy in the world. They need to know where it exists, where it is being fought. They need to recognize that democracy has taken different forms in different countries.