Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How democracy is killing education

We are post-Cold War, so it is safe to criticise the impact democratic principles have had on various aspects of our culture. I am not a Marxist, nor am I a proponent of any other form of government. To quote Winston Churchill, "democracy is the worst form of government... except all the others..." Democracy is good, but it is not a cure-all.

A few months ago, I read an essay by George Parkin Grant, where he criticized the impact of John Dewey on education. Dewey mandated a homogenization of democracy and education. His ideas laid the foundation for educational philosophy and pedagogy, ideas that have dominated public schools across the continent. George Grant, however, notes that democracy and education are incongruous. In order to provide “education for all” you must operate on a common ground, a common denominator…So, he argues, you end up with the “lowest common denominator”.

Education, however, is about challenging students to higher understanding and garnering the best results from the collective human intellect. One outcome of education is that some individuals will rise above their peers. Not everyone who makes it to “base camp” reaches the summit of Mount Everest. But such a view can be construed as educational elitism, which is not very democratic at all. On a colloquial level, teachers, students, universities and colleges, and employers, all complain about “lowered standards” and the “dumbing down” of curriculum. Articles circulate about our general lack of knowledge, our decreasing vocabulary and limited grammar knowledge, our collective stupidity, and our hubristic stubbornness in rejecting any remedy for these problems. We have “successfully” regressed to the lowest common denominator. We have brought the summit of Everest to base camp. By lowering standards and by removing obstacles, we bolster up some students while we “handicap” others… So long as everyone is either “raised” or “lowered” to the same point, then democracy and equality have prevailed.

Like the boys from Golding’s Lord of the Flies, we assume that democracy “vincit omnia”. In truth, democracy doesn’t conquer all; democracy is only as good as the people who are voting. Admittedly, democracy does work, albeit imperfectly, in the North American political landscape. Does it work in Iraq? Does is work in Afghanistan? Eventually it might. If the people rule, then the people need to know how to rule… hence, the natural pairing of democracy and education. But what has happened in North America has gone beyond “pairing”; democracy and education have been blended and education has been diluted.

The Classical Greek city-state, Athens, was the birthplace of democracy, a democracy that inevitably failed. Democracy failed for a number of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with democratic principles. For example, the experimental and innovative climate of Athens, the intellectual climate that produced democracy, was also a very unstable one. Democracy without “checks and balances” is also very unstable. Nevertheless, the “invention” of political democracy---even in its most rudimentary form in the 5th century BC---is an incredible contribution to Western civilization; but, the failure of that democracy should also be weighed. The politicking and spin-doctoring that plague our current political culture were also plaguing Athens’ political climate. At times, Athens degenerated into legalized mob rule; they democratically sentenced Socrates to death! Socrates! They voted for the foolish and flawed Sicilian campaign during the Peloponnesian war. Politically, they were unified. Naysayers were ostracised or sentenced to death. The lofty ideals that gave birth to democracy were displaced by the lowest common denominator, what they all could agree on.

To unite education and democracy on a philosophical level means the death of one or both. If Socrates---the paragon of teachers, the one who debated, asked pressing questions, challenged the status quo and sought for greater understanding---was rejected by democracy, then why would we think a democratized education could survive?


halfpint said...

Well said sir! (The passions of yesteryear rising in the wind, could there be a change in the air?)

Barbara said...

I read this, understood it, and agreed with it. What a good-brain day I must be having! Well said, indeed.

Jeremy W. Johnston said...

I strive to be confusing... Blast! I must begin again.