Education is an investment for the future, but the question is, what do we hope the future will be like? What are children of today being educated for – what issues will they grow up to confront, and with what kind of skills do they need? In their newly published book, Educating for Democracy in England and Finland (Routledge 2016) Andrea Raiker and Matti Rautiainen question the trend for increased assessment and competition in education. The authors call for education and learning of something more difficult to measure, yet with arguably great returns: democracy.
For what kind of a world is education currently preparing pupils? The recent years have witnessed a rise of extremist and populist politics and anti-democratic movements in several EU member states and globally. As a consequence of the deep and prolonged economic recession in Europe, the attitudes and values of people in Europe have hardened and populist politics have gained growing support. These developments have also been fuelled by the growing amount of immigration set forth by the humanitarian crises in Syria and the Middle-East. It seems that at least in Europe, both representative democracy and the views of individuals are leaning further and further away from the principles on social equality. Austerity politics are hurting the least well off, and people are more willing to blame individuals for their hardships.
Yet at the same time, as Raiker and Rautiainen (2016) point out, great progress has been made in global issues such as global warming, sustainability and human rights. This development would not have happened without educated and critically reflective governance and the participation of citizens and societies globally.
According to Raiker and Rautiainen, the skills and qualities that have brought on the progress in these global issues are fundamental prerequisites needed for us living together both within and across national borders, as democratic societies. Therefore, these are the skills our school systems should be teaching children.
Learning skills for constructive coexistence
Education for democracy is essentially education for learning to live together. The skills ultimately needed for this are those which allow pupils to voice critical opinions to guide their citizenship: to be involved in society and to come together as equals to solve common issues. (Raiker & Rautiainen 2016.)
Students should be equipped with skills that allow for critical perception of common, global issues and solving these issues together through reflective, knowledgeable deliberation. This, more than the act of voting at the ballot box on election day, is what the authors understand by democratic citizenship. The book, Educating for Democracy, is a statement on not only the underlying political ideologies and conceptions concerning education, but can be seen as part of the wider discussions on the nature of democracy and democratic citizenship.
The Power to Change Society
The opposite of a democratic school would be a passive, or a passivating school. Such a school lacks participation, community, empathy and critical thinking. It’s a place where the teacher limits the conceptions of democracy by defining what is the good and correct way to act democratically, not giving room for the critical scrutiny of such conceptions. In such a school there are no possibilities for pupils to take part in decisions that affect themselves, and no time and space for working together with each other. (Raiker & Rautiainen 2016, Rautiainen & Räihä 2012.)
A passive school can be seen as a breeding ground for a generation that not only does not take an interest to vote in elections, but that does not even realise the opportunities it might have to affect decisions concerning themselves.
On the other hand, a passive school raises easy followers for populist politics and anti-democratic movements. In other words, a passive school raises students who don’t have the ability to assess information aimed at them critically or encounter their fellow citizens with empathy and understanding.
Raiker and Rautiainen (2016) see the fundamental task of schools to develop democratic living by cultivating communality and empathy – emphasis on the word develop, since democratic life is not something fixed and stagnant. The aims of education are twofold: raise pupils to be a part of society and to change that society. School should be, according to the authors, a platform where pupils could experiment with democracy from their own viewpoints.
What the Classroom Needs: Empathy and Communality
The idea enforced in the book is that educating for democracy should not be perceived rigidly as teaching a subject, or be limited to the contents of one class such as civic education. Rather, learning democracy happens through the everyday practices and principles of schools.
Echoing John Dewey (1966), Raiker and Rautiainen (2016) write that democracy should be experienced in the daily life of schools, not only taught in preparation for a “real life” that awaits pupils once they grow up. In fact, schools should be “miniature societies”, in which knowledge is transformed into lived, everyday action.
The thought of schools as “miniature societies” implies that just as society at large, schools too need to be organised in such a way that democratic life is possible. Democracy in nation states cannot exist without structures of government, elections, representative politics, media, and all other institutions that have been created to foster particular democratic practices. Neither can democracy exist in schools if there are no spaces, places, and structures that allow democratic life to happen.
For this purpose, two prerequisites of democratic life are especially noteworthy. The first is empathetic environments – something that seems to have been lacking in a lot of places lately. Democratic life needs empathetic environments; environments for being heard and being understood (Raiker & Rautiainen 2016).
The other prerequisite, greatly related to the first, is communality. Communality unites individuals and invites individuals to participate – it is “the stuff of democratic living”:
“The fundamental work of school is not just to impart and instill the knowledge and understanding required by society for economic growth and profit, it is also develop communality and communal life, the stuff of democratic living.” (Raiker & Rautiainen 2016, 154)
Communality refers to having common aims or values and shared responsibilities. The democratic community that the authors of Educating for Democracy in England and Finland hope schools would foster would recognise that the value of a person cannot be measured only in terms of economic growth and profit. The political climate in the times of economic crisis has increased the tendency to view people in terms of the expenses they create. Much less attention has been paid, both in the UK and Finland, on what these individuals can contribute to society. Raiker and Rautiainen write that democracy is a social and moral bind keeping together the individuals of society:
”Democracy is essentially about how a society relates to an individual, and how that individual relates to society.” (Raiker & Rautiainen 2016, 6)
Vilja Kamppila, M.Soc.Sc., is an intern at the Society Programme of The Finnish Institute in London. During her internship she is writing a discussion paper on practical means of education for democracy.
The Ambassador of Finland hosted a seminar based on the book Educating for Democracy in England and Finland on Wednesday 12th October 2016. In the spirit of open democracy, a live video from the event is viewable on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/FinInstLondon/
Speakers in the seminar included editors of the book Dr Andrea Raiker and Dr Matti Rautiainen, as well as Dr Neil Hopkins and Dr Mirja Tarnanen. The event was hosted by the Finnish Embassy, The University of Jyväskylä, The University of Bedfordshire and The Finnish Institute in London.
Dewey, J. (1966) Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.
Raiker, A. & Rautiainen, M. (eds.) (2016) Educating for Democracy in England and Finland. Principles and Cultures.
Rautiainen, M. & Räihä, P. (2012) Education for Democracy: A Paper Promise? The Democratic Deficit in Finnish Educational Culture. Journal of Social Science Education, 11 (2), 7-23.