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Democracy and Education

Philip Kovacs

Over the past six years this country has seen the Constitution discarded, the military privatized, the church married to the state, women's reproductive rights repealed, gangster-style cronyism, disgusting incompetence, and propaganda campaigns of Orwellian proportions.

None of these abuses would have been possible if our country had educated children towards becoming the types of adults capable of recognizing and acting against threats to life, liberty, and happiness.

If we continue to force children to memorize the dates of wars without asking why we have perpetual war; if we continue to force children to memorize mathematical precepts without understanding how and why we use math; if we continue to force children to learn to read while ignoring literacy, we should not expect anything different than what we have had for many years: a bewildered herd.

If, however, we want something much different for our children, for our communities, and indeed for the world, then we must take a radically different approach to how we educate future citizens.

If we want democracy, we must educate for democracy.

Democracy is a form of associated living that fosters the growth of the individual through her participation in social affairs. Free, reflective, critical inquiry and the welfare of others undergird interaction, communion, and community building. Unlike authoritarian modes of government, democracy requires its members to participate in the political, social, cultural, and economic institutions affecting their development and, unlike authoritarian countries, democracies believe in the capacity of ordinary individuals to direct the affairs of their communities, especially their schools.

The trajectory our schools now follow does not bode well for democracy. The No Child Left Behind Act produces a hyper-productive, blindly obedient, worksheet completing citizenry, one capable of voting for American Idols, but one unable to recognize larger threats to humanity. In place of NCLB, Americans must develop education for democratic participation, a type of education that helps children mature into intelligent, critical, engaged, reflective, and compassionate members of their schools and communities.

Active participation in institutions prevents authoritarianism and allows for individual and community re-creation and growth. Privatizing or standardizing institutions does quite the opposite.

NCLB removes teachers, students, parents, and local communities from active involvement in what will be learned, how it will be learned, and how to measure growth and development. Therefore the legislation is not only undemocratic, it prevents democratic reinvention and growth, as NCLB forces all communities to conform to a pre-determined and static version of what is true, beautiful, and good.

Democracy cannot be static.

As individuals engage with, reflect on, and critique the communities they inhabit, democracy itself evolves. A political system that ossifies cannot take into account new realities or exigencies. Therefore, democracy requires complaint and challenge, as it is through complaint and challenge that democracies evolve with social, political, and environmental realities.

Arguably, had we educated towards complaint and challenge, Iraqis would not still be enduring our freedom, the Supreme Court would not be slowly stripping women of their reproductive rights, the Constitution would still mean something.

Believing that democracy (or what it means to be "educated") has for all times been defined violates democratic principals. If our country does not invite and allow individuals to participate in its remaking, and if our country does not create and protect spaces for developing a citizenry capable of such participation, then our country is authoritarian, plutocratic, oligarchic, theocratic, totalitarian, or fascist.

Where and how should children develop a consciousness that favors democracy over any of the above?

In schools governed by corporate America?

Over the past six months we have extensively documented NCLB's attack on life, liberty, and happiness. After reading our research and listening to our arguments, nearly 30,000 people have signed our petition calling on Congress to replace NCLB with a democratic education, an education more responsive to the needs of local communities. In determining those diverse needs, we call on Congress to do the unthinkable: listen to the teachers in each of those communities, as democracy requires us to do.

Dr. Philip Kovacs is Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Chair of the Educator Roundtable, a project dedicated to freeing public schools from corporate encroachment.

If you have been to a public school, and if you have had a teacher that has shaped your life for the better, we ask that you support that school and teacher by signing our petition calling on Congress to replace NCLB with legislation more conducive to democratic participation and growth. If you'd like to learn more about what such legislation might look like, we invite you to visit us at

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