In 1997, Lori Handrahan, a human rights teacher with the United Nations Development Programme in Krygyzstan, wanted to deepen her students’ understanding of the democratic process she was teaching. With permission from the university, she encouraged her students to design their own governing body. They pored over state constitutions and received training from an international election organization. As they built their student government, they experienced first-hand, “how frustrating and time-consuming the democratic process can be,” Handrahan recalled. They also learned the value, and necessity, of compromise.
But the most powerful lesson came the day following their elections, when the University shut down the newly-formed student government. According to Handrahan, the students were both outraged and somewhat awed by their power. They were
amazed that simply the act of creating a government and holding elections was threatening to their own power structure (the University and the government that controls directly the university). They learned the difference between rhetoric and reality. They were fascinated that they were expected to take a government-mandated course in democracy but were not allowed to have a student government.
Handrahan offered her reflections on that experience as part of an online international dialogue on education for democracy hosted last spring by EDC’s International Development Division (IDD). The month-long global conversation was sponsored by USAID’s Improving Education Quality (IEQ) Project, a worldwide initiative to improve educational effectiveness in developing countries. More than sixty participants from nearly thirty countries contributed to a conversation that ranged from descriptions of political community theater in Kenya to policy discussions about the collapse and rebuilding of the Bosnian government.
“I wanted to think about the impact that educational systems have on the quality of governance—and vice versa,” explains Ron Israel, EDC Vice President. “Typically,” he says, “researchers have studied conventional approaches, such as civics education, or practices like voting. This dialogue is the first which looked at the issues of democracy and education in a systemic, holistic way.”
EDC’s International Development Division (IDD) structured the discussion around four “pathways” or levels of discourse: the classroom, school organization, community, and public policy. “Our hypothesis, borne out by the listserv, was that democracy and education are inter-related on many levels. Democracy-friendly educational systems depend on the ways in which teaching and learning are carried out at the classroom level, the ability of government to respond effectively to issues of educational equity, and the role communities play as well-informed educational advocates. The pathways we identified suggest points of entry for action and for future research,” Israel adds.
At the classroom level, support for inquiry-based methods of teaching democratic values was high among contributors, and research cited suggests a strong role for student participation and critical thinking skills, even in traditional civics classes. Felisa Tibbitts of the Human Rights Education Associates in Amsterdam, for example, reported on studies indicating that courses in civic culture that use participation and critical reflection produce students who are “more likely than their peers to hold opinions, show an interest in politics, tolerate diversity and have pro-democratic values.” Tibbitts said that these findings, from the Argentine Newspaper in the Schools project (a project that provided schools with free papers and teacher training) have been borne out in programs she has run in Romania.
Boubacar Tall, Senegal’s Head of Curriculum, focused on the critical connection between schools and communities. He shared the experiences of TIPE (Training-Information Program on Environment), a west African environmental education program funded by the EU, which drew students, school officials, and local women together to improve a school. The group’s activities including planting trees, organizing garbage collection, making water potable, etc. Eventually, their efforts extended beyond the school walls to include “street children,” in literacy projects and clothing drives.
Other examples shared in the discussion were rooted exclusively in the community. The Kenyan Rights Awareness Project (RAP), addressed a community issue by letting it surface through extended conversations, wrote Paul O’Brien, a co-founder who today works for CARE. When community members in a low-income Nairobi neighborhood discovered they shared a concern about the widespread acceptance of wife-beating, they developed a survey to test their impressions. They found that 60% of the local population, men and women, believed women were to blame for their beatings.
The RAP group decided to write a participatory play. In “The Cut,” a woman who has endured years of beatings goes on trial for chopping her husband’s hand off while he is sleeping. With the audience cast as jury, “The Cut” evoked passionate arguments in performances across Kenya and brought the issue of spousal abuse into public discourse. Widely performed, it ultimately figured in the 1997 trial of a Masai woman who took her husband to court for years of beatings, and has influenced more recent efforts to draft domestic violence legislation and form a Family Court in Kenya.
Much of the listserv conversation focused on the complex relationships between individuals and institutions at every level of society. Jeannine Anderson, an anthropologist at Catholic University of Peru, remarked that children develop political awareness early in life. “Even young children actively gather information and form ideas about the real power brokers in their communities and about the political forces that affect their daily lives. What they hear in school about decision making and law and democratic procedures can’t be too far off what they pick up ‘on the street’ if it is to be believable and if it is to seem practicable in the real world.”
Several participants wrote about the stumbling moves toward democracy in the former Soviet states, as new governments looked for ways to dismantle centralized power structures. Maureen McClure, director of the GINIE (Global Information Networks in Education) Project at the University of Pittsburgh, contrasted top-down and bottom-up attempts at decentralization in Bosnia. With the country’s formal educational system collapsing, dedicated ministry professionals, teachers, and parents created their own self-governing networks for the care of children. With support from international funding agencies, these networks continued to function throughout the war. “A small miracle,” McClure said.
By contrast, post-war attempts to devolve power from the national to regional governments failed, according to McClure: “The Bosnian centralized curriculum of tolerance collapsed as each canton [region] now had a license to print pro-ethnic materials.” The lesson, McClure observed, is that even power-sharing will fail when it is imposed on individuals and institutions:
In the first instance… self-governing networks emerged that were strong because they were based on the mutual self-interest of the profession. In the second instance, decentralization was imposed as a political solution, inadvertently reinforcing historical patterns of economic and political apartheid.
Originally published on March 31, 2001