Perspective: The Renewal Of Democratic Education

May 26, 2020

“Democracy,” wrote Charles Dole in 1906, “is on trial in the world.” In 2020, the more apt analogy might be that democracy lies gasping for air in a hospital bed. Just as the coronavirus is savagely attacking our flesh-and-blood, so too is it attacking our body politic. The institutions built to sustain us in times of crisis are failing like organs starved for oxygen; addled by partisan fevers, we confuse compromise with capitulation and fiction with fact. 

One way to cure what ails our body politic is to renew education’s democratic purposes. Too many schools today value a curriculum that produces good workers rather than cultivates good citizens.  Schools should prepare young people for employment, but not at the expense of preparing students to meet the problem-solving demands of democratic life. Without cultivating reflective, critical, collaborative, and curious habits of mind, our body politic remain susceptible to disease and decay. 

The “new normal” of e-learning provides an opportunity to revitalize democratic mindsets and competencies. E-learning can support self-directed, problem-based inquiry, service-learning opportunities, and community-based, collaborative projects that draw on local resources and knowledge  traditions. E-learning can encourage teachers and students to explore together the kinds of curriculum questions asked by UIC Emeritus Professor William Schubert: "What is worth knowing, experiencing, doing, becoming, and sharing?” These straightforward but powerful questions just might be the medicine we need to get democracy out of its sick bed and back on its feet.

I’m Patrick Roberts, and that’s my perspective.