“Education on the International Day of Democracy”, by David Edwards.

The United Nations established the International Day of Democracy on the 15th of September in 2007 to promote democracy. In 2019, it is clear that democracy and all the things that go with it like human rights and rule of law need to be defended as well as promoted. Education is affected by the state of democracy as well as relevant to its defence, promotion, and future.

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in an essay in 1989, as the Soviet bloc was collapsing, proclaimed the “end of history” describing,

“…the end of history as such.... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The shock of the American Presidential elections in 2016 and similar developments elsewhere prompted him to remind us that his original essay in 1989 was “The End of History?” with a question mark at the end. In a book, “Identity” from 2018, he writes,

“Populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections to consolidate power. They claim direct charismatic connection to ‘the people,’ who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the population. They don’t like institutions and seek to undermine the checks and balances that limit a leader’s personal power in a modern democracy: courts, the legislature, independent media, and a nonpartisan bureaucracy.”

Fault lines in democracy have not just come out of the blue. There are few things as fundamental to democracy as free, universal public education and yet, it has come under attack. We have learned that the defence of education and of its practitioners is also defence of democracy.

The birth of public education

Free, universal public education was a major priority for the trade union movement already in the 19th century. For example, in the United States, calling for public education was the first decision when the original inter-sectoral trade union organisation was created. It was founded in Philadelphia in 1827. The delegates called for,

“a system that will fit the children of the poor as well as the rich to become our future legislators, a system that will bring the children of the poor and the rich to mix together as a band of Republican brothers”. 

Dangers to the public education system

EI and its member organisations have been fighting commercialisation and privatisation for many years. That struggle was crystallised and focused in the Global Response campaign launched in 2015 at the EI Congress in Ottawa.

This campaign and related activities are about a lot more than protecting education from those who hustle education as a source of wealth rather than enlightenment. It was also sounding the alarm about education “reforms”, public or private, that narrow the scope of education to those subjects where progress can be easily tested and judge teachers and students based on criteria that are easily measurable.

In many countries, that has distanced education from its mission of education to enrich one’s life and develop the capacity to make a difference, including as an active citizen.

In other words, attacks on public education with a broad mandate and attacks on trained and motivated teachers who can develop students who can think and act independently are also assaults on democracy. They threaten to cripple our ability to foster community, and encourage peace, understanding and tolerance. The increase in segregation that derives from many reforms damages public education and undermines “a system that will bring the children of the poor and the rich to mix together…”

The evolution of education in some countries has placed distance between schools and democracy. Combined with often permanent rather than passing austerity programs, damage to schools and professional teachers compromise the future of democracy.

Education for Democracy

There is nothing new about propaganda. The fact that the internet has become its prevailing delivery system does not change its nature. However, it is like an automatic weapon versus a knife. It can kill more efficiently and is less selective.

People find themselves buried under an avalanche of information. It is a load that too often snuffs out the truth. Social media has become the leading source of information in many countries. There is no technological way to remove falsehoods or separate out fact from fiction. People need to learn how to do that manually and at an early age.

To support educators and others to help students identify truth, think critically, discuss and debate and become actors in rather than victims of democracy, EI has published a book by EI President Susan Hopgood and EI General Secretary Emeritus Fred van Leeuwen called “On Education and Democracy; 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession”.

In launching the book at our recent Congress in Bangkok, van Leeuwen explained that he does not understand why the links of education with democracy are often missing from the debate on democracy, and added,

“in the so-called established and emerging democracies, where most of us in this room work and live, and where we take free elections for granted, democratic standards may fade away, sometimes without us realising it. That is, until we wake up one morning finding our professional and trade union freedoms amputated, finding our public services pared to the bone and sold on the market, finding our media brought into the hands of a few tycoons, and finding our politicians  shamelessly exploiting racist and xenophobic sentiments What I am saying is that democracy is a process that is reversible, that democracy can easily slip away.”

Education can instil democratic values. It can equip people with democracy competencies. It can give hope. And, political decisions based on discussions and hope will yield better results than those based on the “Big Lie” and fear.

In conclusion, on this International Day of Democracy, we have a simple message. We need democracy for education, education for democracy, and trade unions for both.


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David Edwards

David Edwards is the General Secretary of Education International.

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