The importance of democratic education

Without it, we will continue to allow unhealthy scepticism about democracy to grow

July 09, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:18 am IST

A persistent concern exists about democracy’s failure to fulfil our expectations. While our votes are forceful ‘paper stones’, effective in getting rid of governments we dislike, they are powerless to give us effective, efficient, good governments. Why do we have to put up with corrupt rulers with criminal records — qualities that obstruct good governance? Why tolerate those who strive to do more good for themselves than for the people, who have neither vision nor wisdom? Why have mediocre politicians who shun contact with people with ability and talent?

Better, wiser governments

Some cynics may respond to this crisis of democracy by arguing the following: to achieve our national goals, we must assemble the best team to govern. Such a team cannot be elected by popular mandate but instead by those who have the intellectual wherewithal to select those fit for it. To such people, democracy — which is committed to the principle of one person, one vote, and which extends franchise to all regardless of ability — can never produce the best team.

They might draw an analogy from cricket where we play to compete at the highest level and win — something not possible if the best cricketers are not selected. But this is not achieved by popular vote. Instead, we rely on experts — a selection committee consisting of experienced cricketers. If popular mandate can’t give us the best team that realises our national goal in cricket, why expect a different result in politics? Why not select our government by a similar procedure involving experts?

So, to reiterate the conundrum: democratically elected governments in our times are neither efficient nor wise. They show a propensity to fail at achieving their national goal — a high quality of life for all people. Then why not abandon democracy? Or at least introduce an eligibility criterion, restricting the vote to those with formal education? Won’t education help in identifying the best political representatives? A democrat need not reject this argument. She may respond that this need not entail abandoning universal adult franchise but the distribution of education to all. This seems a decent solution. Sustainable democracies require a high rate of literacy. The more educated we are, it might be claimed, the better we become at choosing the best people to run our government.

But this argument is flawed. Literacy and education by themselves do not create good citizens or yield mature democracies. Many are formally illiterate but are politically astute and even possess qualities of good citizenship. Conversely, many educated people are prone to being self-obsessed, undemocratic, and even authoritarian. Primary, secondary or even higher education by itself does not guarantee good citizenship.

The solution then is not just education per se, but universal education of a certain kind, one that is focused on improving the quality of our democracy. Our current education system does not focus on education in democracy or what we might call democratic education. Nor does it build on elements of democratic culture embedded in our traditions.

Core elements

What then are the core elements of democratic education? For a start, it requires the cultivation of democratic virtues. For instance, the ability to imagine and articulate a minimally common good. This requires that we distinguish what is merely good for me from what is the good of all. And since each of us may develop our own distinct idea of the common good, to find an overlapping common good. Relatedly, an ability to handle difference and disagreement and to retain, despite this difference, the motivation to arrive at the common good through conversation, debate, dialogue and deliberation.

The ability to imagine and conceive a common good is inconsistent with what the Greeks famously called ‘pleonexia’, the greed to grab everything for oneself, to refuse to share anything, to not acknowledge what is due to each person, to have no sense of reciprocity or justice. It follows that the idea of the common good cannot be developed without some sense of justice. Democratic education requires training in not succumbing to pleonexia. Also crucial is a spirit of compromise, of moderation, and a willingness, within acceptable value parameters, of mutual give and take. None of this is possible without other general capabilities such as listening patiently to others, being empathetic to the plight of others, and having a commitment to continuing a conversation with people despite disagreement.

More important is the ability to participate in a particular historical narrative or, as the political theorist Jeremy Webber puts it, a “commitment to a particular debate through time”. Members of a political community become better citizens when they relate to critical issues through historically inherited terms of debate, a continuing narrative, a specific ongoing conversation. The reflection of that debate in political decision-making is central to the members’ feeling of engagement and participation. For example, there is a particular way in which the question of religion has been framed in India, as also issues of nation, caste and gender. Individuals become effective and meaningful citizens only by learning the terms set by debates around these specific issues. Since a useful entry to them is available through rich debates in the Constituent Assembly, a familiarity with them is a crucial ingredient of democratic education in India.

It also follows that democratic education involves a basic understanding of our society and its history, of its multiple cultural, intellectual and religious traditions, which set the terms of specific debates. I am frequently appalled at my own ignorance of the historical trajectory of our complex social problems. And saddened to find that my highly educated friends do not know that a constitutional minority in India is not just a numerically small group but one potentially disadvantaged by virtue of that fact; some mistakenly believe that religious minorities have reservation in jobs and in institutions of higher education; massive illiteracy continues to exist about the atrocious nature of our caste system; many continue to think that ‘secularism’ is a wholly western concept, as if ‘religion’ is not! Only a proper democratic education can remove these misunderstandings and flaws.

What then is democratic education? Conceived broadly, it is a historically specific enterprise, determined by the inherited vocabulary of specific political languages and the terms of debates in a particular community. It is designed specifically to enable conversation on issues central to a particular community, to strive for agreement where possible and to live peacefully with disagreement where it is not. In short, it involves social and historical awareness and key democratic virtues.

Many of these understandings and virtues can be inculcated by a good liberal arts education. The 2019 National Education Policy recognises this but alas insufficiently. And as far as I can tell from my skimpy reading, it has virtually nothing to say about how this relates to democracy. So, it appears relatively innocent of the more specific requirements of democratic education. Without proper democratic education, I am afraid we will continue to perpetuate bad democratic practices, allow unhealthy scepticism about democracy to grow and eventually imperil it.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, CSDS, Delhi

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