The problem with answering this question is that most people have a limited scope and understanding as to the role and purpose of education in general never mind when we start to discuss its importance in a democracy. It’s the juxtaposition of articulating a clear role of education in a democracy as well as the purposes of education beyond the traditional perceptions of the citizenry as a means to unlocking doors that are expected to lead to a democracy or the sustainability thereof.
What this means is that we need to expand on our own definitions of democracy and understand that isolating those definitions according to individual circumstances is not only an option but necessary. By default, this means that any answer that anyone gives you to this question is automatically wrong, biased, and subject to widespread criticism. That’s also why every answer deserves an audience and to be considered by each of us that lives in our own isolated environments. So that once we get to the point at which the author currently lives, we can build upon those ideals and contribute our own identities in a constant effort to develop and improve the lives of all individuals around the world.
Education should work to develop a constituency that is knowledgeable in evaluating options based upon available evidence and criterion that impacts his or her life. Does this mean that education needs to pump out cerebral studs to be deemed a positive contribution to democracy? Absolutely not. Education as a contribution to democracy has nothing to do with our traditional elitist views that an educated citizenry is comprised of those who have 4.0s and take seven AP classes. Say it with me: educated decisions.
It is that reason why education is so important in building, developing, and sustaining a democracy. Students must learn to make educated decisions using prior events (modern and historical) and advocate for those decisions using sound logic and discussion. To say that every student needs to master Physics in order to appreciate democracy is absurd and downright stupid. What they need to know is the great lengths that people have gone to so that they may build and maintain a democracy as well as the impact that their decisions have in proliferating the system.
The dominant means of these activities tends to fall upon the shoulders of Social Studies teachers. Perhaps it is because we lack the creative ability to transfer these ideals to other subjects. Perhaps it’s because other subjects are so concentrated on teaching students to answer multiple-choice questions and pass standardized tests that they can not withstand the burden of “one more layer”. Either way, schools need to develop a democratic culture and understand that a failed emphasis on this ideal means the potential demise of democracies around the world.
In the United States there is one standardized test that I advocate for, and I challenge anyone to come up with a rationale reason to oppose me. At the beginning of every year, every student should have to take some form (scaled to grade level) of the United States Citizenship test. Does this assess the particular ideals that I have discussed above? No, but if we are going to harp on the fact that students need to be prepared to contribute positively to our country’s democracy, then maybe the place to start is by showing them the amount of factual knowledge people need in order to become a United States citizen. Especially because most kids graduating high school would fail the test anyway.