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Educated Decisions: The Role of Education in a Democracy

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.

Aaron Eyler is the writer of the blog “Synthesizing Education“.

About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.


3 thoughts on “Educated Decisions: The Role of Education in a Democracy

  1. Aaron, I really value your acknowledgment of democracy’s relative value to individual citizens. While it’s absolutely desirable for democracy to have personal meaning for all of us, I’d push public education to better ensure that all students view democracy as a positive force in their lives that enable them to have a say in how they and their communities live. Students should graduate seeing that democracy has a positive value.

    You’re right: we don’t need a ruling caste of “cerebral studs,” but we need to graduate citizens who feel just as empowered to affect real change in their circumstances and the circumstances of those for whom they care. While not everyone may need to master physics, everyone should understand and feel safer today than in the past in stepping forward and speaking up for democratic ideals of choice, equality, and freedom. We should be able to speak and listen with one another without fear to make those “educated decisions” that benefit us, our communities, and the world.

    To that end we need to stop seeing social studies teachers as the vehicles for teaching what democracy is and we all need to hold ourselves accountable to building classroom communities that teach how democracy feels and how democracy works to ensure better lives for us all than those lived in separation and fear.

    In addition to the citizenship test, I’d encourage students and teachers together to serve their communities somehow and experience how active participation in civic life strengthens them as enactors of what they think is right.

    What advice would you give a policy-maker, administrator, or classroom teacher in a discipline outside of social studies about how to run a democratic school or classroom?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2010, 3:37 pm
  2. Aaron, you and I make some similar points.

    1. Democracies rely on citizens being able to make educated decisions, as you put it.
    2. Citizens need to understand not only the system of government at hand, but also the responsibility that comes with it.

    To actualize these points, schools need to practice democracy, and more than just mock elections. Few schools practice this. Generally they are called Free or Democratic Schools, containing the DNA of Summerhill and/or Sudbury Valley. A great example of a school involved in a democratic process in your neck of the woods is the Ridge and Valley Charter School. Check it out and tell them I sent you!

    They utilize circle process, as offered by These circles provide everyone with the equal opportunity to be heard, thus being truly democratic.

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 1, 2010, 8:41 pm

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