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Can Educators Make a Difference: Experimenting With and Experiencing Democracy in Education

reviewed by A.G. Rud - February 15, 2013

coverTitle: Can Educators Make a Difference: Experimenting With and Experiencing Democracy in Education
Author(s): Paul R. Carr, David Zyngier, & Marc Pruyn (eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617358134, Pages: 280, Year: 2012
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This book describes and analyzes initial phases of the Global Doing Democracy Research Project (GDDRP). The GDDRP has “some 70 scholars in over 20 countries examining perspectives and perceptions of democracy in education in order to develop a more robust and critical democratic education among pre- and in-service teachers, teacher education academics, and educators, in general” (p. 1). This project seeks to understand in more detail how democracy can be enacted in a variety of settings. This is extremely important today, as there have been a number of democratic experiments, particularly in the Arab world, that call for examination and assessment, while the major Western democracies have engaged in expressly antidemocratic actions, such as supporting puppet dictators, military invasion rather than diplomacy, voter disenfranchisement, and suppression of viewpoints. Having educators who both understand how democracy works and who can teach in ways supportive of democracy couldn’t be timelier.

The authors endeavor to deepen and complicate our understanding of democracy beyond what one author calls the “heroes and holidays” approach to citizenship education (p. xiv). Here democracy is presented as one result of a sterile and safe pageant of history, full of rhetoric and good feeling. Such an understanding doesn’t show democracy in action, or the many challenges that come about when power is distributed. Neither the teachers nor the students are engaged in the particulars of a social or governmental experience. Democracy is messy and demanding, but you wouldn’t know it from the way it is taught in schools or understood by many as simply an exercise in voting. Vibrant teaching about democratic practices can be rendered inert by “authoritarian teaching methods and institutional environments that shape the experience of learners and teachers alike” (p. xv). This volume recognizes these contextual dangers.

The editors frame the book around the well-known and useful concept of a thin or representative democracy versus a thick or participatory democracy. Thin democracy is characterized by understanding the basic items of participatory government, namely elections and voting rights. Thick democracy adds an empowered citizenry who question power structures and the status quo. Overwhelmingly, the teachers and students in this book see democracy as a thin enterprise, not realizing their agency, and the purpose of the project is to deepen and complicate an understanding of democracy while also exploring ways that democracy can be fostered and constantly renewed.

The editors rely upon critical pedagogy as a theoretical framework. They believe that “inequitable power relations” (p. 6) must be analyzed for a robust understanding of how one can act in a democracy to be realized. Carr especially shows how critical analysis of power relations can be infused into such an understanding of democracy that will enable teachers and their students to move from a thin understanding of democracy to a thick one.

The book’s chapters describe various attempts to document the level of democratic understanding and what may be needed to teach for this stronger sense of democracy. Some of the accounts remain at the level of abstract description of survey results. In the study of Malaysian principals, the author duly notes that participants do not have more than a thin sense of democracy, but does not state more of a recommendation than that there should be some effort made to learn more robust democratic practices. Yet even in these reports there is much to learn. I was fascinated to read about the views of Peruvian educators, Argentine teachers, and Malaysian principals, as I know so little about the context. We learn that in Peru the challenges to enacting democracy can be very steep when a violent and authoritarian government is the context. Questioning the basis of power has greater consequences than in some other countries. In the two Argentine studies the context is also an emergent notion of popular government, but like in Peru, there is little understanding of what is necessary to fully interrogate systemic injustice. Argentina is a democracy between “authoritarianism and institutionalized representative systems” (p. 161), which makes it a particularly powerful and fertile site for democratic pedagogies.

Several chapters let us know the difficulty of the road ahead for this kind of work, and how it seems to happen bit by bit, educator by educator. I was struck by such insights in the chapter by Carolyn Shields on teaching for “deep” democracy to school administrators. She works closely with educational leadership students, even going to their schools to help them as they become transformative leaders in their schools. Shields delves deeper into a practical issue, to wit, can we as university educators teach for democracy? She documents several ways this is done, mostly through reflection, but also through gaining strength and support in a cohort program. Shields clearly knows that in university education there is time and space to provide opportunity for reflection and modeling of inquiry. She acknowledges that the work of teaching for democracy is messy and time-consuming. It involves one-on-one discussions with students to discern their particular leadership style and situation and to help them apply the reading and reflective discussion to their leadership styles and situations. Shields’s chapter is valuable because she seems to have a closer relationship with her students than the other authors, who rely on survey instruments. She is able to understand how difficult it is to carry on as a school administrator in an environment inhospitable for democratic practices.

Thomas Lucey’s chapter is unusual in that it discusses the connection of spirituality and deep democracy. As a Deweyan, I was intrigued, as Dewey also hearkens to transcendental sources for the democratic spirit, through Whitman and others. I did not quite understand Lucey’s notion of spirituality, which he wanted to distinguish from religion. To me it sounds more like love or caring, which of course have spiritual elements:

Broadly understood, spirituality may be construed as an individual group’s sense of place or belonging-a conception having both affective and mystical elements. In this vein, emotion is felt through the positive sense of being in a mutually caring environment. The mystical element relates to the positive view of events that relate to this supportive setting (p. 137).

In his chapter, Michael O’Sullivan notes that there are difficulties inherent in any kind of change, particularly one that challenges the status quo and digs deeply into cultural assumptions and practices. This is an important insight because the task of realizing democracy is long and unrelenting. Since democracy is messy and always in process, perhaps it is fine that this vibrant, inchoate book mirrors that process. It is an early report on a large and complicated project. Some chapters work better than others. Theory is framed and applied somewhat loosely and repetitively throughout the chapters (many cite the thin and thick conceptions of democracy, while some chapters read more like research reports rather than fully realized essays). No matter, as there is so much content in this book that calls out to be more fully absorbed and discussed widely. I felt like I just got a taste of what this ambitious project promises, and I am eager to see more.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17022, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 4:12:01 AM

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About the Author
  • A.G. Rud
    Washington State University
    E-mail Author
    A. G. RUD is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education at Washington State University. His most recent books include Albert Schweitzer’s Legacy for Education: Reverence for Life (2011) and edited with Jim Garrison, Teaching with Reverence: Reviving an Ancient Virtue for Today’s Schools (2012), both published by Palgrave Macmillan.
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