JOHN DEWEY once said that democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is its midwife.
Given the threats to democracy around the world, the unprecedented attacks on democratic institutions such as the media, judiciary and trade unions in many supposedly mature democratic nations, it is incumbent upon us as teachers to reflect on this new global order and reassess the assumptions we make about the role we play or should play in the preservation and maintenance of our hard-fought democratic way of life.
Education International reminds us that democracy and human rights are not gifts of nature. Their underlying values must be instilled in future generations. This is the unwritten clause in the assignment of the teaching profession globally.
Pedagogy and didactic methods imbued with democratic values should inform all teaching, irrespective of the subject content. This is indeed a formidable challenge; a task that should not be taken lightly.
In some countries educators are being required to pursue ideological or religious objectives set by the State on the one hand, while in others school systems are expected to serve the needs of the market and the economy, educating students to be mere consumers.
As teachers we must ensure that in our classrooms democratic principles comprise the foundation of our practice, and principles of equity, equality, social justice, respect and tolerance are reflected in and out of our classrooms. In other words, democracy must be a fundamental pillar of our education thrust and as teachers we must keep this principle foremost in our practice.
While our classrooms and schools must take their mandate from the society, schools have a sacred duty to shape and mould the future, which may sometimes necessitate correcting societal norms that are inimical to the perpetuation of a fair and just society.
As such teachers must be role models and agents of democracy in our quest to shape global citizens who can engage in critical thinking. Our charges must be encouraged to question without disrespect or violating the rights of others. They must be able to challenge practices that are undemocratic even if such practices reflect the modus operandi of the State.
Critical thinking is the fundamental basis for the perpetuation of democracy in any society. Without such capacity, people are subject to control and manipulation by others. This requires a broad curriculum and pedagogies that cultivate students’ responsibility, imagination and creativity as implied in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, target 4.7.
Recognising that our borders are no longer sufficient to insulate us from the onslaught of ideologies that promote discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, as well as xenophobia, intolerance, bigotry and right-wing nationalism, we must equip our charges to not just perpetuate democracy in their communities but to be able to defend democracy when it comes under attack.
As we prepare students to be global citizens we have an obligation to ensure that they are willing and able to stand up for democratic principles at all times wherever they go.
Notwithstanding the responsibility of the State and public authorities to finance education and set education goals, educators must always use their professional discretion to interrogate and to reject curricular directives that defy facts, falsify history, propagate hate or are otherwise at odds with international human rights standards.
We have a professional and ethical responsibility that may sometimes outweigh the authority of education employers or even of governments where they have abdicated democracy and human rights.
Teachers also have a duty to protect public education for the common good, since it is both an individual and collective right. It gives every person an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a meaningful life. It is a nation’s most precious and effective tool to achieve economic growth, social progress and democratic development. It is a basic social service and one of the cornerstones of democracy, which if not jealously guarded can result in societal decline.
Governments have a core responsibility to facilitate the delivery of quality education by building and funding strong public school systems. As teachers we are vanguards of democracy and must use our collective voice of advocacy to ensure that they don’t deviate from that core principle.
Free public education ensures accessibility by all citizens to opportunities to reduce inequalities. Schools and educators must build citizen resilience through a broad curriculum, not only ensuring the delivery of the appropriate knowledge, skills and values, but also constituting a solid basis for lifelong learning.