Closing remarks to Strasbourg’s World Forum for Democracy 2016, by "an interloper from Down Under."
On this day of all days (the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States), it’s good to note that this is a World Forum for Democracy, not a forum for representative government, that unfortunate system that was created by political elites to ensure the continuation of their own privileges following the French, English and American revolutions. Thankfully there are few people here advocating education that is focused on promoting this flawed system. But today it’s timely for us all to read books such as David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, or Brett Hennig’s The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy. Both these books offer powerful, provocative alternatives to the failed western experiment which has become audience democracy, a televised popularity poll.
I’ve done a few things in my life that are relevant to the Forum’s topic of democracy and education: university professor teaching and researching critical thinking (an essential component of a healthy democracy), a workshop trainer in dialogue and deliberation, research director of The newDemocracy Foundation which convenes citizens’ juries and undertakes democratic experiments in real world situations. I’m also a former primary school teacher in a student-run school and educator in high schools for Community Aid Abroad, focusing on human rights and development aid.
Inevitably, then, my ears have been attuned to certain complementary words and ideas these past days, and I've been watching through my own subjective lenses. For example, at the opening session I heard a young man ask why the education system does not give students control of their own destiny, using the principles of Ancient Athens? Hallelujah, I thought. Then I attended a Lab and saw evidence that this is already happening, big time.
Including the timid
Two projects jumped out at me:
(1) Lab #1, Democracy in Practice in Bolivian schools where students are not elected to a representative council. Instead, the charismatic are not favoured. Random selection is used, as it was in Ancient Athens. There was a delightful image of students waiting to extract a bean from a covered pot. If they took out a purple bean, and not a green bean, they became part of the student council and it meant they would be managing many aspects of the school. No presidents or secretaries – a flat structure of equals, with regular rotation so that all, including the timid, have an opportunity to serve and to enhance their leadership skills.
(2) Lab #1, Democratic Schools across the world, with this French case study of Ecole Dynamique (part of EUDEC) where students decide everything including hiring of staff. I had this experience myself – being interviewed by 25 students, and was subsequently hired. The result was shared ownership of the decision: they had chosen me so we were all very committed to working constructively together.
The students emerging from both these projects will have a different mindset, and almost certainly will use their democratic school experience for democratic purposes.
So many Lab projects filled me with optimism – brilliant work being done by committed and passionate advocates for active democracy, many designed to overcome social divides. For example:
(a) Lab #17, Education on Wheels, India, an educational bus that reaches child beggars and helps young people avoid child marriage or child prostitution while offering real knowledge when they spend time in the fully-equipped school bus.
(b) Lab # 17, Ideas Box, Libraries without Borders that go to refugee camps or remote, impoverished communities, offering respite from entrapment, isolation or boredom.
(c) Lab #15, “Dialog macht schule”, Germany that trains dialogue facilitators (themselves from migrant backgrounds) who in turn work with young people from a similar background, exploring important ethical issues, fostering self belief and solving social problems.
I heard in one Lab the statement, “teaching democracy is an oxymoron - if you are teaching it, you’re not allowing the practice of it”. I couldn’t agree more.
This has indeed been a World Forum for Democracy. I’ve been energised by speakers from South America, Africa, Europe, South Asia and more. Some were not even presenters, they might have been discussants or people who asked probing questions or shared their own projects during question time. For example, the Civic Plaza project in Greece: an abandoned hotel now housing refugees and ensuring children go to school.
I think we rapporteurs were meant to have an eye on scale, noting when many people were reached in formal and non-formal educational settings. I confess to a fondness for small projects, pilot projects, that have the potential to grow.
In my own world, the first citizens’ jury I ever co-convened cost only AUD400 and relied solely on volunteers. The newDemocracy Foundation of which I am a director, has convened many citizens’ juries. We started with the Australian Citizens’ Parliament and we’ve just been involved with a massive engagement program in South Australia on nuclear waste storage. In a single week last month we realised that we had oversight of three citizens’ juries in three Australian states with a total of 500 jurors. I now judge that original, tiny citizens’ jury in the 1990s as a fabulous seed that grew into a mighty oak. I’ve heard of many democratic seeds being planted in the past days – trees will surely grow!
Trying, failing, trusting
I’m also wary of an insistence on measurement of impact and evaluation in the early stages of democratic innovation. We need to be able to try and fail and change direction and not to be judged harshly for that experimentation.
We need to foster courageous experimentation. I heard from many who are truly courageous, in very tough situations. It is very difficult to change systems and structures. Few of the Labs could lay claim to that and that’s fair enough – but we will need to aim high to correct the inadequacies of contemporary societies.
Given the recent US election, I thought to mention a paper I wrote with the title “Ignorance and inclusion, Mr Jefferson, might be good for democracy”. I was arguing that the whole population did not need to be educated in order to elect the best leaders. I might have been wrong there!
But I would still argue that an entire population does not need to be educated about absolutely everything. Instead, we can gather together miniature populations and inform them deeply about a topic, expose them to critical thinking skills, give them opportunities to question experts and to deliberate together. I see this all the time: people who are selected via a civic lottery and yet are willing to give days of their time to deliberating thoughtfully on complex topics like government budgets, bioethics, nuclear waste and more.
These people are making decisions or recommendations on topics that matter to them and their communities. I trust them completely to decide collectively and collaboratively. No corporate backers, no lobbyists to harass them, no corruption, no need to campaign for re-election.
Now I’ve come full circle—back to that Bolivian school that uses identical principles for non-dissimilar ends: student empowerment, sensible decision making for the benefit of all. In other words, wisdom-of-the-whole. That should be our collective ambition: wise democracies – in schools, in neighbourhoods, in nation states and across the world.
Thank you for listening to an interloper from Down Under.
As published on OpenDemocracy. 15 November 2016