Can There Be Education without Democracy?

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Education can exist without democracy - however democracy cannot exist without education for democracy

With the escalation of the protest against the proposed judicial overhaul, we are seeing more and more demonstrators who identify themselves based on their professional affiliation. Physicians, high-tech workers, military personnel, and educators: Principals, teachers at all levels, college and university faculty, staffs of informal education programs—and the list continues.

As a result, many of the protesting educators have been waving a new sign: “There’s no education without democracy.” The meaning is clear. Education must be granted a central place in society and is crucial for the very existence of the state.

But is it really the case that education without democracy is impossible? This isn’t just nitpicking. It’s an important question, and especially in light of what this protest had brought to the surface.

Education exists in many countries which are not democratic—and even education which is not bad, if measured by pupils’ scores on international tests. Education definitely exists in dictatorships, functioning as a space in which repression is internalized and passed down to future generations. The Israeli school system, built on “segregated” educational streams for specific population groups (Arabs, secular Jews, religious Jews and the ultra-Orthodox) that never meet or attend classes together, and where the fundamental values to which pupils are introduced are interpreted differently in each stream has contributed, albeit unintentionally, to the polarized country we are living in today. It has certainly contributed to Israeli society’s lack of a culture for respectful dialogue and debate and, as various surveys have shown, the widespread ignorance of basic concepts of democracy, such as the fact that democracy is not just about majority rule.

And so, rather than saying that education cannot exist without democracy, it would be more accurate to say that democracy cannot exist without education for democracy. And education for democracy requires the clear understanding that schools are a critically significant arena for dealing with complex, controversial, and sometimes painful issues, in a professional and responsible fashion.

For this to happen, we need teachers who have the capacity and skills to manage a complex discourse and who are aware of their ethical and educational responsibility. We need teachers who understand that if they don’t deal with complex topics, the issues will be thrashed out in less congenial venues: on the social networks and in the alternate universe of fake news.

We must have an Education Ministry that understands that a “sterile” school-insulated from what is happening in its environment is impossible; an Education Ministry that trusts its teachers and knows that its chief role is to support and encourage education for social involvement and good citizenship and for respectful debate. We also need parents who understand that schools provide tools for reading the world in which we live and equip pupils with the capacity for complex and creative thinking that enables them to define their worldview.

Yes, education is important. Very important. But for democracy to exist and survive for the long term, democracy education and teachers who incorporate it into every subject they teach, and for all ages, are the foundation on which our education system, which has perpetuated a polarized and divided society, can become the basis for repair and healing. Democracy is impossible without education for democracy.