A christmas card for democratic education


December 17, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

(This was supposed to be a brief answer to Jeremy Harmer’s latest blogpost, but I got carried away, perhaps diverged too much and didn’t want to take so much space in someone else’s blog, although I know he wouldn’t mind, anyway, the mood I am in at the moment didn’t make me comfortable to post it in there, so here it is)

Hi Jeremy,

I’ll try my best to be brief, after all it’s Chirstmas time so I’m supposed to be writing assignments instead of blogging.

Although your whole point is food for thought, the final question is decisive.

“If we believe in the democratisation of education can we be happy with this?”

My unhesitating answer is NO.

The few things below that support this rather sharp answer are things that I saw in one day – today.

Michelle Worgan’s article on HLT titled “From Summerhill to ELT” reminded me that in my brief history as someone concerned with education I haven’t seen any thing as near as the real democracy operating inside a school as I have read about what happened in Summerhill from its early history until the shameful attempt of OFSTED to shut them down. Unfortunately, I am only based on what I read, but it was so out-of-this-world that even if the truth was a quarter of what is reported it would be already relevant. Moreover, them being the only (whole) school to ever have a trial (and win) in the British Royal Court of Justice is already paramount in educational democracy. And what they want is, basically, for the children to choose what they want to do, that is, if the children don’t want to go to class, fine, because instead they’ll be playing and will develop anyway. In the words of Summerhill’s founder, A.S. Neill, it’s better that the children are happy plumbers and electricians than paranoic doctors and lawyers, or something like that.

(phew – I’ll really try to be brief now)

Thomas Baker’s call for action regarding discriminatory hiring practices against teachers who are non-native English speakers. In public, everyone says in practice this is a myth and that in the classroom they can both be equal. Fallacy – because many of them aren’t even given the chance to be interviewed to eventually teach the same class a native English-speaker would do. And in public no-one does much, because obviously they themselves don’t want to risk being in conflict with the big sharks, it’s easier to do nothing and watch, after all, you never know who your next employer may be.

– A quick look at the World Bank’s statistics in Education and Development. It’s estimated that in 2008 the US had over 1,7 million primary-school-age children out of school. It might not sound much for a population of their size, but it is a lot before a great number of its teachers support things like “one laptop per child”. Also, considering that this is a plan to ‘help’ the developing countries the idea is even farther from democratic. In Pakistan, a much more smaller country, there were in the same year around 7,2 million children out of primary education. Who cares about laptops when there are many dying of starvation.

Can we be happy with a democracy in which schools verge closedown induced by governments because in there children can choose when and how to learn?

Can we be happy with a democracy in which one’s glass ceiling is one’s own mother tongue?

Can we be happy with ‘digital inclusion’ over starvation?

It’s perfectly fine not to think about all that at the end of a year where we had the hell of a hard work. It’s fine to rest our minds, chill out, and enjoy the good times we’re fortunate to have.

But if we believe in the democratisation of education, we have a long journey ahead.

(sorry it was not brief at all…Happy Holidays :-))


7 thoughts on “A christmas card for democratic education

  1. David Warr says:

    Happy Democratic Christmas, Willy,

  2. Great article that makes us all think, Willy.
    I would like to add a point that I read about yesterday in the Spanish press that illustrates your point about how undemocratic our democracies are. There is a law in Spain that states that every child between the age of 6 and 16 must be in education. This of course is logical, but the problem is that “education” means an official centre of education i.e. school. There is legally no alternative to what the state and/or private schools (whose curriculum is dictated by the state) provides. I read about a case in Málaga where parents have been forced to send their home-educated children to school in a totally exam-based system. These children had been receiving a more than adequate education at home. What kind of a democracy is this?

    Here is the link to the article in El País. It’s in Spanish but I think you will be able to get the general idea.

  3. Hi Willy,

    so now I’ve come over here from my ‘territory’!

    Many things to say. Firstly, I was in Qatar University last weekend and to my satisfaction 65% of the English teaching staff were non-native speakers of English. Why was I satisfied? After all, as I have said in many presentations, I am completely unashamed to be a native speaker (and even if I was unhappy there isn’t anything I can do about it!), but English is just a language, and in the end you and I (and those teachers in Qatar) meet as equals. The only way to meet.

    Summerhill? A brilliant and life-enhancing set of beliefs. But not all the kids who were there have benefited in the same way from its democratic and humanistic principles, from what I understand. And that’s at the heart of my Yin and Yang conundrum, I guess. Some people do want to take that kind of learning responsibility, but some do not, so should we force it or offer it? There’s a wealth of difference.

    I have argued before on my blog that state education is, on the whole, a force for good rather than bad. That’s why I find the mention of Pakistan so apt. In a country which spends more than 80% of its GDP on the military there is little left over for any kind of decent education system, and that’s a (choose your own word to go here…).

    But Michelle is right to worry a ban on home schooling: I think education authorities have a right and a responsibility to monitor what is going on (don’t you?), but if education IS taking place satisfactorily thensurely they should be left to carry on in peace.

    Ah, but who decides what satisfactory is?!!


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