Democracy and Public Education: an Indivisible Pair

"We should think of the meaning of the word 'parliament', which comes from the Latin word 'to speak'. In parliament, one speaks and discusses. In discussions, it doesn’t help to be able to read quickly or recognize a word. One must be able to understand the intended meaning, the content. That is hard work, which has to be learned early..."


By Anita Fahrni-Minear

University of Education in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland
Damian Miller, University of Education in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland

Dr. Damian Miller is professor at the University of Education in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland.
His field includes the history of education, education policy, as well as public education and democracy, topics on which he has been published extensively and lectured on internationally. Twice, he has given seminars and led discussions in Mongolia, visiting schools across the country and talking with teachers, students, parents, and policy makers.

How important is the public school for a nation?

Since the 19th century, following the Enlightenment (1650-1800), the public school has been a central element of Western democracies. In France, one spoke of “public instruction”, in Switzerland, of “public education”. That led to general obligatory school attendance. “People’s schools” were developed. The idea was that in school, one learned not only skills for one’s professional life but also the virtues of citizenship. The school was to train the person, both as an individual and as a citizen. As an individual, one should be able to learn a trade and feed oneself and one’s family. As a citizen, one should be able to take on responsibilities for society independently. One should have the ability to take on jobs in the state and to engage in activities for the common good, without prejudice or outside influence. A school for everyone, without consideration of family background, is a school for democracy.

What do you mean by “a school for democracy”?

By “a school for democracy”, I mean a school where one learns to participate actively in a democracy: to vote, to be elected, and make decisions about factual matters. To do that, one must be able to understand – critically and independently – texts, reports, statements in the newspaper, books, TV, radio, social media, and so on. By “critically”, I mean that one must understand the intentions of the writer or speaker. Does he write truthfully and
convincingly, or is it “fake news” meant to win the most votes? Democracy does not mean simply voting or being elected to office.

What is central to a democracy?

The core of democracy is the division of power which serves to control the powers. The founders of the democratic form of government knew very well that everyone who has power – whether in the executive, judiciary, or legislature – tends to misuse that power. Therefore, control from all sides is necessary. In order to have control, everyone must be able to get information independently. That is why the independence of the media is so important. For that reason, in Switzerland, some schools are run independently of the power of the state or political situation.

How independent should education be from political conditions?

Independence was the central idea of the Marquis de Condorcet, the French philosopher and politician, which he presented on April 20, 1792, to the assembly in Paris responsible for drafting the laws following the French Revolution. His program, the General Organization of Public Instruction, is considered utopian. Of course, the state will not allow itself to be separated totally from the school system. Condorcet wanted to leave financial matters to the state and give an “edicative”, the decision making powers, for school curriculum content and training. That is partially utopian. However, as a model for independence in curriculum, teacher training, and textbooks, his idea is worth discussing.

What is the importance of language in a democracy?

Language is absolutely central to a democracy. In Greek, “logos” means thought and language. Thinking involves the cognitive process: how we look at something, check it critically for truth, judge advantages and disadvantages, and so on. We do that on the basis of concepts, thus, on the basis of language. We use language when we communicate thoughts, opinions, plans, and ideas. We should think of the meaning of the word “parliament”, which comes from the Latin word “to speak”. In parliament, one speaks and discusses. In discussions, it doesn’t help to be able to read quickly or recognize a word. One must be able to understand the intended meaning, the content. That is hard work, which has to be learned early.

In a democracy, is learning to understand a text enough?

One must learn not only to read and understand a text, but also to write a text, both jointly – with others – and also alone, independently. Formulating one’s thoughts, putting them into words and sharing them with others on paper, or in another form, is equally important. Thinking for oneself and not just accepting the thoughts or opinions of others must also be learned and practiced. True participation in a democracy depends on the ability to think independently and to communicate those thoughts. That learning process begins in the first grade. There, the mother tongue – or first language – plays a central role. One must know it well. Ability in other languages can be built on the knowledge of this first one.

What is the importance of independence? You mention it often.

Independence does not mean individualism or egoism. In the thinking of the Enlightenment, a person must be able to form an opinion and express it freely, free of fear, threats, superstition and bribes. There must be a competition of ideas – of the better ideas – and not a competition of tribes, violence, money, or fear. Public free speech about independent thoughts and convictions is the best protection against collusion and undemocratic misuse of power. That has to be learned early, in the family or in school.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment studies compare students’ abilities internationally in language, mathematics, and natural sciences only. What roles do art and music play?

In the science of education, drawing and music are part of what is called “education in aesthetics”. Aesthetics is another form of awareness and understanding of the world, in addition to mathematics, language, and movement. They are as much a part of a human being as the rational dealing with emotional awareness. Aesthetics is not simply something “extra” in the human being, but a central competence of man, as in seeing similarities, hearing harmonies, judging clarity.

Can you give us examples of “aesthetics”?

When we travel to another country, we notice first the different architecture, fashion, memorials, music, religious buildings, writing, and so on. That is aesthetics. Those topics are not a concern of PISA, for reasons which I cannot go into here. However, for schools and education policy, aesthetics is an important topic. Creating something is not just coloring in a pre-drawn figure, but rather the independent creation of surfaces and figures, or the differing interpretations of a song or poem. One can recite a poem in many different ways. The same words, the same sentences – but they sound quite different each time. That is aesthetics, which has been a basic characteristic of mankind ever since man has existed. By neglecting art and music in a curriculum, a school neglects a central character trait of mankind.

How important are private schools in public education? Are they good models?

That is an assumption which cannot be confirmed scientifically. Certainly, one hears once in a while of model schools, which are said to be forces of didactic innovation. That is not the case; education is much more complex. Private schools work under circumstances which are different from those of public schools. Thus, comparisons make no sense. A model can only be a model for someone who works under the same conditions. If a society bases its hopes on private schools, it must realize that it will weaken solidarity within society. What good is it for my child if he or she has a top school career but, in the end, lives in a barbaric and
undemocratic society?

What is a good school?

A school is good when it reaches the given goals of the curriculum with as many children as possible, under the given circumstances. It is good when the children enjoy learning and learn successfully, and when they support each other and are curious about new subject matter. It is good when they learn to solve conflicts constructively, and to look forward to new challenges. It doesn’t matter how many awards a school wins or how good its furnishings are. In everything we do, we must think our actions through to the end. I am not against private schools. They serve a certain function in society, but cannot function as a model for public schools in the sense of “school for democracy”.

You are now on sabbatical, free of teaching responsibilities. On one day each week, you work on a neighbor’s farm, cleaning the barn, helping in the garden, doing whatever jobs you can. Why do you spend your time in this way?

As a kind of balance to my research work in archives and libraries, and to my lecturing, I work on a farm as a simple laborer. There, I do work completely different from my normal job. On the one hand, I experience the joys and worries of a different profession. On the other hand, shoveling manure and feeding the animals pushes my mind in other directions. New ideas occur to me. I can rearrange my thoughts, which can be very creative. I have even designed a whole lecture in my mind while taking out the manure of the pigs and cows. I recommend that every scholar, every professor, do the same. It works wonders! Through such farm work, the world simply becomes bigger, even though one has traveled a lot to give talks and seminars.