Is democratic education undermining public safety?

by Scott Webster

Associate Professor R. Scott Webster is the coordinator for the Curriculum, Pedagogy and Professional Learning teaching and research group in the School of Education at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia.  Scott was a high-school teacher before working in higher education.  His areas of research include philosophy of education, curriculum theory, existentialism, Dewey and spirituality.  He has published several articles and chapters and written books such as Education for Meaningful Lives, Understanding Curriculum: The Australian Context, edited and author of Rethinking Reflection and Ethics for Teachers and is currently writing Education as Confronting Self and Society.


As the world is experiencing the epidemic of COVID-19 (coronavirus), we witness a variety of responses from political leaders.  Some governments have desired to establish martial law and barricade dwellings and even weld their doors shut in an authoritarian manner, much to the chagrin of libertarians who see lockdowns as an assault on civil liberties.  Other politicians have adopted a laissez faire approach, expressing that the virus should be allowed to run its course to develop ‘herd immunity’. Then there are other political leaders who have taken action, rather belatedly, due to the collective pressure from many concerned individual citizens protesting in solidarity.  This has led many to reflect on whether responses of some authoritarian countries are being more effective than democratic ones? 

A variety of responses can also be observed within various educational organisations.  For example, in the university in which I work, the Vice Chancellor has encouraged staff to value being flexible, dynamic and bold.  Simultaneously, in the same university, other managers have instructed staff that any changes they make are unable to be enacted until these have been examined and approved by relevant line-managers in accordance with established policies. 

One of the key contentions that has been raised in this crisis (and in the previous crisis involving threats of terrorism), is what degree ought personal freedom and initiative be surrendered in exchange for the good of society or the organisation?  I wonder how many of us, as educators, have considered how an educated citizenry ought to respond to such crises?  Might it be possible to retain both personal freedom and public safety concurrently?  Might a democratic society even require that this be achieved?

One of the greatest champions for democracy was John Dewey and probably his most well-known book is Democracy and Education.  In this he argued that democracy ought to be understood as something far more encompassing than simply a system of government and/or rule of the majority.  Instead, Dewey argued that democracy ought to be understood as a way-of-life and a type of character.  The role of education is to invite individuals, as social beings, to grow in intellectual freedom and in the habitual disposition of being democratic.  This means that everyone should be able to ‘test’ ideas in their communities, both rationally and scientifically, and that all individuals should have a say in how their workplaces and society ought to be organised and function.  Therefore everyone is able confront and challenge various authorities and policies.

Clearly, if an entire citizenry were educated to be democratic as a way-of-living, they would be difficult to control by authorities.  Could this therefore be problematic for democratic societies and organisations in times of crises such as we are experiencing now? 

For those governing bodies who desire to rule by authoritarian means, they require their populations to be habituated differently, having instead a disposition of being ready to uncritically comply with policy directives.  Can we conclude that authoritarian societies are therefore better able to look after their populations?  Might the individual freedom that comes with democracy and democratic education be considered a liability for public safety and security?  For example, does our society prefer its citizens to be forced to stop their vehicles before red traffic lights under fear of being punished, or to have such citizens freely desire to stop because they are understood to personally care for others and the system of which they are a part?

In several places throughout his writings Dewey suggests we “let George do it”.  No particular individual George is ever identified of course, but through this expression he claims that he is acknowledging the all-too-human tendency to prefer others to take the lead and make decisions for us to follow, rather than take it upon ourselves to exert the effort to exercise our own initiative.  Dewey confessed that he too was very human in this regard and found himself to be naturally lazy and disinclined to take the initiative upon himself in place of the proverbial ‘George’.  Might it be here that perhaps the value of a democratic education might begin to be identified and appreciated in relation to a willingness to exercise our initiative and to actively use our freedom well?

According to Dewey, being democratic is necessarily a moral way of living because one must give thoughtful and active consideration to others and their views in relation to one’s own understandings, intentions and activities.  This requires that we use our initiative to adjust what we might desire and be doing, in order to live well with others in our community.  While democratic education enhances intellectual freedom through rigorous thinking and experimenting about the long-term consequences and value of activities, it also enhances our interests to care for what we are learning about.  Hence students come to value their place – and their responsibility – in a vast and complex network of relations in the ecosystem that they find themselves existing within.

Might a central aim of democratic education be enabling individuals to use their freedom well?  So rather than teachers and authorities trying to curb individual freedoms, might it be more desirable to enable people to come to desire what they ought to desire as they grow increasingly aware of how everybody’s well-being is inescapably interlinked with the well-being of others and the planet as a whole?

As our societies and institutions respond to various crises, how do we want ourselves and our fellow citizens to function?  Do we prefer that people readily comply in unquestioning obedience to authorities and do things the right way according to policy?  Or do we prefer our fellow citizens to desire to do the right thing because they understand the complex and interrelated ecosystem we all share, and to use their own freedom well to exercise their own initiatives to actively care for one another without the need for draconian policies?  Either way, how does our own teaching practices enable people to grow into the character we consider most valuable?

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