We Stand Together(13)

eTwinning : Where Education Meets Democracy

On the 24th, 25th and 26th of October, eTwinning held its annual conference on the topic of democracy. Education plays a crucial role in shaping the world and citizens. Schools must be places where pupils are educated to have an active role in the society and be prepared for democratic participation. Over 500 teachers attended the annual conference and explored how they could contribute to: fostering a culture of democratic participation in schools, developing students’ values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and critical understanding that will enable them to participate actively in democratic life, and exploring ways to support teachers to help young people grow into active and responsible citizens.

COFACE-Families Europe, represented by Martin Schmalzried, animated a workshop session for teachers on finance and democracy, and spoke on the closing panel on how to influence school systems to be more democratic.

All too often, democracy is understood solely as the act of voting, which is a very restrictive definition of democracy and participation. Enlarging this definition and considering all of the ways through which people can participate is essential to reap the full benefits of democracy. At a time where the powers of many governments and public authorities have been greatly diminished and the power of “private” free market actors consolidated, it is worth delving into the functioning of our current monetary and financial system, and how taking back control over that system would allow to boost democracy. Money, in that respect, can be understood as a voting mechanism, where the individual purchasing decisions can be seen as a vote supporting a certain good or service.

However, the disproportionate influence of banks, the ultra rich (0.1% of the richest individuals) and governments exert an immense voting power by controlling most of the money and thereby determining what is on the menu, leaving regular citizens with making meaningless choices between “coke and pepsi”. Dealing with the issue of poverty and inequalities and re-examining how our monetary and financial system functions is therefore of utmost importance if people want to boost democracy and have a real impact on the society and the environment they live in.

While teachers are ideally placed to shape the critical thinking and understanding of future generations, they are often caught between a rock and a hard place, being pressured from all sides:

  • By government authorities through very strict curriculum and laws which prevents them from having the necessary flexibility to discuss complex topics such as “what is money” and how our current financial and monetary system works;
  • By time and resource constraints as well as classroom dynamics, asking teachers to do more and more, with less and less means, with larger classrooms and more students.

In order to strengthen democracy in the school and maintain its values and principles, teachers need to first and foremost present a picture as accurate and transparent as possible about the problems and limits of democracy. The world is more and more divided between radicals of various sorts, seeing only the negative, falling for fake news and conspiracy theories, and the dogmatic democrats painting everything as being rosy, democracy as the best system ever, glossing over any problems and issues. Openly discussing the current problems in our contemporary democracies is therefore of utmost importance in order to maintain credibility and ensure that future generations, the leaders of tomorrow, understand the problems they will be facing (the limits of representative democracy, of the separation of powers, the importance of free press, differentiating between ideologies and democracy etc).

Democracy should also be enlarged to local and small scale actions, engaging in local communities, building projects or actions within your school, with your classmates or a group of friends. Democracy is first and foremost a tool for collective decision making and should be experimented at the local level as much as possible to give it a tangible, real meaning.

In this regard, schools can be ideal places where these experimentations can take place: letting students test different political systems such as despotism, oligarchy, representative democracy, democracy by sorting etc, and compare those experiences. Understanding our current financial and monetary system can also be experimented in schools, by simply playing monopoly for instance, and showing what happens when a single “player” accumulates all the wealth and property.

What is clear is that we are at a threshold, a transition to a great unknown, which can be a factor of depression and lack of motivation for students. What will the world be like in 10 or 20 years? Given the challenges of sustainable development, automation, inequalities, political and geopolitical tensions, trade wars, financial crisis and economic depression, is it any wonder that students feel disengaged and prefer taking it to the streets following in the footsteps of Greta Thunberg, be it for following their intimate convictions or just to skip school and do something more “fun” than sitting behind their desks while they still can?

Faced with this great unknown, it is therefore more important than ever, that teachers transmit to future generations values and principles such as solidarity, cooperation, respect, deliberation and empathy which will serve them regardless of what the future will look like, so that the society they will build, will transcend the current limits of democracy for the better.
For more information about the event, please visit the eTwinning official website: https://www.etwinning.net/en/pub/newsroom/highlights/if-not-in-schools-where-learn.htm

Or contact Martin Schmalzried: mschmalzried@coface-eu.org