Learning for Democratic Living

October 1999 — Issue 5

Editor’s Note

Formal Political System Prevents Democratic Living

Tribute to Nyerere

Rethinking Identity Politics

Consumerism Citizenship         

Unmasking Free Market Democracy

Rejuvenating Democratic Living from the Grassroots

Un-Democratic Education

Meritocracy vs. Equality

Arts of Democracy

Democratic Pedagogy

Closer to Home...

- Navdanya

- Swadhyaya

Further Resources


Editor's Note

"The real development program is a democratically minded people — a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people, who through their participation and interest, become informed, educated, and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men/women and the future. The people themselves are the future. The people themselves will solve each problem that will arise out of a changing world."     

- Saul Alinsky, 1969

What is a real democracy? What is the difference between democratic state governance and democratic living? How does factory-schooling undermine the project of democratic living? What kind of lifelong learning do we need to support democratic living?

Moving from Political Democracy to the Process of Democratic Living

Some readers might wonder why we need to rethink democracy in India. After all, India is the world’s largest political democracy. We have a good British-style constitution. We have multi-party elections with a non-violent transfer of power. We have freedom of the press. We are decentralizing more responsibilities to panchayats and NGOs. We even have Right to Information campaigns and Human Rights Commissions. It’s not India which needs to rethink its framework for democracy. This issue must have been written for people suffering under repressive military regimes like Pakistan. Right?

WRONG. There is a saying worth remembering in the context of this discussion – ‘all that glitters is not gold.’ Though we have set up an extensive legal and political machinery over the past 50 years in India, we have yet to understand the true spirit of democracy as envisioned by leaders like Gandhiji and Vinobaji. Authoritarianism, homogenization, fear, manipulation, repression and exploitation continue to underlie the majority of our modern socio-cultural, economic, and political relationships. What makes this scenario even more potentially destructive is the growing power imbalance between the burgeoning formal institutions of the State-Market and the shrinking informal spaces of the people. We are being systematically conditioned to believe that elected netas, industrialists and bureaucrats are the only leaders in our society -- their role is to ‘protect us’ from the worst aspects of ourselves. The vast majority of us are taught that we cannot manage our own lives; we are to be merely impotent and obedient followers/spectators.

In this issue, we advance a framework for democratic living with the hopes of extending the understanding of democracy beyond formal political elections, legal documents and governance structures. Democratic living requires that the principles of equality, freedom, pluralism and human dignity permeate and invigorate our families, our communities, our associations, our workplaces, our educational institutions, our government offices, and all other aspects of our social and spiritual being. More concretely, it means that individuals and communities are able to resist and renegotiate oppressive relations of power and to take control over decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. This involves reclaiming power from the State-Market – the power to conceptualize our own meaning of ‘progress’, ‘truth’ and ‘freedom’; to envision what it means to be fully human; and to actively work together to discover/create new sustainable and just ‘realities’ – and restoring it back to each one of us. This also involves qualitatively redefining the mainstream perception of power: from something to be grabbed (from the State-Market), hoarded, and used to dominate/threaten others to something to be generated (from within our Selves), shared and used to inspire/empower all life.

Factory-schooling and the global media are instrumental in undermining the project of democratic living as they seek to create a world in which everyone not only thinks the same, but only thinks about the same limited range of products/goals. The rituals of ‘certifying’ and ‘branding’ serve to increase dependency, legitimize inferiority/superiority, manufacture insecurity and dehumanize us. We are not given any space or time to develop the kinds of Creativity, Collaboration, Confidence (without arrogance) and Concern for Others that would help us to realize our own potential for organic self-leadership and self-governance. New participatory processes of learning, unlearning and relearning must therefore be initiated to liberate our whole Selves from the current ‘institutionalizing’ and ‘compartmentalizing’ structures of ‘India Incorporated’ and to regenerate the knowledge frameworks, identities and relationships necessary for democratic living.

Movements for building mechanisms for direct participatory democracy, for creating models of leadership without followers, for transforming factory-schools into democratic public spheres, for even rethinking the idea of modern Corporations and the modern Nation-State, are underway around the world. They have recognized that the System itself is the problem, and it cannot be fixed simply by installing a few good, intelligent men into office or by creating more subservient citizens. But it is not only the responsibility of political scientists, election commissions, politicians, civil society-walas, etc. to change the System and to engage in the process of democratic living. This responsibility starts with each of us -- equally and collectively. We invite you to join us in this process.


How the Current Political System Prevents Democratic Living

"What goes on the villages, where every man manages his own life, is real self-government... It follows that we shall have swaraj when all the people have acquired the strength of self-control and have realized their duties. Until then, we shall only have government."

— Vinoba Bhave

The very institutions and procedures that we refer to when we speak of India’s democracy — namely the government, the elections, and the politicians — all prevent us from achieving real democratic living. In a compilation of essays (1951-1960), entitled Democratic Values, Vinoba Bhave clearly captured how the form of government we have today destroys our senses of independence, unity, justice, freedom, creativity, and ultimately our ability to develop real Swaraj. He argued that unless we liberate ourselves from formal political procedures/institutions, and develop more just and nurturing interactions amongst ourselves, we cannot hope to live democratically.

Our ‘Democracy’ Fosters Dependency

Government is a state of slavery. Vinoba emphatically declared that the "whole world ought to be set free from the burden of its government." One of the biggest plights today is our dependency on government. We expect it to protect us, feed us, employ us, etc. But by waiting for the government to fulfill our every need and to solve all of our problems, by "invoking the government as though it were God," we become its slaves.

Vinoba suggested that all the government administrators should stop working for two years, just to prove that nothing would happen in their absence. None of the ordinary work of the world would end; it would just end the illusion that the government is indispensable. But our government seeks to foster this illusion. It imposes big projects on the people from above, and/or it overloads them with innumerable bureaucratic activities to prevent their practical independence.

In this way, government is also a disease. It makes people feel insecure or incompetent, as though they can do nothing without it and do nothing in its presence. This feeling of powerlessness is furthered by our system of elections and political parties, where only people with wealth, property, or party support can afford to stand for elections. Not only does this criteria eliminate the voices of huge portions of the population, but it also perpetuates injustice by forcing us to place our lives in the hands of an insensitive elite.

Our political actions are limited to either casting a vote or soliciting votes. But managing our affairs by voting will not bring about the socio-spiritual revolutions we need today. Voting does not capture our energy, ideas or potential, nor does it allow us to think creatively about the future or about new directions for change. Majority rule, ‘winner-take-all’ political structures do not provide the opportunity to build consensus and cooperation on issues of significance, while the role of the ‘opposition’ has been reduced to ‘destabilizing’ the ruling party and grabbing power. Without spaces for constructive dialogue, reflection, and building new relationships, all we are left with is empty political posturing, increased disillusionment, and greater suffering for all.

Our ‘Democracy’ Prevents Real Swaraj

Today, in mainstream society, power is equated with ‘might is right’ — fear, domination, threat, and control. In contrast, Vinoba defined true Swaraj from two perspectives: "no outside power exercises control over you and you do not exercise power over anyone else." In this way, Swaraj permits neither submission nor exploitation. Such a vision seeks to push us beyond dehumanizing categories of ‘oppressed’ or ‘oppressor’. Simultaneously, it extends the notion of power beyond state and market systems to restore agency/power/moral conscience to every human being. In our current political system, "no one tells you the real truth — that your destiny, heaven or hell, is in your own hands, and that no one but yourself can take you there."

Vinoba believed that "revolutions are never achieved by power or party politics. Revolutions, and thus real Swaraj, take place in the minds of people. The fact is, representative politics has led India into deep intellectual, cultural, and spiritual stagnation. Real Swaraj requires that people transcend party lines and open their hearts to ideas and to each other. Going beyond partisanship politics also requires that we recognize and explore other spaces of power and opportunities for decision-making to expand our sense of social and civic commitment.

With real Swaraj, the people manage their affairs in just, participatory and meaningful ways. As Vinoba said, they live through "courage, popular strength, power of the self, sharing, and self-discipline." Today, our formal political system stands in the way of achieving real Swaraj. If we are to truly live democratically, we need to liberate ourselves from it, and reawaken "our own inner strength" and collective potential for change.


A Tribute to Julius K. Nyerere

This issue of Vimukt Shiksha is dedicated to the memory and vision of Julius K. Nyerere, who died on October 14, 1999. Nyerere served Tanzania as its president from its independence in 1961 till 1985. During this period, he initiated the Ujamaa Vijijini (family) policy, in which villagers voluntarily organized and freely decided to live and work together for their common good. In the last decade, he had been active in trying to build various modes of South-South cooperation.

Nyerere spoke about democracy in relation to human potential and human dignity. He believed that both the individual and the collective were responsible for and capable of their own learning, creation, and action, and it was from their dedicated efforts that the community would thrive and regenerate itself. The following quote from his policy booklet, "Freedom and Development" (published in October 1968) captures the core of Nyerere’s beliefs:

"People cannot be developed; they can only develop themselves. For while it is possible for an outsider to build a man’s house, an outsider cannot give the man pride and self-confidence in himself as a human being. Those things a man has to create in himself by his own actions. He develops himself by what he does; he develops himself by making his own decisions, by increasing his understanding of what he is doing, and why; by increasing his own knowledge and ability, and by his own full participation — as an equal — in the life of the community he lives in… Development of a man can, in fact, only be effected by that man; development of the people can only be effected by the people."


Re-Framing Identity-Based Politics

"There can be no ethic of care and responsibility, no sense of community, and thus no shared public life, where people view one another’s differences with fear, mistrust, and hatred."

- David Sehr, 1997

One of the largest challenges to democratic living is a unidimensional and rigid sense of identity. All over the world, people are defining and organizing themselves against ‘Others,’ based on categories like region, religion, caste, language, ethnicity, etc. These assertions of identity have resulted in tension, hate crimes, riots and wars, and have caused the deaths of millions, particularly in the last 100 years. In virtually every country of the world today, we see how exclusionary identity is setting the political agenda, and more often than not, is manifesting itself in violent and destructive ways.

Dipankar Sinha, in "Indian Democracy: Exclusion and Communication" (Economic and Political Weekly, August 7, 1999) describes how the current political and economic structure is at the root of such identity politics. Rather than providing spaces for real freedom of expression, cross-category dialogue and collaboration, today’s government and market system actually promote and exacerbate identity-based conflict in India. Sinha describes that "the State and the Market fail to establish a communication network wide enough to take into account and to involve people from all segments of the society." By giving a voice "almost exclusively to the upper, visible, and dominant segments of the society," both the State and Market necessarily subject the "vast number of people belonging to the lower, invisible segments [of society] to silence" or one-way, top-down communication. Simultaneously, various centralized policies and highly controlled media actively work to dilute, distort, or ignore people’s genuine expressions.

In response to the insensitive and impenetrable State and Market, people don’t see any other option but to organize themselves around a narrow identity, usually defining themselves against an Other/set of Others. This exclusionary and often hate-filled identification facilitates a process by which these groups form a critical mass to demand their share of resources and opportunities from the State. Even NGOs and academics fall into this rights-based discourse, demanding bigger shares of the pie for the ‘marginalized’/‘backward’. (Few dare to challenge the pie itself or suggest different systems of organizing/sharing resources.) Furthermore intent on the homogenizing process of nation-building, the State either suppresses or refuses to acknowledge legitimate assertions by people when they do arise, and hides behind trite slogans like ‘One Nation, One Life, Unity.’ The Market only widens the gap between people, welcoming a select few into its fold while condemning the vast majority. Thus, lacking constructive spaces to channel their discontent, frustration and insecurity and to rethink identity, incidences of conflict and rampant violence increase.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the project of democratic living will require us to expand our notions of identity. If we are to generate new visions of social, political and economic interactions, we must first recognize that our current institutional structures divide us from one another and prevent organic dialogue and constructive collaboration. While region, religion, caste, ethnicity, gender, etc., all contribute to making us who we are today, it is their complex interaction with many other elements of our whole selves that truly define each of our identities. Members of learning communities should reflect on the following questions to begin to re-frame a concept of identity that can nurture pluralistic forms of democratic living in the future:

·         How many kinds of identities do we have/can we create for ourselves?

·         In what ways does schooling extend/narrow our understanding of identity?


"I Shop, Therefore I Am"

Today, democracy is equated with the free market, in the sense that so-called democratic societies are those which allow their citizens to partake in as many goods and services as possible. In this excerpt from The Soul of Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995), Jim Wallis challenges this notion by describing how the breakdown of public dialogue and civic action can be partially attributed to increasing consumption:

"Citizenship itself has been replaced by consumption. Shopping has become our great collective activity, and consumerism has invaded and usurped our civic life. People feel they no longer have the power to change their communities or their nation, only to make choices among products. Political participation has waned dramatically, just as the rituals of consumption have come to dominate more and more of our social life...

We don’t participate in the debate over ideas, the formulation of the public policy, and the construction of the social order. Instead we shop. Our consumer voting is merely among the endless goods and gadgets offered to us, and democracy has been reduced to the freedom to decide among forty brands of toothpaste.

News has more and more become entertainment, fed, of course, by advertising… And even our political voting feels more like shopping for candidates, who have been packaged and sold by the same methods and people who bring us everything else."

While Wallis is speaking in the context of the United States, his critique is strikingly applicable to India and its nearly one billion consumer base. For example, in the recent national elections, the caricaturized personalities of Atalji and Soniaji and personal scandals of certain politicians captured far more attention than substantive issues. On one hand, we saw people swearing their loyalty to parties like brand-name products; on the other hand, the media portrayed a public, so disinterested and disillusioned with politics that they did not want to vote. Today, most people would rather shop (or ‘talk shop’ about the new products they fantasize about) than engage in civic activities or constructive politics.

Teachers, students, parents, and other members of a learning community can consider the following questions and action-research project to explore how consumerism is rapidly taking the place of active citizenship:

·         How do people understand/apply the spirit of citizenship in your community and school?

·         How has consumerism increased (or the spirit of citizenship decreased) in your community and school? What are the visible signs and effects of this change?


Unmasking ‘Free Market’ Democracy

By: Wasif Rizvi


"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free."

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Today, in the face of the most widespread condition of passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding quest for greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others and the relentless projection of violence and imagined enemies; the chant to celebrate human freedom has reached its highest [cacophonous] proportions. People all over the world, desperate for the ‘fantasy of freedom’, are flocking to the polling booths to ‘choose’ between various candidates of fascism, imperialism, corruption, repression, fundamentalism, or racism. Unfortunately our ‘elected representatives’ have a different idea of freedom -- one that consists of ensuring that multinational companies (including our own South Asian conglomerates) have the "freedom to invest dollars" and the ‘freedom to earn astronomical profits’. Whether they be ‘elected’ corrupt leaders or murderous thugs (like Pinochet or Suharto), as long they pledge their unconditional allegiance to the governance of global capitalism, they are allowed to rule by the international development community.

In this essay, I will seek to expose the reality of the corporate wealth-political power nexus which packages and sells the fantasy of Free Market Democracy. I will describe how this ‘reality’ has been manufactured and how it continues to grow today. I will conclude by highlighting the responsibilities we must all share if we are to challenge these paradoxical times of increasing voting and dwindling human freedom.

Free Market Democracy = ‘Freedom’

The relentless advancement of the Free Market Democracy has its roots firmly established in a tradition of unbridled greed, domination, and plundering, which is sugar-coated and force-fed to us in sound-bites of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’. Such an illusion has been created in order to ensure the efficient and effective functioning of an unholy alliance of corporates, governments and the military conglomerates of the world. After World Wars I and II, these alliances were formed with the following clear understanding: "We [US and the Western Europe] have about [75%] of the world’s wealth, but less than [9%] of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity."2

However, with the end of overt colonialism, new ways had to be created to package the global elites’ insatiable desire for power, control and material goods into a language of human virtue, freedom and righteous political rule. The liberal intellectual brigade’s concerns about the oppressive and alientating State were co-opted by conservative think-tanks and other institutions of thought-control to manufacture the following mantra:

"Capitalism is an engine of wealth creation. Freed from the oppressive hand of public regulation, market forces will cause the world’s great corporations to bring prosperity, democracy, a respect for human rights, and environmentally beneficial technologies to all the world. If some must suffer temporarily to make way for greater progress for all, it is only capitalism’s creative destruction at work on the path to a better tomorrow." 3

Schools and colleges around the world were then instructed to sell the tale that only Western-style Free Market Democracy could bring real freedom to the ‘beastly’ and ‘barbaric’ sub-humans of Africa, Americas, Asia and Australia. This Great White Lie has been further marketed through trillion dollar Media industries, Development Aid, and Big Business’s strangle-hold on government through ‘public interest’ lobbies, bribing political parties, and manipulating socio-economic policies. Simultaneously, as decision-making power was transferred from local communities to unaccountable institutions, such as kings, military juntas, party dictatorships, modern corporations, and NGOs, the option to resist and ‘Just Say NO’ to ‘capitalism’s creative destruction’ has been systematically taken away from people.

In the midst of this 500+ year-old global order, our role as developing countries is made clear to us. We are told that globalization is good for us and is natural (just as colonialism was). All we need to do is bow to the ‘market discipline’ dictated by the IMF/World Bank -- which basically means to open our societies for Western plunder (i.e. to serve as the principal suppliers of raw materials, labor and goods to the rich world and the principal hosts of their waste and excrements). If we obey, and do not challenge the tyrannical power structures that keep 80% of the world hostage to the wants/desires of a select few living in the North, then our middlemen in the South will also benefit from this ‘only path’ to ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Not only does this mantra of Free Market Democracy then silence every attempted discourse on historical and contemporary misdeeds and crimes against humanity, it also distorts the majority’s perception of reality. By "disseminating only the interests of the rich, while subverting the ideological and cultural independence of the poor", it narrows our range of political and social possibilities.4  Indeed, for the systems of exploitation and enslavement to continue, the ‘bewildered’ must believe that they are free. If they realize what’s really happening around the world — if they see the potential for other ‘realities’ — they may set themselves about to challenging/changing the world.5 

What Can/Needs to Be Done

Without a doubt, severe contemporary challenges confront the core ideal of freedom.

Yet, any reductionist choice which focuses on tinkering with the existing reality is today futile. As Noam Chomsky puts it, "At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, and sympathy, and concern for others, or alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control."

If we are to (re)claim our destiny, we must focus on developing strategies to (re)gain control of the local and global decision-making processes that concern our lives. We need to concentrate on creating avenues for social discourse, where common people can understand and challenge the abuse, manipulation and exploitation that they suffer from the hands of global political and economic managers and from so-called public/private institutions. This consciousness can be fostered in re-conceptualized arenas of societal learning, where learning is essentially aimed at understanding one’s position in the world, realizing individual and collective power and potential, and finding ways to launch viable social action for systemic transformation.

1Year 501, N. Chomsky, quoting an overjoyed Wall Street investor celebrating Venezuela’s dictatorship.

2 G. Kennan, quoted in the US National Security Document, 1968. Kennan was speaking of the 1968 U.S. context, in which the percentages were 46% and 3%, respectively.

3 When Corporations Rule the World, D. Korten, 1995.

4 The Captive Public , B. Ginsberg, 1986.

5What Uncle Sam Really Wants, N. Chomsky, 1994.

 "...schools produce spectators, not citizens. We are trained to watch and observe, to drop our franchise in a box, to support interest groups, and to seek private satisfaction while shunning the public world."

- George Wood, 1992


Rejuvenating Democratic Living from the Grassroots1

By: Kishore Saint

In our times, we are used to thinking about democracy only as a system of governance. We do not realize that democracy as a mode of social functioning was nurtured and articulated in ancient and medieval rural communities, caste groups, craft guilds, religious sects, and city-states. These diverse forms in dispersed settings continue to exist alongside Empires, Monarchies, Republics, Dictatorships, Plutocracies, Theocracies, and Colonial Regimes, right into our own times.

Historically, there has been an uneasy and even adversarial relationship between the governing systems of the state and societal modes of democracy. The latter have been generally weakened by the growth and consolidation of nation states. In the ‘century of the common man,’ the principles and processes of democracy have been put to severe test and even annihilated in specific situations by the emergence of totalitarian state power. Yet democratic modes of social functioning continue to reassert themselves in the face of an all-pervasive onslaught from the dehumanizing aspects of state and market.

As pointed out by Ashis Nandy, the modern nation state legitimizes itself on the claims of promoting national security, economic development, scientific rationality, and secularism. These claims have been codified in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions using the language and objectives of peace, secure livelihoods, reason, justice, freedom, social harmony, and of late, ecological sustainability. The performance and adequacy of the democratic institutions of the nation state are judged on the basis of progress in these aspects.

Yet, it is now being realized that centralized governance systems by themselves, even when representative, have been unable to achieve these goals to any satisfactory degree. They have not been able to curb the self-aggrandizement and corruption of the ruling classes. Rather, in the past 30 years, nationally and globally, formal political systems have been taken over by, what Vaclav Havel calls: "the dictatorship of money, of profit, of constant economic growth...of plundering the earth without regard for what will be left in a few decades, along with everything else related to the materialistic obsessions of this world, from the flourishing of selfishness to the need to evade personal responsibility by becoming part of the herd…"

In spite of destructive formal political and economic systems, democracy as a mode of social functioning and local self-governance, has continued to exist. Indeed social relations, interactions and transactions in families, communities, and between different groups in proximity, have to be democratic to be stable. In India, communities have traditionally formed various informal volunteer associations for self-help and mutual aid (adsi-padsi) arrangements for the improvement of family assets, savings, credit, and welfare services; management of the commons; and rituals and celebrations. Democratic local self-governance has also been a feature of the healthier forms of traditional panchayats for dispute settlement and justice in open assemblies called jajams. Here the adjudicators, nominated by contending parties and accepted by consensus, were called Pancha Parmeshwara, or divine counselors, and were expected to be guided solely by dharma (sense of justice).

The great savants and visionaries with faith in human capacities for justice, freedom, and cooperation, have always put the proximal community, rather than the impersonal state, at the center of human relations. Gandhiji, who had known the working of democracy in England, called the Parliament ‘a prostitute’ (since it could be bought and manipulated by money and selfish interests). For India, he envisioned Swaraj, or self-rule based on self-discipline, cooperation, sense of dharma (righteousness), and spirit of sacrifice. Through the Bhoodan (land gift) and Gramdaan movements, Vinoba Bhave and J.P. Narayan picked up on Gandhiji’s radical proposals for ‘setting democracy on the march.’ However, the movements faltered and problems multiplied, and even greater stress was put on centralized state control, culminating in the Emergency.

The last two decades have been marked by a more broad-based reach of democratic governance processes through new party formations with ethnic, communal, and caste-based groups, and their empowerment through reservations; the raising of gender issues; re-activation of Panchayati Raj; and mobilization of communities around issues of displacement, ecological damage, and access/control of resources. Inspired by the tradition of voluntary associations, the NGO sector has also grown. However, with their increasing dependence on state, corporate and foreign funding, only the exceptional ones have been able to maintain their autonomy, democratic character and social basis. Like Panchayati Raj Institutions, most have become extended arms and ‘eyes and ears’ of the larger, more powerful, and remote institutions. Sometimes the NGOs do link up with people’s movements. Generally, in this relationship of unequals, the NGOs prosper, while the people’s organizations wither and are contained/co-opted by the system.

Traditional informal voluntary association have also spawned more radical movements such as Gramganraj (in which tribal villages declare self-rule, defined by their paramparic (dynamic traditional) sense of community) and Swadhyaya (see page 8). In both cases, their leaders have a deep understanding of the Indian spiritual and scriptural traditions and customary practices and relations. Learning for cooperative and dignified living takes place in the context of personal engagement in the life and work of people.

Despite the greater freedom in the exercise of civic functions, the prospects for democratic living, learning, and governance remain uncertain, as ‘the flourishing of selfishness’ and ‘the need to evade personal responsibility by becoming part of the herd’ are so enormous and relentless. Further deterioration of the social and ecological circumstance and the deepening of the anguish of the human spirit may be the pre-condition for breaking away from this disastrous course. The challenge for each concerned person is to rediscover the democratic self in his or her own situation in the family, neighborhood, workplace, village, association, and the larger polity one is a part of. This creative learning and action has to take place in the daily living, working and sharing in the tasks, trials, and celebrations of the proximal community. This will also involve the unlearning of and resistance to self-in-the-System and relearning of self-in-the-Self and self-in-the-community towards the true democratic reconstruction of community and polity.

1This article has been excerpted from a longer essay. Shri Kishore Saint is with Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, a voluntary organization that promotes people-centered development among Bhil tribals. He can be contacted at 23 C-Madhuvan, opposite G.P.O., Chetak Circle, Udaipur, Raj., India.


The Un-Democratic Education of Schools

"The conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning

until we define the kind of society we have in mind."

- John Dewey,1916

Does our current model of education facilitate the communicative processes, self-awareness, and relationships necessary for children to understand and fully participate in the democratic endeavor? The eminent educationist, John Dewey, in his pivotal works, Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience & Education (1938), argues that traditional schooling prevents children from learning about, much less practicing, the the art of democratic living, or for what he defines as the proper end of education: "the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity."

Dewey articulates several flaws in the factory-schooling model, including its approaches to subject-matter and student freedom. For one, Dewey believes that the subject matter of schools should "supply meaningful content to existing social life," content which incorporates past and present collective experience and acknowledges/grapples with the complexity of social life. Yet the vast majority of subject matter in schools today is taught in isolation, so segregated and disconnected from the rest of one’s experience that it has no relevance or applicability for the actual conditions of life. In fact, the only purpose of ‘knowledge’ obtained in schools seems to be to pass the examination at hand and obtain a certificate/degree. Dewey goes on to argue that this time-consuming and mind-consuming process of ‘acquiring’ isolated facts and useless skills has a destructive impact: "the individual loses his own soul, his appreciation of things worthwhile, his desire to apply what he has learned, and the ability to extract meaning from future experiences."

Similarly, the absence of student freedom hinders democratic processes. There is no space for the learner to frame what s/he wants to learn or to even question the legitimacy of what is being taught. According to Dewey, "Enforced quietness and acquiescence prevent pupils from disclosing their real natures." The demands for attention, strict discipline, and obedience in the classroom create an "artificial uniformity" among children. By denying children’s diverse thoughts, talents, desires and imaginations, and utilizing mechanized modes of instruction (rote memorization, standardized tests and texts, and rigid rules) teachers fail to nurture each child’s unique individual potential. In fact, the lack of both physical and mental freedom not only inhibits the creative thinking processes necessary for conscious democratic living, but it also promotes a kind of debilitating passivity in which children grow up feeling as hopeless and helpless about their ability to control their own destiny and positively impact society (as most ‘educated’ adults do today).

At the heart of these critiques is Dewey’s vision of democracy as "a mode of associated living." However, "a large number of human relationships in any social group are still upon the machine-like plane." The relations between parent and child, teacher and pupil employer and employee, governor and the governed remain at the level of "giving and taking orders" and "using one another without reference to the emotional and intellectual disposition and consent of those used." Education must support democratic social reconstruction by creating more genuine opportunities for constructing shared purpose and understanding of our Self and our Society, and for communicating our interests, feelings, expectations, and dreams to one another.


How Schooling Legitimizes Inequality

One of the key qualities of democratic living is equality. By equality, we do not mean ‘sameness’ (which implies homogenization) nor do we mean ‘equal access/opportunity’ (which only means entry into unjust and unsustainable systems). Instead, when we speak of equality, we speak of both diversity and transformation; that is, we envision pluralistic, just, and meaningful systems in which the differences among people are valued and nurtured and feelings of inferiority/superiority are discouraged. Factory-schooling today undermines this type of equality and instead serves as a vehicle for legitimizing and reinforcing various forms of structural inequality.

As William Ewens explains in Becoming Free: The Struggle for Human Development (DE: Scholarly Resources, 1984), at the time of the Industrial Revolution, newly wealthy urban merchants, financiers and manufacturers found themselves in a two-front struggle with remnants of the inherited aristocracy from above and the new industrial working class from below. What they needed was "some mysterious notion of talent or virtue which theoretically anyone could possess, but which in practice usually coincided with possession of property and wealth." In other words, they needed a way to convince the aristocracy and the masses that those who had risen to the top of the socio-economic system and held all the wealth and power in society were the ‘smarter’, more ‘talented’, more ‘hardworking’ people, and those at the bottom of the system did not deserve any resources because they were ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, and ‘failures’.

Factory- schooling and the myth of meritocracy provided the perfect rationale -- schools supposedly gave all people a ‘fair’ opportunity to rise up the academic (and economic) ladder. Any inequalities in power and wealth that grew were not because of the system but rather because of the individual. In this way, the real purpose of schools became more to filter, sort, rank, and fit students into the socio-economic system, and less to help people bring out and grow their full potential and diverse range of talents.

To efficiently facilitate this process in India, schools were organized into categories of English-medium/Hindi-medium elite private, convent, government, non-formal; with so-called ‘fair’ and ‘competitive’ examinations, as the main instrument for both evaluating/excluding students. Not surprisingly, students from industrialist/bureaucratic families typically go to the elite private or convent schools (and tuition classes), and those from poor families go to government schools or NFE centers (and must do housework). Graduates of elite schools then have certain special doors/privileges open to them while the poor ‘failures’ are taught that they are useless, powerless, and must accept their station in life.

Although the Indian government has introduced reservations to try to partially combat the stratification of society, reservations have not dissolved the myth of meritocracy (as middle-class families call reservations ‘unfair’), nor have they challenged the rote memorization-based examination system. In fact, rather than ending caste/class hierarchies, they have further stigmatized many of the disadvantaged populations. Successful performance in school has very little to do with how talented or hardworking the student is. To a large extent it depends on the quality of the learning environment, the amount of positive support and affirmation the learner receives from teachers and family, and the amount of time that the learner has outside of school. If we are to dismantle the meritocratic illusion in schooling, we must begin by challenging not only the cultural bias inherent to examinations and to the schooling system as a whole (where certain intelligences, languages, or knowledges are privileged and others are denied/devalued), but also the larger global order itself.

"I see human perfection in the progressive elimination of the institutional intermediary between man and the truth s/he wants to learn."

- Ivan Illich


Beyond Civic Education: The Arts of Democracy

Many schools introduce civic education programs to teach democratic rules and behaviors to children. In her article entitled, "Can Schools Teach Democratic Values?" (Washington, DC: USAID, 1993), Eleonora Villegas-Reimers comments on one civic education program: Escuela Nueva in rural schools in Colombia, South America. This program tries to promote civic, democratic, and participatory attitudes in children by having them elect student councils/committees in their primary schools. Students organize and manage school cleaning, maintenance, sports, gardens, newspaper, library, recreation, environment, and discipline practices. Escuela Nueva attempts to improve students’ attitudes towards social engagement and teamwork, so as to familiarize them with the formal democratic system.

In addition to student councils, many other schools have supported programs in which children and youth role-play representatives of government institutions (‘Mock’ Parliament, Model United Nations, etc). Here, children are taught the procedures and principles of these institutions. They debate policy issues, develop laws or resolutions, work in caucuses or committees, and cast votes to decide the fate of their state, country, or world. While student councils and civic education programs may familiarize students with school and government functioning, they rarely ask students to challenge existing systems, to rethink notions of power and authority, or to extend the notion of democracy outside of formal institutional spheres.

How do we learn to live more democratically and re-envision democracy? In The Task of Post-Contemporary Education: Essays in Behalf of a Human Future (New York: Teachers College Press, 1990), Kenneth Benne attempts to formulate the basic arts of democratic citizenship. Here, the term ‘art’ suggests more than a mechanical skill or competency; it is a highly cultivated, creative, and dynamic way of thinking and acting. Using John Dewey’s standard — that social, political, and economic institutions/practices should contribute to the "all-around growth of every member of society" — Benne offers the following five arts as critical for each person’s learning and growth:

1.      The art of effective criticism as well as veneration of our traditions.

2.      The art of listening to opinions and expressed attitudes and practices different from our own and answering these in light of the full human meaning of what we hear.

3.      The art of dealing with conflicts creatively and integratively.

4.      The art of evaluating the virtues and limitations of experts and of expert opinion and knowledge, and of using expertise not subserviently but wisely.

5.      The art of openly thinking about and evaluating the results of decisions made, rather than being swayed by the passionate heat of controversy.

These arts can help children, parents, teachers, and other members of a learning community develop a language for individually and collectively affirming, critically analyzing, and communicating their own experiences.

·         Where are the spaces and opportunities today to develop these arts in ourselves?

·         Pick one of the five arts. What kinds of activities/projects would you do to develop this art in yourself, your peers, your community?

·         What additional ‘arts’ would you recommend that people learn in order to effectively engage in democratic living?


Towards a Democratic Pedagogy

Today, we recognize that factory-schools undermine the project of democratic living. Originating from frameworks of industrialized society, rationalistic management, and social engineering, and from a faith in bureaucratic institutions and procedures, schools never set out to give all children the opportunity to think, challenge, question, and create for themselves and their societies.

Linda Darling-Hammond, in her book, The Right to Learn (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), confronts the fact that "the only social institution charged with teaching children for democracy does not teach democratically." If schools are to provide a democratic education, then they must offer both "access to knowledge that enables creative thought and access to social dialogue that enables democratic communication and participation" — today, the vast majority of schools around the world lack opportunities in both areas. Darling-Hammond therefore introduces the notions of the democratic classroom and pedagogy as vehicles for the democratization of schools.

Because "democracy must be lived to be learned," the democratic classroom is a place where all peoples’ experiences are acknowledged and affirmed and where the broad participation of students, parents, teachers, and community members over the goals and methods of education is encouraged. Unlike classrooms in schools today, democratic classrooms emphasize engagement, ownership, autonomy, diversity, deliberation, critical thinking, and open expression throughout the learning process. The notions of authority and leadership are also redefined: students’ natural drives towards self-esteem, self-responsibility, and self-discipline replace the hierarchical relationship between teacher and students.

Corresponding to this democratic classroom is a democratic pedagogy, which "supports freedom of expression, inclusion of multiple perspectives, opportunities to evaluate ideas and make choices, and opportunities to take on responsibility and contribute to the greater good." Democratic pedagogy means "teaching for learning and understanding," or creating environments for facilitating "inquiry, inclusiveness, and interdependence."

Teachers who practice democratic pedagogy learn from their teaching; they do not believe that they ever finish learning how to teach. They investigate the effects and effectiveness of their own teaching; they seek to broaden their understanding of their students and communities; they are open to new questions and creative experimentation; and they collaborate and share knowledge on how to promote successful learning for all students. Most importantly, they continuously reflect on themselves and their practices in the classroom. On a daily basis, they assess their own work and look for means of improvement. Developing this type of democratic pedagogy requires that teacher training programs engage with student-teachers in a democratic fashion.

Teachers can begin practicing democratic pedagogy by challenging the non-democratic processes that infest schools/classrooms today and by working together to critically examine their own visions of democratic living.


And Closer to Home…

Among the South Asian organizations consciously and creatively committed to supporting learning for democratic living are:


In an attempt to bring to life democracy at the grassroots, Navdanya is facilitating the organization of Jaiv Panchayats around the country. In the Jaiv Panchayat, the entire village community comes together as a Gram Sabha to document and declare their rights over the bio-diversity of their area. [Bio-diversity encompasses all the resources vital to life — crops, water, medicinal plants, seeds, animals, fish, trees, etc.] The Jaiv Panchayat renders the community primary decision-maker on all matters pertaining to the management, conservation, and ownership of local bio-diversity.

The Jaiv Panchayat thus forms the basis for the Living Democracy Movement. Through it, people not only live economic and political democracy in their daily lives, but they (re-)learn to include the entire family of diverse life forms in a hierarchy-free, democratic web of life. Jaiv Panchayats support the regeneration of living democracy by rejuvenating and recording indigenous knowledge on bio-diversity; by conserving, using sustainably, and protecting their biological wealth; and by making collective and conscious decisions against adverse bio-diversity activities, such as genetically engineered/modified organisms, pollution, toxins, and patents on indigenous knowledge.

In addition to mobilizing Jaiv Panchayats, Navdanya has started an organic farming movement with marginalized rural communities to produce patent-free, chemical-free, and genetic engineering-free agriculture. It also carries out workshops for teachers, students, activists, and government officials, conducts research and develops publications on on bio-diversity and related issues.

Contact:          Dr. Vandana Shiva A-60, Hauz Khas New Delhi 110 016

Tel. 011 696 8077; Fax. 011 685 6795; Email:



Swadhyaya (experiencing the self) proposes an entirely different view of human beings and humanity, thus demonstrating a striking project of democratic living. This movement emphasizes the existence of the divine/sacred in each and every individual and uses this existence as the foundation for personal and collective transformation. In this way, the founder of Swadhyaya, Dadaji Pandurang Shastri Athavale, offers an appealing and provocative alternative to government and NGO ‘upliftment’/welfare schemes. Swadhyaya looks to establish the confidence within and connection among people as the foundation for change. Swadhyayis approach others with only one purpose: to foster a true loving and congenial relationship. They think not of economic or social improvement, but rather of transforming a person’s concept of self — from believing s/he is weak and helpless to recognising his/her strength and potential. The result of this self-transformation is the internally-sustained courage and confidence, the knowledge that all are equal and that one can achieve whatever s/he sets out to do.

All of Swadhyaya’s work is seen as prayogs (experiments). In the communities and villages where Swadhyaya has been active, many have noted tremendous change in both the quality of self and the quality of life. Communalism has decreased; different religious groups pray together in harmony. Alcoholism and domestic violence have disappeared, as have caste/gender inferiority and oppression. The creation of apaurushiya Lakshmi (impersonal wealth) is also supported. Community members devote one day a month to the service of God, and the collective wealth generated in this day benefits those in need and the community as a whole. Children and youth are also actively included in the Swadhyaya process; everyone is constantly learning. In these ways, identities and relationships have been revitalized, and self-motivated, meaningful change has been achieved. Because of its ideas and actions, Swadhyaya has attracted over 300,000 volunteers in India today.

Contact:                       Sat Vichar Darshan

Nirmal Niketan, 2, Dr Bhajekar Lane, Mumbai 400004


Further Reading and Resources


Participatory Direct Democracy Association

The Democracy Lab

Creative Community Participation


Articles and Books

Alinsky, Saul. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Clarke, Paul Barry. Deep Citizenship.1996. Pluto Press.

Giroux, Henry. Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope. Oxford: Westview Press. 1997.

Jalal, Ayesha. Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Korten, David. When Corporations Rule the World. San Francisco. Berrett-Koehler, 1995.

Miller, Ron, ed. Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society. Brandon, VT: Resource Center for Redesigning Education, 1995.

Sehr, David. Education for Public Democracy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press,1997.

Vavrus, M., et al. "Weaving the Web of Democracy: Confronting Conflicting Expectations for Teachers and Schools," Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 50, No. 2, March-April 1999.