When we use the term democratic education, the assumption is that we refer to our system of public education within our democratically governed country. What we ought to be referring to is the educational system itself, but to call it democratic would be a major misnomer.
Everything about our current system of public education is autocratic. Students have little to no control over what they learn, where they learn, how they learn, etc. Even the most basic decisions are made through an appeal to the autocratic authority whether it is the teacher, the principal, the superintendant, even a democratically elected school-board. An 18-year old senior in high school has to ask permission from the teacher to leave the room to go to the bathroom.
If we are hoping that our young people will grow up to function effectively in a democratic society, why do we train them within an autocratic institution for the duration of their formative years? We know that public education was developed to create a docile and semi-skilled workforce to serve the industrial revolution, why hasn’t it changed along with the changes in our society and the demands of an ever-quickening dynamic workplace?
When we look at the most essential aspect of any school, you have to start with the students. Without them, you have no school, no matter how many buildings or multi-media classrooms or student-laptops or administrators you have. Without students, you have nothing.
So why do we ignore their input when we make decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives? Is it because we don’t trust them to make decisions for themselves? What does this, in turn, say about us and our ideas of a democracy?
Should we revise the Gettysburg Address to read by the people that we trust because they are sufficiently advanced in age or have an outlook we agree with, etc., for the people but not the people who are small or young or lacking in political savvy or influence, and of the people who have the requisite diploma signifying that they are capable, though we cannot verify it in any real sense because of the vagaries of different schools, teachers and grading systems, of making decisions we deem to be appropriate?
Until we fundamentally change the basis on which we build our educational systems, we will continue to damage the long-term outlook for our children and thereby our own future. Until we grant school children the respect and voice they deserve, we will continue to demonstrate to them that our democracy is a fallacy, a front that we put on for show and then hide whenever real decisions must be made.