OPINION: Promote critical thinking skills for better democracy: World Forum for Democracy: Strasbourg 2016
by Allan LEONARD for Northern Ireland Foundation
7 November 2016
The 600 seats of the hemicycle of the Council of Europe soon filled with young activists and seasoned practitioners at the 2016 gathering of the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg. I attended as part of a delegation from Northern Ireland, all beneficiaries of the Civic Activism Programme administered by Building Change Trust. Our objective was to learn and share experiences to improve democracy and equality through education.
After a beautiful performance by the Soweto Choir, the opening speaker, Mr Thorbjorn Jagland (Secretary General of the Council of Europe) described how the internet is a great source of information, but also a place where there are “a lot of angry voices”. He added that education can provide the skill of critical thinking, to benefit democracy.
This belief was repeated by Mr Alexander Cassaro (Regional Councillor, Grand Etsy region): “We need this Forum as an opportunity to engage in democracy and critical thinking.”
I was encouraged by these early statements.
Jagland made a case for ensuring that classrooms are safe places for freedom of expression, where everything can be discussed, challenged, and clarified. He contrasted this to posting opinions on the internet, where the temptation is to react with ever more radical opinions, because you aren’t confronting anyone face-to-face. Whereas in a classroom environment, you can have a “civilised conversation”.
The mayor of Strasbourg, Mr Roland Ries, described how he organised a large civic conference, with six or seven public meetings, which resulted in the establishment of a Civic Reserve Force of several thousand men and women who are willing to go into schools and help students with lessons of citizenship.
Ms Erna Solberg (Prime Minister of Norway) argued that citizenship education is an investment in a long-term strategy of conflict resolution.
Ms Najat Vallaud-Belkacem (Minister of Education, France) underscored this in her speech, about how to deal with voices of fear and isolationism: “There is one thing that the history of Europe can teach us — do not compromise or deny rights, but face up to the darkness with values of democracy.”
Vallaud-Belkacem spoke to recent terrorist attacks in Europe: “We know that we are mortal. Democracy is not an irreversible movement, but a daily fight. This Forum helps advance the rule of law.”
* * *
It was time for facts, the title of the next session.
Joan Hoey (The Democracy Index) described the current global environment as a “mild recession of democracy”, after the euphoria of a new wave of democratisation, post collapse of Communism. Hoey cited polls showing a decline of support in democracy/increase in support for authoritarianism. She said that there is less consensus on the causes of this observation, as well as what to do about it.
Hoey provided her explanation of disenchantment with democracy as being driven mainly by political factors, such as culture, tradition, and identity. Instead of “It’s the economy, stupid,” it should be, “It’s politics, stupid.”
She then referenced US presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as someone who is channeling this disaffection of party systems without popular consensus. Hoey said that this will not dissipate; indeed she said that the backlash will grow under a Hillary Clinton presidency (NB Hoey’s presidential forecast was soon proven wrong!).
Hoey concluded by remarking that a good thing about populists is that they mobilise people and ask big questions ignored by mainstream parties. For her, what is needed is more inclusion of people in the democratic process, not less.
Richard Wike (Pew Research Centre) spoke of the power of education in addressing the economic, political, and moral concerns raised by our ever interconnected world: “If you find yourself depressed about the dark themes in today’s headlines, you may find hope in the work of educators laying the foundations for tomorrow’s future.”
However, it became apparent that some conference participants had particular definitions of education.
One participant argued that education was about the transmission of knowledge and socialisation, so that children can make up their own minds and not conform to a predefined worldview. But this ignores the political context in which education takes place.
This was abetted by an audience criticism of political parties and elected representatives.
For example, another participant, from Northern Ireland, asked how we could we be talking about democratisation of education when her country doesn’t permit gay marriage.
I was disturbed by this frustration, as if education itself could somehow ensure the realisation of your demands over voters’. How democratic would be such politicisation of education?
Respite came from a question in regards to how to teach the value of democracy to less advantaged people. Wike replied that there must be efforts to improve access to education, noting that while some people have a wide variety of opportunities to learn, many others are denied.
And what about our current media environment, where it is easy to build your own echo chamber? Wike replied that such confirmation bias complicates the context of our democracy debate, and how education has a role to play.
* * *
After lunch, there was more food for thought from some practitioners.
Georges Haddad (President, Universite Paris, Pantheon-Sorbonne) remarked that while the human mind adapted to the changes brought about by industrialisation, can it keep up with new environment of the internet, with the increasing complexity of the way we communicate outstripping anything prior? He called for cooperation in order to coordinate the evolution of inter-locking networks.
The concept and practice of the democratic school was presented with passion by Yacoov Hecht. He described schools today as preparing children for the past; his mission is to prepare everyone for the future. The four major features of his model of education are:
- Living as a democratic community (educating 4-100 year-olds)
- Providing personalised learning (as everyone learns differently)
- Ensuring a close relationship between staff members and students
- Contextualising from perspective of human rights (not nationality)
One participant directed a question to Haddad, asking whether the Universite Paris would retain its (exclusive) status if it applied the principles of a democratic school. Meanwhile, another participant asked Hecht how such universalist schools are implemented in different cultural settings across nations.
* * *
The final session of the day mooted whether education reproduces or bridges inequalities.
Aaron Benavot explained how school curricula can perpetuate stereotypes, and how teachers can reduce or increase inequalities. He called for treating all students with respect, and ensuring the nurturing of marginalised groups, encouraging open discussions. This echoed Jagland’s comments at the start of the day.
Benavot also made a point about intervening at a young age, when children develop strong notions of basic political principles, drawing from values taught in their home environments and local communities; waiting until secondary school to confront prejudice and stereotypes makes attaining the goal more challenging.
Colin Crouch (Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick) provided a condensed review of liberal democracy and political economy, from at least the industrial age to contemporary globalisation. The resident illustrator failed to keep up, and instead parodied him with an unkind cartoon shown on the auditorium’s display monitors.
Yet it is worth summarising Crouch’s lecture:
Reason and passion: if you don’t have reason, then you don’t have competence; if you don’t have passion, then you don’t have motivation. Politics without passion takes the form of a technocracy. If passion dominates over reason — when it leads to an attack on reason — then you go down a path that looks like those participating are without reason; but you usually find that they are being manipulated.
(Was this a form of populism? To me it spoke of the power of appealing to one’s confirmation bias — telling someone what they want to hear.)
Crouch explained political party evolution:
Struggles around inclusion and exclusion were formerly based around religion and class. We felt confident that we could all be included, through universal suffrage. Political identity became associated with a political party, which resolved the competition between passion and identity, as individuals associated with rational groupings (parties). However, is this a historical accident, as campaigns for universality become evermore distant memories?
Crouch continued by mooting whether we know who we are politically:
There has been a decline in historical party attachments, or put another way, an emergence of detachment politics. This decline in political confidence and trust isn’t based on anything that politicians have done, but rather on this phenomenon of detachment.
This affects democracy around the world:
Such detachment is compounded by the globalisation of the economy, which the nation-state often appears unable to ameliorate. Meanwhile, global issues such as the environment and human rights are addressed through transnational politics, but here the link between identity and politics is weak.
Add in global terrorism that introduces new political identities, which leads to new passions (and based on hate).
So where does education fit into all this:
More educated people are less involved in the politics of hate, because they are more self-confident and feel less alienated; they have the knowledge to know what they are not competent in. But at a lower educational attainment level, the more likely you are to be in a living and work situation where you are bullied and pushed around and told what to do.
Crouch argued that political participation requires a balance between reason and passion. “But where do we find new sources of passion?” he asked the audience. “What types of passion?” I might have answered.
He concluded by saying that education is not the most powerful institution in society; families are more important.
Crouch depressed me with his throwaway description of integrated education in conflict areas as “an island”, where pupils then return home after a school day to their contested space. Surely this contradicts his observation that those who grow up in an environment of mutual respect are less likely to pursue enmity? Or that the shared island isn’t big enough?
Sakena Yacoobi (Afghan Institute of Learning) gave the most inspiring speech of the conference, offering her own passion for hope.
Yacoobi said that education is key: “If you have 90% illiteracy, how can you educate about human rights?”
She called for a quality education that promotes critical thinking, as people need to learn for themselves how to ask and demand their rights.
Yacoobi also argued that if a country doesn’t have women in the political arena, then it cannot call itself democratic. She expressed her faith in women teaching their children positively about diversity, prejudice and equality.
Yacoobi evoked the passion of love as a means of accomplishing democracy:
“If you do not love and care for every individual in society, it brings inequality. If you want to be a just and equal society, you have to look at the potential of everyone.
“Globally, we need to work together for democracy. If there isn’t a human touch, then it won’t be the solution. We need the human touch of love, compassion and sharing.”
The audience rose to their feet and applauded.
* * *
The next day, I attended two laboratory sessions (each attended by around 100 participants).
The first was “Unlocking Parliament”, which shared practical knowledge of two parliamentary education programmes.
Lilian Leeuwenburch-Stolwijk (ProDemos) described her organisation’s programme for students and pupils at The Hague. She emphasised their approach of learning by doing, not by lectures.
She provided two examples: a “Democracy Lab”, where participants are given a tablet for game play and to gage attitudes and opinions; and a parliamentary debate, where two classes come together to debate a topic, using tablets to receive mock news and other information in preparation.
Leeuwenburch-Stolwijk said that one challenge of their programme is reaching out to those with lower levels of education; her own answer was a description how their trainers go out to schools, providing a guest lecture and tailoring the programme appropriately.
She also explained how they reach harder-to-reach audiences, where they work with key figures in a community to sign up; ProDemos provide a toolbox of key information, and they will provide a moderator to facilitate a mock election.
Daniel Gallacher (Parliament Education Service) gave a comprehensive presentation of a new centre situated next to the British Houses of Parliament. The centre provides a modern, welcoming space, to offset what can be seen as an ancient, intimidating palace of Westminster.
He explained how they learned how to improve their approach, away from process (e.g. first reading of a bill, etc.) to self-critique of what was the whole point of the exercise. Why debate? Why have laws? They applied an established international model of philosophy for children, to make the experience more relevant.
Finally both audience and panellists spoke of the value in extending this civic participation model to the local level. Leeuwenburgh-Stolwijk recommended using a package that is ready to go, including a press statement that can be released by the municipality, which provides participating councillors and students; the programme facilitators deliver the exercises in return.
* * *
The second lab session I attended was “Deciphering Media”, which examined initiatives for raising media literacy and competencies of citizens for meaningful participation in social media.
Valon Kurhasani (NDI Kosovo) described an advocacy programme, Save the Cave, as part of its New Media School; young people used social media to increase awareness and successfully lobby state institutions to act.
Alina Ostling (European University Institute, Italy) reviewed her organisation’s Media Pluralism Monitor, which found that the majority of European countries do not have comprehensive media literacy policies. Furthermore, she said that in many countries, media literacy is not taught in school or by civil society organisations (CSOs).
Ostling acknowledged a key gap in their research is knowledge about critical thinking skills, which their monitor doesn’t cover. In the subsequent Q&A session, I informed the audience about my organisation’s fact-checking project, FactCheckNI, as an example of such competencies being developed by a non-government organisation.
I also asked whether the monitor researchers examine state education curricula, to assess the level of critical thinking education. Ostling’s reply is that they rely on experts to do this, but that there was merit in considering a separate working paper to extend this to assessing the work of CSOs.
Kurhasani made a strong point about the salient difference between old media and new media — you’re encouraged to not be a passive consumer in social media. Rather, you’re meant to give feedback, which is instant and transmitted widely. And he argued that to counter the tendency of reinforcing virtual echo chambers, your appeal should be attractive to as many as possible. Kurhasani described how he uses social media personally to befriend those from the other side, so he can learn what they like, and share experiences. Here, the promise is for social media to improve inter-ethnic relations.
* * *
A side event was another plenary-style session, “Education for Democracy: Does One Size Fit All?”
I was initially encouraged by the rapid-fire approach of the moderator, asking the four speakers to give one-sentence answers to his purposely provocative questions. But after 45 minutes of this, I began to wonder when the rest of us would be brought into the conversation.
Antonia Wulff (Education International) remarked that education is like a sponge that has to absorb whatever society throws at it: “And we’re all citizens and we all have responsibility.”
Sjur Bergan (Head of Education Department, Council of Europe) said that formal education is rarely used to teach and instill values, because it is a very difficult matter to agree to do. The exception is national values, which can be seen as “our values not shared by those not from here”. An alternative approach is “multi-perspectivity” history, where my history is your history. A fine theory, but in practice he noticed that it works “so long as you don’t have an opinion on my history.”
I spoke about what education and democracy looks like in Northern Ireland. We have five education systems for a population of 1.9 million. Why? Because parents want it this way. Parents like an exclusive grammar school system, because they think it will benefit their children.
Indeed, democratising education may not give you the results you envisaged, but what the voters want. Voters may prefer commodification over instilling any particular set of values. Or they may opt out and start a school system of their own. This need not be bad — the integrated education system in Northern Ireland was created by a group of parents who valued a shared society.
But crucially, I concluded, all five systems work to a singular curriculum, yet each in its own manner and ethos.
Crushingly, the words ‘parents’ and ‘voters’ were not uttered subsequently by any panelist or audience member.
Instead, there was more talk about ensuring a more participatory process in the policies and operations of schools, among teachers and children. I found it incredible that no one in the room thought parents were a part of the process.
* * *
Off the conference programme was a public debate on “Democracy and Populism”. On this evening of the US Presidential election, I was really looking forward to this.
The event was chaired by Catherine Lalumiere (President of the Association of Schools of Political Studies of the Council of Europe).
Alberto Toscano, a journalist and academic, gave a résumé of populism in Italy. David Buchan (former Financial Times Paris and Brussels Bureau Chief), provided a decent explanation of why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. And Andrzej Krajewski described Poland’s experiences.
Buchan did caution us not to pit democracy against populism: “It has become populist to say populism is not democratic.”
But Lalumiere’s reply was even more extraordinary, saying that we needed to be careful about direct democracy, “because sometimes you don’t get the results you want”.
For me, this epitomised the contemporary gap — chasm, even — between assembled experts who believe that they know better, and get frustrated when citizens don’t conform to their values.
To put this another way, there is no denying the constructive role that education has in enhancing and expanding democracy.
And I was inspired by great examples, both in formal school as well as informal community environments.
The more successful initiatives appeared to me to be those where more thought and consideration were given to a fuller participatory process.
For me, the emphasis should be on the skills of critical thinking, taught as early as possible, to encourage future generations to make their own demands. Universalist values should be instilled, but we cannot predict how they will be realised, whether in our current structures and institutions, or whatever may replace them.
I am most grateful to Building Change Trust for sponsoring my attendance at the World Forum for Democracy, and I look forward to the possibility of returning next year, which has already been announced and will address media and democracy.
I am a peace journalist, because I believe in transforming conflict-driven narratives. I am editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. I am a co-founder and editor of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service, which works improve civic discourse. I also support the conflict resolution work of the Forum for Cities in Transition in Belfast.