Democratic governance and Human Rights in Education: the school community as a field for regaining public space

Issue 27

“Democratic governance and Human Rights in Education: the school community as a field for regaining public space”

Evie Zambeta

Pages 39 – 60


This articles grapples with the issue of democratic governance at the school level. Drawing upon the works of Colin Crauch on post-democracy and Jurgen Habermas on “the ideal speech situation” and deliberative democracy, the paper attempts to understand the legitimation crisis in contemporary representative democratic regimes as this is expressed in educational institutions. Citizens’ apathy and distance from ‘the political’ as well as increasing individualization may well be the effect of concentration of power to professional political elites coupled by significant economic interests that override the power of demos. Authoritarian populism and extreme right wing political discourses gain increasing influence threatening social cohesion. In this sense, democracy should not be taken for granted, but as a constant endeavour to be performed and a continuous learning process. Through this theoretical background the article attempts to understand the notion of democratic governance in education, particularly at the school level. The school community is understood as a field of civil society involvement, deliberation and participation.

Firstly, the paper discusses the role of education in the democratic process. Apart from being a vital prerequisite for exercising citizenship rights and for a full participation in the collective social heritage (in T. H. Marshall’s terms), education is a fundamental human right, inherent for human dignity, essential for the sense of identity and belonging and for accomplishing personal fulfillment. In this sense, it is an ecu menical and indivisible right for all human beings, inalienable under any circumstances. Recognition of these attributes of education, however, reveals the significance of content and quality. Poor quality, fundamentalist, racist, prejudicial, discriminatory, anti-scientific or intolerant contents do not serve education as a human right. Consequently, the multifaceted endeavour of democracy constructs education as a democratic institution at stake, since its content and goals are constantly debated and open to reconsideration.

Secondly, the paper examines the possible threats to education as a field of public space and a democratic public good. The school is a field of power negotiation on the part of the state and various interest groups aiming to gain control over education. This negotiation of power entails risks and threats for education as a public good. These threats stem from various social actors: powerful private interests aiming at privatization of educational services, selfish collectivities claiming predominance over the content and control of education institutions. Possible dangers for the public good are related to homogenization and assimilation trends threatening minority identities and pluralism, institutionalization of cultural hierarchies and elitism, social closure strategies aiming at discrimination, social segregation and exclusion. An extreme version of these strategies stems from authoritarian populism which propagates sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourses. All these trends threaten education as a democratic public good that is a collective social good controlled through the democratic process.

Lastly, the paper understands the school community as a field and strategy towards regaining public space. School communities could provide the ground for creating local public spaces enabling community involvement and commitment. The paper argues that democratic governance in education through deliberative and participatory processes could provide for a hybrid form of deliberative democracy and a field for regaining public space in contemporary societies.

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