The ‘crisis of democracy’, the European education policies and the education of the citizen

Issue 10

“The ‘crisis of democracy’, the European education policies and the education of the citizen”

Stavros Moutsios
Page 47-69


The beginning of the millennium is a historical time that in many societies participation in education systems is massive and access to information and knowledge is immensely wide. These are the ‘knowledge societies’ of our era which have succeeded in creating a majority of literate, informed and educated citizens, a sin qua non condition for vibrant democracies. However, according to prominent studies, these are the same societies in which democracy has come to a state of decline. Why civic life is impoverished at times that information and knowledge generation as well as education, in its various forms and manifestations, are expanded and continue to expand more than ever before? The research industry on ‘civic engagement’ and citizenship education, developed since the last decade in North America and in Europe is not asking this question despite the fact that the commissioning of this stream of research signifies a political concern to address it. Neither much of this research nor the mainstream debate on citizenship education are placed in the context of contemporary political developments whereas issues about the relationship between those developments and current modes of knowledge transmission and acquisition are hardly touched upon.
This paper tries to address these issues with particular reference to the European Union, but not to a specific country. The paper argues that the source of the ‘crisis of democracy’ lies in the overall prioritisation of economic competition over democratic participation at both national and transnational levels. It also argues that the ways that knowledge is selected, organised and distributed both in and out of educational institutions is weakening rather than strengthening democratic citizenship. The first section of the paper points to policies of de-democratisation occurring in national and transnational contexts; the second section discusses the impact of the current modes of information and knowledge production and diffusion on active citizenship; and the third section reflects on the relation between contemporary education reforms and the current debate and initiatives for citizenship education.Throughout its analysis the paper argues that notwithstanding popular discourses about the global spread of democratic values and the role of lifelong and ICT-based learning in advancing societies, democratic citizenship is in a stage of regression. The current version of globalisation has placed societies in a trajectory of relentless economic competition which supersedes any substantial development of democratic participation. Despite the wide legitimacy and the accelerated expansion of electoral democracy in the world, core decisions are being taken by/within transnational networks of economic and political power which define citizens’ reality but they are inaccessible to their participation. However, with the decisive help of ICT, knowledge is accessible in an unprecedented extent, but it is fragmented, commercialised, instrumental, highly specialised and it obscures political opinion. Recent education reforms are reinforcing these modes of knowledge organisation, as education systems are being aligned to policies of economic competitiveness. Curricula, on the one hand, emphasise the formation of skills related to the new economy, and, on the other, they are stressing the re-formation of, allegedly threatened, cultural identities. Citizenship curricula are being requested to transmit values considered necessary for individuals to build social capital in order to associate with each other in a well-functioning market society, rather than to reinvigorate democratic participation. Participation in educational decision making is displaced by management methods imported from the private sector along with evaluation mechanisms and outcomes-driven pedagogic modes which standardise teaching and learning policies and practices. The paper concludes that the main direction that contemporary knowledge selection, organisation and distribution in and out educational institutions is taking is not pointing to an enlivenment of democracy as a political regime of deliberation and critique amongst citizens who are enabled and entitled to make decisions about the orientation of their societies. On the contrary, education, in its formal and informal dimensions, is aligned to the prevalent project of our age which is to create and sustain economically powerful ‘knowledge societies’ rather than vibrant ‘knowledge democracies’.