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Democratic Deliberation – A Basic Skill for the Future

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes famously asserted in Leviathan that without a “commonwealth” based on a “social contract” the world is a jungle “where every man is Enemy to every man … wherein men live without other security than what their own strength, and their own invention, shall furnish them.” He argued for a strong central government to counteract man’s fundamental nature—I presume he meant hu-man nature—and contended that without it life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Was Hobbes right? Can a society thrive only if its members’ basic instincts are constrained by external forces so that their higher ideals and collective potential can be realized? If so, what scaffolding is required? Which of our basic human rights are inalienable and what constraint on the others is justifiable, if any? In a more positive vein, what about our interdependence? Clearly, as Hobbes’ contemporary John Donne commented in his Devotions,[1] “no man is an island” and connection only increases as numbers crowd Spaceship Earth, but does this mean that we must be “our brother’s keeper”? What is our responsibility to others? Do we see collective “peace, order and good government” as the ideal, as stated in the Canadian Constitution, or is it individual “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as stated in the American Declaration of Independence? Does an excessive focus on our personal liberty lead us towards the Tragedy of the Commons?[2]

These are examples of fundamental, recurrent questions that underlie our response to critical social issues such as public safety, healthcare, education and environmental protection. Such starkly phrased choices are, of course, more properly expressed as complexly nuanced dilemmas, but at the heart of things there are some foundational decisions to be made about what we believe and value, and those decisions determine who we become. But the issue is not merely personal, it is also political, and the collective answers inevitably and inexorably shape the society we create. If one abstains from the public discussion of this issue then the ability to decide it is ceded to the most fervent and their answers will be the ones that determine the sort of world in which we will live. This would not be wise!

In order for students to be prepared not only for the future but also to forge that future, they must have opportunity to engage with such foundational questions in age appropriate ways so that they, first, realize that they are questions and that multiple responses are possible, and, second, develop a conscious personal point of view on them.  Then they have to learn how to deliberate respectively with those who hold a different point of view.

This is a critical aspect of becoming “educated,” not simply absorbing answers that extinguish perplexing questions but developing the ability to engage continuously with them and to deliberate with others in order to understand their perspectives and thus develop the “commonwealth,” or “social contract,” that enables society to flourish in a diverse and finite world.  This is essential for democracy.

Unfortunately, this democratic inclination and deliberative ability seems to be in decline. Increasingly we see polarization of views and vilification of those who disagree.  More and more people seem to hold the fundamentalist perspective that those who disagree with them about taxation or education or drug abuse or climate change are not only mistaken but evil. 

It’s not “this is a complex issue upon which we disagree and about which neither of us has total insight so we need to learn from each and work together to resolve it,” but “I’m right and you’re wrong so I need to vanquish you in order for the right to triumph.”  American politics has fallen deeply into this dysfunctional pit of arrogant, implacable advocacy in which compromise is seen as weakness and Canadian politicians seem to be increasingly adopting the approach.  It seems to win elections but it is a selfish, short-sighted strategy that also creates a great danger for our country and for the world at large.

What we need is just the opposite—a democratic hospitality to difference.  The knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable respectful democratic deliberation are arguably even more basic and essential than the traditional 3R’s.  What good is powerful literacy and numeracy in a self-absorbed bigot?

Some would say that it is not the job of schools to teach values but surely nobody would argue that it is not the job of schools to teach democratic ideals, skills and behaviours. This is not a matter of indoctrinating students with any particular viewpoint or belief, but it is a matter of developing their skills and dispositions, and it is a matter of inculcating the value of respectful engagement with differing or unfamiliar viewpoints and beliefs. It requires the humility to know that you may be wrong and yet the courage to be appropriately assertive in support of what you believe.  It is a matter of developing a deep keel rather than an anchor.

As we add “new basics” to the list of 21st Century Skills, this is one not to be forgotten.  We allow democratic deliberation to continue to decline at our peril.

[1] “No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”  Cited from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meditation_XVII 

[2] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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