Democratic Education and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

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Democratic Education and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy

Julian Culp

Democratic theorists, educational scholars, historians and political scientists view as symptoms of the democratic crisis wide-spread distrust in scientific experts and political elites as well as a sense of frustration and powerlessness vis-à-vis pressing economic, ecological and social challenges (cf. Mounk 2018, Müller 2016, On Education 2018, Runciman 2018, Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). In response to these problems politicians and citizens on the left and on the right argue in favor of ­­“taking back control” nationally, because they identify economic and political globalization as the main cause of the democratic crisis. They maintain that in order to reduce the technocratic elites’ power at the inter-, trans- and supranational levels, it is necessary to roll back globalization and to ensure that political decisions are made exclusively at the national level.

In this paper I argue that the currently dominant conceptions of citizenship education are inextricably entrapped in the current democratic crisis and the way in which politicians and citizens have responded to the crisis. Conceptions of citizenship education concern educational policies that affect citizens’ political attitudes, knowledge and skills (cf. Callan 2004; Crittenden and Levinson 2016). They are not limited to the pedagogy of courses of civic education, but also include the design of national school systems, the schools’ language policies and the legal duty of minors to attend school. Curiously, however, philosophers of education and educational theorists have almost exclusively focused on the formation of democratic consciousness within the nation state. They either assume that the creation of democratic consciousness is restricted to a single society, or simply fail to discuss the scope of such consciousness (cf., e.g., Gutmann 1987, Anderson 2007, Satz 2007, Lange 2010).

These exclusively domestic conceptions of democratic citizenship education are partly responsible for the current democratic crisis, I argue, because they induce politically minded citizens to hold that democratic sovereignty could only be achieved at the level of the nation-state alone. They articulate and uphold a nationalist imagination of democracy that raises unrealistic ­­expectations about the feasibility of national democratic decision making under conditions of globalization. This is because global problems such as tax competition, tax evasion and dangerous climate change cannot at all be effectively solved at the level of the nation-state alone. Yet when nationally organized democratic systems fail to give adequate responses to these problems, politicians and citizens nevertheless experience disappointment and anger, because have been taught and have become accustomed to think of national democracies as appropriate forms of arranging political life.

 But this is not the only way in which domestic democratic citizenship education is entrapped in the present democratic crisis.  In addition, it also fails to contribute solving the crisis of democracy, since that would require a transnational type of democratic citizenship education (cf. Culp 2019). For what is necessary for appropriately solving the many global problems listed above are more democratic forms of politics at the inter-, trans- and supranational levels (cf. Fraser 2014, Forst 2019), which in turn requires developing transnational democratic citizenship (cf. Seubert 2013).

In sum, a wholehearted adoption of more transnational forms of democratic citizenship education could help ameliorating the current crisis of democracy in two ways: firstly, by lowering the expectations as to how many and which kind of problems can be effectively dealt with democratically at the national level; secondly, by forming a transnational democratic consciousness that facilitated the democratic resolutions of various problems at the inter-, trans- and supranational levels.

An objection to my argumentation is that several theorists of citizenship education have already recognized that, due to the ongoing processes of globalization, they need to revise their domestic conceptions of citizenship education (cf. Suárez-Orozco and Sattin-Bajaj 2010, Dill 2016, Gaudelli 2016). Indeed, these theorists of citizenship education have devised conceptions of global citizenship education that, in one way or another, aim at preparing students for a world that is in many respects globalized. The problem with these conceptions, however, is that they are insufficiently democratic. They are primarily oriented towards inoculating in students a global consciousness that enables them to act and communicate effectively in an increasingly interdependent world. In this way global citizenship education attempts building the kind of human capital that will allow students to succeed professionally and lead satisfactory lives. For example, speaking multiple languages and being able to navigate a variety of cultural settings are clearly “assets” in a globalized economy. But these skills do not necessarily translate into a democratic concern for taking decisions in ways that properly respect the democratic rights of equal political participation of those who are subject to these decisions. Instead, this kind of global citizenship education without a democratic orientation may in fact contribute to the formation of a “cosmopolitan elite” that benefits from globalization but is neither willing nor capable of designing it democratically. In that way such citizenship education is not only detrimental to cultivating transnational democratic consciousness, but also lends support to the nationalist political movements on the left and right who claim that democracy can only be properly realized at the national level.


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