Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Our Young About Democracy

As surely every Malaysian knows, there is a lot of political turmoil going on in our country right now. The democratic process is chaotic, and with all three of us on this blog involved in politics — as an active participant like Tony, an academic like Kian Ming, or just an observer like myself — it's a very interesting time for us! I think this is a good time, then, to bring up a topic that's quite relevant to education: how do we learn about democracy?

The sad fact is that our schools don't do a very good job of preparing us to be active citizens in a democracy. We do go through the motions of learning to vote, and the importance of having a vote, but we never learn about how to make up our minds on who to vote for. We never learn how the democratic process is supposed to work, beyond some vague mechanism whereby we put our ballots in a box, and magically some leaders emerge to lead us.

If I were to structure a program for teaching democracy in school, I would probably boil it down to one thing: ask questions. Democracy is really fundamentally about engaging in dialogue — dialogue with your fellow citizens, and the politicians who serve you. You need to ask questions to understand what matters, not only to yourself, but to society at large. You need to ask questions to understand what your leaders have been doing in your name, and what they hope to do for you in the future. Casting a vote is quite meaningless if you don't have any information to make a decision about who to vote for.

The funny thing is, if I were to come up with a program for inculcating the opposite of democracy in Malaysians instead, I would be hard pressed to come up with a more effective program than the one we have in our schools currently. The attitude dominating is that you don't get to ask questions; if you do get to ask them, it is the person answering who always has the power to silence you. As long as you've cast your vote, you've done your duty — regardless of how you decided who to vote for, or whether you care about your community.

Our schools are very process-oriented, all about going through the motions. Just as we supposedly have democracy because we are allowed to cast ballots every four or five years, we supposedly learn about democracy because we learn about this process of balloting. If we pay enough attention, maybe we learn a little extra about how Parliament and the various DUNs make laws. But we never really learn the importance of dialogue and questioning in a democratic country.

Growing up, some of my favourite books were old schoolbooks of my father's, especially his civics books. Each chapter was written in anecdotal form, and one in particular has stuck with me all my life: it's the story of a girl deciding who to vote for in her school's geography society exec board election. While it's a pretty simplistic story, it vividly explains the democratic process: it shows you how you should ask questions, how you should investigate the candidates you are voting for, and makes it clear that democracy is about more than just casting your vote: it's about deciding who you should vote for, and about getting involved with your community.

We're a young nation, so it's not surprising that the story of our democracy has more than a few unsavoury episodes. But we can still get serious about properly inculcating democratic values in our young, by showing them how good citizens can get involved in the democratic process — with vocal groups like HINDRAF, UMNO Youth, BERSIH, and others active in our democratic process, we have tonnes of good and bad examples to use in the classroom. A civilisation's foundation is in its schools — if we want a democratic foundation for ours, we have to build it.


Shawn Tan said...

Teaching the young to ask questions is good. However, teaching them about democracy is going to be very difficult, considering that we will already have different ideas about what exactly constitutes a democracy. You're trying to expound a value but values are terribly personal. Ideologies are notoriously difficult to formalise. There's just too many areas of grey.

PS: As long as we teach them that, with two boxes on a ballot, there are actually four voting options.

clk said...

Teach them philosophy with topics such as politics, ethics, logic, law and democracy will eventually emerge.

But then we all know, Philosophy of Religion is a no-no.

shinliang said...

I agree with clk.

Teach them philosophy and history. The problem with Malaysia's democracy is the participation of the general public and their logic and perception on how political issues unfold.

Our history focuses too much on the history of Melaka and too little on World history, especially about how different ideologies eventually lead to democracy being the dominant one in our current century. How is that related to the separation of powers? If we do not learn about the problem of feudalism and monarchy, we will not appreciate the concept of democracy.

If you are able to live in a big house with a secure job, would you forego your fundamental rights and choose a monarchy system in your country? Or would you rather fight for it? Why did some people in our history fought so valiantly for such ideology?

These are all some of the concepts that were given very little emphasis in our education.

So teach our next generation more about philosophy and (important) history, not just science and maths.

pei ling said...

We'll have to kick out the crackpots in the edu. ministry first then! I don't think they want us to "think" nor "question" anything, because that means "trouble" to the powers that be =P

Anonymous said...

We should start by teaching critical thinking skills. In science, emphasize the scientiffic method before facts. Most schools in Malaysia do not teach science in schools, they just teach student how to plug in formulae and reproduce know results. There is very little in independent enquiry and delopment of skills to sort out truth from noise.
As many have said, the environment in Malaysia does not support critical thinking.


Anonymous said...

This article is relevant to the present discussion.

Every Citizen - Young and Old
By Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

In the middle of the last century, when a constitutional democracy in this country was still a hundred years away, Horace Mann wrote: "The establishment of a republican government without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people is the most rash and foolhardy experiment ever tried by man."

Every citizen, both young and old, should know about the ideas and ideals of the Constitution.

By "every citizen" I mean not only the persons who are of an age to exercise the franchise that enables them to participate actively in political life. I include also those individuals who will become our future citizens -- the young, who, when they come of age, will take on the responsibilities that the high office of citizenship puts on their shoulders.

Most Americans, I fear, do not know or appreciate the fact that citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. They are the permanent and principal rulers. All other offices that are set up by the constitution are secondary.

The first and indispensable qualification for holding political office in any of the branches of government is to be a citizen. Officeholders, moreover, whether elected or selected, are citizens in office for a period of time, but all citizens are citizens for life. Officeholders, from the President down, are transient and instrumental rulers, unlike citizens in general who are permanent and principal rulers.

The distinction between the permanent status of citizenship and the transient or temporary character of government officials is obvious. But it may not be so obvious why I refer to citizens as the principal and call government officials instrumental rulers. To understand this point it is necessary to realize that the government of the United States is not in Washington, not in the White House, not in the Capitol, which houses the Congress, nor in any or all the public office buildings in the District of Columbia.

The government of the United States resides in us -- we, the people. What resides in Washington is the administration of our government. We recognize this, at least verbally, when we say, after a Presidential election, that we have changed one administration for another. That change leaves the government of the United States unchanged, because its principal rulers are also its permanent rulers, whereas its instrumental rulers, its administrative officials -- are transient and temporary.

Administrative officials, from the President down, are the instruments by which we, the people, govern ourselves. They serve us in our capacity as self-governing citizens of the Republic. Lincoln never tired of saying that he conceived his role to be that of a servant of the people who elected him. The word "servant" in this connection does not carry any invidious connotations of inferiority or menial status. Rather, it signifies the performance of an important function, one carrying great responsibility, a responsibility officials are called upon to discharge while they are serving a term in public office.

I am sorry to say that most Americans think of themselves as the subjects of government and regard the administrators in public office as their rulers, instead of thinking of themselves as the ruling class and public officials as their servants -- the instrumentalities for carrying out their will.

It is of the utmost importance to persuade the citizens of the United States, both young and old, that they have misconceived their role in the political life of this country. If they can be persuaded to overcome this misconception, and come to view themselves in the right light, they will understand that their high responsibility as citizens carries with it the obligation to understand the ideas and ideals of our constitutional government.

In earlier times, when much smaller societies than ours were ruled by princes, books were written to instruct princes in the art of governance. The education of the prince, both moral and intellectual, was of supreme importance if one had any expectation of obtaining good government from their benevolently despotic rule.

Now, when the people have replaced the prince, when they are the self-governing rulers of the Republic, how can we expect good government from them, or from the administrative officials whom they directly or indirectly choose to serve them, unless we think it supremely important that they, the citizens both young and old, be educated for the discharge of their responsibilities.

Preparation for the duties of citizenship is one of the objectives of any sound system of public schooling in our society. Our present system of compulsory basic schooling, kindergarten through the twelfth grade, does not serve any of these objectives well.

The reasons why this is so and what must be done to remedy these grave deficiencies have been set forth in a series of my books ("Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind", "We Hold These Truths", and "The Paideia Proposal") that have initiated much needed reforms in our school system. Here I will borrow from them only what is germane to the explanation of what must be accomplished educationally to make the future citizens of the United States better citizens than their elders.

I am going to state the educational objective in its minimal terms. The least to be expected of our future citizens (as well as all the rest of us) is that they will have to read the three documents that are our political testament -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address -- and that their reading of these three documents will have eventuated in their understanding the ideas and ideals of our Republic. While much more might be added, the primary concern here is the understanding of the ideas and ideals of the Constitution.

I have engaged in the Paideia project to reform basic schooling in the United States. In the course of doing so I have had the occasion to conduct many seminars with high school students in which the reading assigned for discussion was the Declaration of Independence. Taking part in the seminar resulted in their reading that document for the first time.

The discussions that followed revealed how little they understood the meaning of the Declaration's principal terms before the discussion began, and how much more remained to be done after the seminar was over to bring them to a level of understanding that, in my judgment, is the minimal requisite for intelligent citizenship in this country. The same can also be said with regard to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.

I am sure that the sampling of high school students I met in these seminars is representative of the general state of mind, and that a similar sampling of our college graduates would not change the picture.

Over the last fifty years, I have also conducted executive seminars under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, in which the participants are graduates of our best colleges and universities and have reached positions of eminence in our society -- the top echelons in industry, commercial establishments, journalism, the so-called learned professions, and government. Their understanding of the basic ideas in the Declaration and in the Preamble to the Constitution is not discernibly better than what I found among high school students.

On one very special occasion, I conducted a discussion of the Declaration with leading members of President John F. Kennedy's Cabinet and his political entourage. To my surprise and chagrin, the result was the same.

The inevitable conclusion that I draw from all of these experiences is that there is work for us to do. I am fully aware that I cannot hope we will succeed in achieving what we seek to do -- to help every citizen, both young and old, understand the ideas and ideals of the Constitution.

Considering the extent of actual and functional illiteracy in this country, even that may be too much to hope for at the present time. Still, one must believe that reform of basic schooling will succeed in the years that lie ahead and that, at some future time, an understanding of the fundamental principles that underlie the political life of this Republic will be the possession of every citizen of the United States.

Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster.

Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

Anonymous said...

Of course, it is very important for the children to know what kind of world or society they are living in, the moment they step out of their comfortable homes.

The important subject of eternal class struggle between majority-consumers and minority-producers.
Simple points: Capitalism democracy system as embraced by Malaysia, USA, Europe and more than 2/3 of world's nations meaning the dictatorship of the Bourgeois or "Merchants and Traders", tyranny of majority-consumers-capitalists over minority producers-workers, inequality society, commercial interests over human interests, human beings living in a dog eat dog jungle world, private ownership of property and means of production and personal wealth, an inverted pyramid human food chain and money is created as debt to society. The "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" society.

A “Yin” nation or civilization or “Water-Wood” society or better known as a consumer society.
The “Water-Wood” elements of humanity such as Bankers-economists, businessmen like property developers, accountants, finance executives, lawyers, media executives or “Arts” stream people are at the top half of human food chain controlling, dominating, owning and exploiting minority producers-workers such as doctors, engineers, teachers, farmers, fishermen, artisans, etc.

The “Money controls production” society or nation with this strong message being “Capitalism is a necessary condition for freedom”.
The division already happened the moment these young pupils were streamlined into majority “Arts” or minority “Science” classes after Form 3.

“Look..look..capitalists..capitalists or look..look.. communists or socialists”, students from both streams jeered at each other.
Malaysian parents want their children to grow up to become doctors while American parents want their children to grow up to be rich, successful, glorified businessmen or become glamorous entertainers.

Talk about Eastern culture vs Western culture....

Anonymous said...

If science in school is just a plug in of formula to produce result, so do the teaching of "islamic studies" for muslim students.

In a multi racial school, students should also be exposed to info on democracy from the perspective of various religions .

ioney said...

Here's a simple experiment for teaching democracy in schools: Have students run for the prefectorial body ala campaign style and ask fellow peers to vote for them.

I'm sure it will raise many interesting issues (candidates bribing other kids with canteen nasi lemak, teachers pushing their pet favorites through, etc etc), but in any case, I'm sure putting democratic principles to simple practice will be the best way to drive the lesson home.

Anonymous said...

Teach the young about the value of money first and financial planning rather than democracy. Democracy can always be abused if the money equation is not balanced and person is exploited.

Anonymous said...

A Malay Kelantanese once told me this story.

In Kelantan, there was a Kelantanese family, the husband was a fisherman and the wife, a full-time housewife, this couple has 5 children with the eldest being a son and the rest of them were daughters.

The producers in this family were the father and the son as both of them woke up early in the morning to go fishing. The rest of the family, mother and daughters were the consumers. They just do the usual house-keeping chores.
So who is chief household of this family? Who gets to decide who gets what resources? Who gets to eat that juicy curry chicken drumstick in a typical family dinner?

If it is a democracy process where majority wins and majority rules, then the daughters could easily ganged up and voted the mother as the head of the family.

5 votes of the majority-consumers versus 2 votes of the minority-producers. The consumer wins definitely.

Basic human rights being exercised or not in this democratic process?

Basic human rights should take more precedent over basic human needs, you may say.

The majority always right or not?

Choose either the mother being the “Yin” forces or the father being the “Yang” forces of humanity.

Liberation of consumer forces of humanity or liberation of productive forces, you ponder and choose one.

“Tiada dua nakhoda dalam satu kapal” was the finishing line as the Kelantanese ended his story.

WY said...

with umno and by proxy bn runnig the show, don't expect radical changes to introduce 'democracy' in the studies of kenegaraan.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at these lectures:


There is no democracy without a sense of justice and ability to reason.
Do you realise that in Malaysia, some people have more than one vote, in fact a few ? If you look at the number of voters in a constituency for one representative, there is a very big disparity. If the government is formed by counting the numbers of representatives in the parliament or state legislative council, and when you work out the numbers, then some people really have more vote in forming the government than others.
If free election is the goal, then is tyrany of the majority a form of democracy?

Frank Chong

Anonymous said...

Growing up, I remember reading about Greek democracy, Roman Empires about European history including colonial histories of our region, India and about Chinese history with a sprinkling of Modern Japan history. Up to college my ideas of politics and democracy was from that and newspaper. To show you how ignorant I was, I read all of Somerset Maugham and Orwell's work when I was 15 for extra credit, got As and still had no clue what it was all about.

Until freshman year and I read Alexis de Toqueville and took Russian History. It lead me to many things including American Law, history of Civil Rights etc..

Seriously there is nothing better to begin one consciousness than to read 'Democracy in America' and Basic Russian History to understand what are the basic tenets of democracy, politics and societies.

plato's disciples said...

We should definitely teach children all of these.

I remembered once I was telling somebody that when I was 6, I've already read up on the European history.

and basically that person said"you couldn't possibly appreciate it"

Now I'm confused, who dictate how we appreciate things?

we should give chances to children to learn about their world,but instead we're repeatedly shrinking the scope. how do we expect them to be a broad minded citizen that can communicate when they grow up when we teach them nothing in school?