December 18, 2015, BY Paula Cogan Myers

Bucknell University Professor Ramona Fruja, education

Bucknell University founded its Department of Education in 1916, the same year John Dewey published Democracy & Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, which continues to have a profound influence in all spheres of education.

The conversation about how democracy and education interact has been central to U.S. societal structure throughout history. A recent addition to this conversation is First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative, Reach Higher, which aims to provide access to resources for students to pursue higher education. 

Why is education at the center of U.S. societal structure? Professor Ramona Fruja, education, says that historically, education in the U.S. has been at the core of our idea of a just society. 

Q: How are democracy and education connected in the U.S.?

A: From the beginning of the public education system in the U.S. there was the idea that a society that involves its populace in ruling decisions depended on an educated public, even if there were other purposes — often competing — attributed to public schooling. There was an ingrained fear that we would regress to a society ruled by an imposing few, so some level of literacy and education was deemed essential. At the same time, there were deep disparities embedded in the foundation of the system from the beginning in terms of who was allowed access to education and what type of education they could seek.

Clearly, we've made progress, but we still face the legacy around how these disparities affect education and society. We've asked similar questions about the connection between democratic ideals and education during every major era of our history and it is important to remain vigilant about them. 

Q: How do democratic education and education for democracy relate?

A: We can think of their interconnection in at least two ways. On the one hand, there's this notion that we depend on the education of the populace — what they know, how they act, what kind of people they become, what kind of citizens they are. The other notion is how educators can create democratic classrooms — how to engage in education democratically.

For instance, John Dewey really wrestled with how you create democratic education in the classroom from the very beginning of a child's experience with schooling. For him, education was not just preparation for living, but a process of living in itself, with the aim to replicate the same kind of important questions that society wrestles with by developing students' interests and critical thinking skills in school so they could become responsible citizens. 

As a concrete example, some democratic educators like Alfie Kohn propose what to look for in a classroom, like how the seats are arranged or if the teacher is always positioned in the front. His is a fairly strict idea of what a democratic classroom looks like, but it's the principle that underlies those components; the idea that the power in the classroom is shared and the understanding of how power infuses the relationships between teachers and students and among students themselves that is most important to consider.

Q: How can teachers work to replicate democratic citizenship in the classroom?

A: It can be very challenging because it is such a dynamic process. Dewey's main idea of progressive education — progressive in the sense of not only reforming society, but also progressing from the child's interests outward rather than the other way around — is one approach to creating a democratic classroom. However, the teacher's personality is not erased in this process.

I'm cautious with sloganizing democratic education and reducing the idea to a blueprint, because it can be counterproductive to the very idea of a democratic classroom. We have principles that we're trying to get at, but we don't all get to them in the same way. For instance, you can put people in a circle and not have democratic education, because it depends on how you treat people. Do their ideas matter? Do they feel like they have a voice? Those ideas are more important than a set of decontextualized components to emulate.

Q: What has your work on diversity education and multicultural education shown you about how teachers can approach equality in the classroom?

A: An essential element is that teachers have to be themselves aware of their own cultural positioning and their own social position in regards to their class, race, gender, etc.; what kind of privilege they hold in society and how they bring that to the classroom. I think that's at the core of trying to understand diversity education, multicultural education and education for democracy. None of us is outside of multiculturalism. You're inside it. You're not just learning about other people, you're learning about yourself in the context of others and how your social position impacts others.

Q: How does this relate to your work on immigrant education?

A: It's important to talk about immigrants and their position in society in terms of access and equity. If some are not interested in the questions we raise about this from a justice perspective, they should at least be interested pragmatically from an economic perspective. It matters how kids are educated today. It matters what access they have to quality education and avenues of success, because in a few decades, who's going to carry the U.S. economy?

Upward mobility among immigrants is a complex issue. There is a trend of social upward mobility, but it also depends on what your point of reference is. If you're talking about immigrant populations that come to the U.S. with very low levels of education, then even finishing high school could be seen as upward mobility. But you have to look carefully at what is sufficient in the U.S. to really have upward mobility, reach your potential and access the opportunity structure. Access to good education, language lessons and a college degree are central to social mobility.

Q: In February 2015, Michelle Obama said, "I believe that education is the single-most important civil rights issue that we face today. Because in the end, if we really want to solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights and the kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year, then we simply cannot afford to lose out on the potential of even one young person." Why is education so central to achieving a more just society?

A: This approach recognizes that you can't tell people that they didn't try hard enough when you didn't give them the chance for equitable opportunities. I really believe in schools and what they can do, but we can't place all of this on them when there are such huge disparities in how we fund them, how we involve communities in them and how we create opportunities for different groups of people. 

At the same time, education is supposed to not let us become complacent, and this is core to democratic education. No democratic society can ever say 'we've arrived.' The only way to keep a democratic society is to maintain the discussion and perpetuate it by being willing to defend the principles it's based on, fight for them and ask for the resources necessary to uphold them. You need to never get complacent. You need to keep moving forward.