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fostering democracy and association

What is democracy? What is association? What is the special contribution that informal educators can make to fostering democracy? Where does association fit in? Support page for chapter 3 of Informal Education
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inthedock.jpg (13744 bytes)Our aims as informal educators change. At one moment we may want to promote talk about home life. At another we may seek to make contact with a group. Yet while aims alter with situations, all educators, we argue, must share a larger purpose. This is to foster democracy and association.

Democracy is one of those words that gets chucked around. So what actually is it?

Informal educators because of their focus on conversation and their involvement in community and other forms of 'associational' group have a special contribution to make to fostering democracy.

Association - what actually is it? Why is it so important?

Check out the Informal Education forum and discussion page

Some questions to consider

At the end of the chapter we give you some questions to think about - and we want to look briefly at each.

1. Here we have placed a special emphasis on democracy - or as Dewey put it: working so that people may share in a common life. How would you describe the aims of your work?

We asked this question because having clear aims for our work is central to good practice. When we are talking with so meone we need a reference point. If another person were to come up to us after a conversation and asked, 'How does that fit with your aims in the work?' we should be able to answer it.

We were also wanting you to consider a further question here. This is about how much emphasis you are placing on working for a society in which people are able to share and participate. A lot of the things we do or talk about as workers are linked to this question. It would be interesting to look back over your last work session to see how many times you said or did something that was concerned with how people were treating each other, for example. A lot of the interventions we make are to encourage people to respect each other, or to consider others' needs.

2. Do you work in ways that encourage people to join in and to take the responsibility for organizing things? Think about this with regard to your work over the last few weeks.

How much do we organize for people rather than with people? In Creators not Consumers one of us (Smith 1982) explored the different styles that workers could adopt:

Telling ------- Selling ------- participating ------- spectating

Look at a couple examples of projects or pieces of work you have been involved in. Where do your interventions fall on the scale?

3. Gaining a sense of identity involves looking at what we share with others, and how we are different. Consider the recent conversations you have had with a couple of individuals. Have you attended to both elements? Have you linked this questions of identity?

These have been important questions in the development, for example, of work with young women and girls, and of work around dis/ability and sexuality. They have also been fundamental features of educational projects that develop within different cultural communities or communities of color - what is it we share through our culture, how does it set us apart (make us different) from others. Such questions of identity should apply to all work (and are often overlooked).

A follow-up question looks to the sorts of posters we have on the walls or leaflets or materials we have around if we are working in a building or c entre. We may also consider the subjects that we try to introduce into conversations. Are we encouraging people to explore their identity with others? Are we asking them to consider their history?

4. To what extent are the groups you work with 'communities in the task of educating themselves?'

In the current jargon the question here is whether the groups we work with and within are 'learning communities'. This is another fundamental concern. It addresses the way we think about groups - and the sorts of questions we should be asking as we work. As educators we should be helping to build 'learning communities'.

The groups we work with may have some specific purpose - such as to play football or to organize local tenants. But for them to be satisfying to their members they have to be something more.

One part of this is the social side - recognizing that people join groups to be with other people as well as play the sport or whatever.< /p>

Another aspect, we think, is that people, for the most part, don't want to be static - they want some change, they want to grow. This is where looking at the group as a learning community comes in. As educators it may be that we can help people to work at making the group a place where people can develop.

5. What are educators to do in societies that discourage democratic ways of living?

Some of you reading this will be working in situations or societies where working for democracy is difficult or is severely discouraged. How, then, are you to make sense of this chapter?

One of the messages we have tried to convey is that we have to be sensitive to the constraints in a situation. It would be quite wrong if we were to encourage democratic ways of working in settings where they are not possible. This is not to say that as educators we should not be working for democracy - but it is to say that we need to have a political understandin g of what is possible - and to work with people so that they too develop such an understanding.

Part of the question here relates to scope. We may work in a society or situation that is authoritarian and centralized. However, within that there may be room for groups that run themselves, that have an 'associational' structure. It may be that we can focus on developing democratic ways of working within these groups and associations. Our hope may be that the more groups there are like this, the greater the chance that their influence will spread - that they can become 'nurseries for democracy'. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville,

the strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government; but it has not got the spirit of liberty.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1994) Democracy in America (Vols. 1 and 2). (Trans. G. Lawrence, ed. J. P. Mayer), London: Fontana. This quotation is taken from Volume 1. First published 1835.

6. What would be the result if you applied a 'democratic audit' to the pieces of work you are involved in. For example, do they:

These are questions that you can ask of your work - and the work of the organization or agency of which you are a part. This may be something that is worth exploring as part of a bigger activity.

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith
First published August 7, 1997. Last update: July 08, 2014