🦋 If democracy is hard to love, how can we teach it?

Teaching democracy is hard work, precisely because we are living in a time when democracy is in crisis. So what should we teach, and how? Kei Nishiyama suggests that a grassroots, bottom-up approach involving teachers and learners alike will help us gain ownership of democracy – and fall back in love with it

Teaching democracy in its time of crisis

‘Democracy is hard to love’. So the political philosopher Iris Marion Young began the first chapter of her book, Inclusion and Democracy. Young's memorable statement, written more than 20 years ago, is equally relevant today.

To judge by the huge number of books, articles, newspapers, essays and blogs combining the words ‘crisis’ and ‘democracy’, citizens today seem ready for a divorce. We are currently in the grip of political inaction and gridlock surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. We are also experiencing racism and climate change, all of which have nurtured apathy and distrust of democracy.

What does teaching democracy mean in the first place?

I study democracy and teach it to students. These days, however, I often ask myself why I am teaching democracy when it is so hard to love. What does teaching democracy mean in the first place?

Am I successful at teaching democracy, if I say, ‘Democracy is better than authoritarianism’, if I teach the normative concepts of democracy (e.g. freedom, justice, equality and citizenship), or if I introduce Robert Dahl’s theory of democracy and polyarchy to my students? Can these pedagogical strategies help overcome the coming crisis of democracy?

Concept and conceptions of democracy

The answer to these questions is likely to be no. I have come to believe that the key to teaching democracy and saving it from its crisis is to shift our attention away from the concept of democracy and toward conceptions of democracy.

According to John Rawls’ The Theory of Justice, the concept of democracy refers to a single, shared principle that transcends differences and is agreed upon by everyone. Conceptions of democracy, on the other hand, refer to various, sometimes contested, ideas, based upon a shared concept.

If we do not learn about different conceptions of democracy, we will become preoccupied with the gap between the ideal of democracy and its reality

Rawls theorised the concept of justice by examining various conceptions of justice (e.g. utilitarian, Kantian and liberal). Political philosophers after Rawls critically examined his liberal conceptions of justice. Yet they maintained a firm grasp on the concept of justice itself.

The same goes for democracy. Democracy is a familiar political concept, understood throughout the world. However, the concept of democracy includes various conceptions, ranging from representative, deliberative or cosmopolitan to workplace, digital and non-human. If we do not learn about different conceptions of democracy, we will likely become preoccupied with the gap between the ideal of democracy and its reality, and stop loving it.

The key to loving democracy lies in gaining a better understanding of the ways that a rich and diverse conception of democracy can resonate with our values, beliefs, concerns, interests, and ways of life.

How, then, can we teach various conceptions of democracy?

Using the database to teach democracy

The thought-provoking blog piece Rescuing an Abandoned Science: The Lexicon of Democracy by Jean-Paul Gagnon, published in longer form here, might serve as a valuable starting point for responding to this question. Gagnon is a philosopher of democracy who studies diversity in conceptions of democracy. He takes an interpretive approach to studying democracy, collecting and analysing texts on democracy to create a database of its language.

Gagnon says, ‘it’s about gathering up the words in use today – and those forgotten – to approximate, and thereafter study, the whole’. By so doing, Gagnon hopes to achieve a clearer understanding of ‘the texture of democracy’. To create this database, he has collected over 3,500 adjectives, from diverse texts, that describe democracy.

A game-changer for teaching democracy

I believe Gagnon’s database may be a game-changer for teaching democracy. Using this database transforms our teaching from a traditional top-down orientation to a bottom-up activity.

Conventionally, a lecture on democracy would begin by introducing the concept of democracy, drawing on its philosophical foundations. This would be followed by historic cases of democracy. However, the key to understanding the ‘texture of democracy’, as Gagnon suggests, lies in understanding the diversity of conceptions and languages used to express it. Thus, learning democracy should start from the bottom up. Learners could consult the database to obtain a clearer understanding of how rich the conceptions of democracy are, and then consider what democracy ought to be.

key to understanding the ‘texture of democracy' are the diversity of conceptions and languages used to express it

For example, one day I asked teenage students to take a picture on the theme of democracy. One of them took a picture of plants. He called his picture 'emancipated democracy'. It was emancipated, he said, because he thought the image represented a kind of emancipation. Plants have found their optimal space for growing, and nothing interferes with their freedom of growth. We used the photograph to search Gagnon’s database for similar and/or opposing conceptions of democracy to deepen our understanding.

One student's interpretation of 'emancipated democracy'

Sceptics might argue that teaching democracy without presenting its core concept would hollow out the value of that education. However, if teaching democracy requires providing knowledge of a single concept, this blinds the learner to democracy's richer conceptions and textures. Rather, it cultivates an apathetic feeling that democracy is an abstract idea that may never be realised.

Realising democracy's value and potential

I believe that the better way to learn to love democracy is for learners to gain ownership of the interpretation of the question of ‘what is democracy?’ This will help them realise the value and potential of democracy for themselves. It can also be a driving force for innovating democracy at grassroots.

‘What is democracy?’ is not something the teacher explains at the beginning of the lecture. It is something we can create together, as an outcome of instruction.

This article is the second in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the ðŸ¦‹ over coming weeks and months to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Kei Nishiyama
Kei Nishiyama
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Doshisha University

Kei is also an Associate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Gorvernacne at the University of Canberra.

His field of expertise includes children and young people’s democratic participation, democratic education, deliberative theory, and democratic innovations for children.

He is currently undertaking an ethnographic study with Japanese youth climate activists, Fridays For Future Kyoto.

Follow him on Twitter @KeiNishiyamauc

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One comment on “🦋 If democracy is hard to love, how can we teach it?”

  1. I found a school textbook written just after the world war 2 by the Ministry of Education of Japan. The author was Dr. Odaka Tomoo. He talked about Democracy with passion toward young students who were still under a situation wasted by war. The copyright protection period of this book was confirmed as having expired. So I translated it into English and opened it on my web page. You can read it for free and you can also get the e-book of it.


    0001 In today's world, the word democracy is overflowing. Everyone has heard of democracy. However, how many people know the true meaning of democracy? When it comes to that point, I have to say that I am not very sure.

    0002 So, what exactly is democracy? Many people would say that democracy is a way of doing politics or electing people to represent you in politics. That must be one manifestation of democracy. However, it would be a mistake to think of democracy as just a way of doing politics. The root of democracy lies in a deeper place. It lies in the heart of everyone. The spirit of treating all human beings as individuals with dignity and worth is the fundamental spirit of democracy.

    0003 Those who know the dignity of humanity would not accept to bend their beliefs or be deceived with smooth talk of the boss. Those, who deeply feel that all people in the same society, in neighboring countries, and in the land over distant oceans are carrying on their precious lives, will willingly cooperate with those people, work for the sake of the world and people, and resolve to build a peaceful and livable world. In this way, all the people will clearly realize that the highest goal of politics is to bring about mutual happiness and prosperity through the efforts of all the people, by ensuring that all the people have an equal opportunity to exercise their own talents, strengths, and virtues fully. That is democracy, and there is no other democracy.

    0004 Therefore, democracy is exceedingly broad and deep and must be realized in all aspects of our lives. Democracy exists in homes, villages, or towns. It is not only the principle of politics but also the principle of economy, the spirit of education, and the fundamental way of human community life that should be spread throughout society. It is not an easy task to see it clearly from all angles and acquire its spirit firmly. To have a comprehensive view of the complex and multifaceted world of democracy, one needs a good map and a helpful guidebook. That is why this book was created to become the map and guidebook that anyone can trust.

    to be continued...

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