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From the Editorial team

Make democracy great again

Authors: Heini Huhtinen Published:

If people are fed up with democracy, educators need to come up with new ways to demonstrate the tangible value of democracy but also facilitate open discussion about its failings. The text is an editorial written for issue 4/2020 on Adult Education and Democracy.

Democracy is going through an unpredictable mid-life crisis, David Runciman, then Head of Department of Cambridge University’s Politics and International Studies, argued at the end of 2018.

Professor Runciman suggested that generally in Europe and the Western world, voters seem to be increasingly frustrated and uncertain about politics and democratic processes. Many people feel they want a change but are not entirely sure what that change would be – just something different to what the current system provides for them.

Two years later, the crisis has not passed. A study by University of Cambridge published in early 2020 reveals that dissatisfaction with democracy has reached its global peak in almost 25 years, particular in developed countries.

Why are people losing faith in democracy?

It is not difficult to list potential reasons for the slipping confidence: a new wave of populism, the spread of misinformation and widening economic division are just a few examples. Democracy has failed to solve pressing issues such as climate change or the growing dominance of big tech companies over our lives.

Moreover, a growing number of leaders, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, have openly attacked democratic institutions such a juridical independence, active civil society, press freedom and fair elections.

DESPITE THESE VERY REAL and tangible issues, I feel that in many European countries it is in fact very easy to take democracy for granted; to feel comfortable enough not to have to trouble one’s mind too much with the actual mechanics of democratic procedures and institutions.

I live in Finland and, to be perfectly honest, part of me feels that democracy here is strong enough to run smoothly forward without my active involvement. I read the news, vote and then give myself a pat on the back for “fulfilling my duty as a citizen”.

If people are fed up with the democracy, lectures about the structures of politics are not enough.

However, the truth is that democracy could fail anywhere if we don’t look after it together.

So, my question is this: how can we make democracy education sexier? How can we get people interested in thinking about why all laws applying equally to all citizens actually matter? Or what would be the consequences of losing the option to actively participate in politics and civic society?

If people are fed up with the democracy, lectures about the structures of politics are not enough.

We need educators to come up with ways of demonstrating the real value of democracy but also of sparking and facilitating open discussion about the failings of democracy.

OF COURSE, DEMOCRACY IS much more than the political framework it operates in – a functioning democracy also happens at grassroot level in the way people interact with each other and the society around them.

This is also where adult education can – and should – have an important role to play. Adult education shows us one way of co-operating, participating and developing as citizens, together with a community of equals.

As important as it is to hail the democratic achievements of adult education, it is even more important to discuss its shortcomings. We can only learn democracy through the practice of democracy and, as Professor Licínio C. Lima puts it, the crisis of democracy is also a crisis of education.

One of Professor Lima’s biggest concerns is that, as lifelong learning has become focused on job competencies, the critical, radical side of education is being neglected.

His message is that, to keep developing our democracy, we need more dangerous adult education; education that reminds us that we or the world are never complete, and that the future is very much dependent on our dreams and actions.

Finally, we need to strive for more democracy inside adult education institutions themselves.

This might seem like an abstract and humongous task, but it does not have to be.

As Dr. Lisa Maria Reilly demonstrates in her opinion piece, good places to start could be fairer terms of work for adult educators and more diverse representation in the decision-making bodies of adult education.

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Heini Huhtinen worked as the editor-in-chief of Elm Magazine 2/2020-03/2023. Contact: Show all articles by Heini Huhtinen
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