As per Social Science NCERT textbooks, there are many ways in which a democratic government is better than an autocratic one: democracy empowers individuals with rights like liberty and equality. It tolerates, encourages, and engages with dissenting opinions and allows citizens to hold those in power accountable. The government-mandated curriculum covers a variety of topics that are at the heart of any discussion related to democracy – Democratic Rights, Power Sharing, Diversity, Popular Struggles, and Movements, just to name a few. Yet, for all the emphasis that is put on the merits of a democratic government, democratic practices in actual school setups remain extremely low.
Traditionally, in a classroom, authority flows from teacher to student. Teachers in our schools, more often than not, play an authoritarian role and students have been socialized into having a generally passive approach. While it’s important for students to be respectful, spaces for polite and informed disagreement with the teacher need to be created. This looks like, for instance, children not being scared of differing with the teacher, in a non-confrontational manner, over a different interpretation of a given poem or over the grade they’ve been given for a paper.
There needs to be a space for dissenting voices especially in social studies classes, where potentially divisive issues are studied. Considering their traditional roles and conditioning, some teachers may be inclined to omit a debate around, reservations, for example. Teachers might end up dictating the ‘correct’ answer to the students, and students might accept the teacher’s point of view at face value. The students might not go through the process of researching and finding out the ‘correct’ answer. Encouraging children to articulate their own arguments, and creating conditions where a child isn’t scared of being the lone dissenter in the face of majority views motivates them to think originally and critically, instead of just following the herd.
Further, students should be enabled to hold the school authorities accountable. These authorities usually expect ‘obedient’ students to follow their decisions unquestioningly. Asking for accountability amounts to rudeness. ‘Good’ students can’t express discontent if the teacher doesn’t take classes regularly, or turns up late. They can’t stand up against a problematic comment made by a teacher. Schools highly regard ‘obedient’ students for the same reason that autocratic states regard ‘law-abiding’ citizens – for their compliant attitude, and their tendency to not protest against oppressive power structures.Cultivating this attitude is dangerous for a democracy.
If we are to prepare children to be active citizens in a democracy, we need to enable them to not just study but practice democracy. This is the idea behind the concept of Democratic Education – “an education that democratizes learning itself” (Gould, E. (2003) The University in a Corporate Culture. Yale University Press. p 224). Here, democracy is both the goal and method of education. Spaces are created for self-directed learning and student-led reform in schools. Students are also involved in decisions that directly affect them, with their voices being equal to those of the authorities. That is how democratic ideals of choice, equality and accountability are put into practice.
Protecting democratic practices in our society is important, perhaps now more than ever. The future of Indian democracy is tied to how people act upon what they learn in their formative years. Thus, after reading the textbooks that condemn autocracy, if a student calls out arbitrary decision-making by school authorities, it’s a healthy sign.