As dictatorships crumble in Tunisia, Egypt and possibly Libya leaders in the West glibly talk about the spread of democracy to North Africa and the Middle East, For example David Cameron said in March: ‘It is in our interests to see the growth of open societies and the building blocks of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East’.
If only it were that simple. Democracy does not arrive in a puff of smoke. It requires thought, institutions but most of all an informed public. Be it John Locke’s idea of government as a contract between the rulers and the ruled or the idea that government is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, the people need to know something about their newfound rights.
How will this knowledge be acquired except through education? Education is vital to appreciating the choices that have to be taken in a democracy and part of being in a democracy is to understand its functions. This education can take many forms but its aim, in a democracy, must be to enable all the people to make decisions for themselves. Whether building into existing education systems or beginning again, designing a system of education which will prepare citizens to think about their democracy takes time.
Political thinkers have stressed the importance of education to promoting the full democratic participation of hitherto excluded groups for centuries. For example, eighteenth century theorist Mary Wollstonecraft proposed an education specifically for women that would enable them to become rational and virtuous citizens. John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, argued that it made no sense educating women without enfranchising them, for what purpose were women being educated if they were not to have the vote?
Yet, as I argue in my new book, these radical thinkers nonetheless believed women’s participation should run along deeply gendered lines, a woman would fulfil the role of citizen by being a good mother and a good wife – women were to participate, but in a very different way to men.
The region currently enjoying an apparent rebirth of democracy is not well known for its embrace of women’s right. Thus, as North Africa and the Middle East take the first tentative steps towards what might be democracy what role will education play in the process? If women are to have participatory rights and education what form will this education take? Will women be taught that they best realize their democratic potential just through being good wives and mothers?
Or can these protean democracies skip the stage of grudging concessions to women’s participation and allow education to be about participation for all, regardless of class, race, caste or sex. If this happens, it will not be the result of a quick fix. A healthy democracy is not something that simply grows; the ‘building blocks of democracy’ have to be put in place deliberately, with care.
If it is to be sustained education must be deployed to enable all citizens to carry the burden of democratic responsibility. Otherwise the hopes of the present will turn to disappointment.