Democracy and education have been linked as far as Ancient Greece in the writings of Aristotle (384-322 bc.) (Fraser, 1996). Democratic theories of education have been central to the institution of public schooling in the United States and Canada since the inception of free, compulsory, public education. Horace Mann (1796-1859), W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) and John Dewey (1859-1952), were early advocates for public education in the United States. More recent scholars have built on the early writings of these important thinkers to push the notions of the democratic education and equal education opportunity. In this book, Understanding equal educational opportunity: Social justice and democracy in schooling, Howe (1997) expands on the thesis presented by Amy Gutmann (1987) in her book, Democratic education. Gutmann’s central idea is as follows:
A democratic theory of education recognizes the importance of empowering citizens to make educational policy and also of constraining their choices among policies in accordance with those principles- of nonrepression and nondiscrimination – that reserve the intellectual and social foundations of democratic deliberations. A society that empowers citizens to make educational policy, moderated by these two principled constraints, realizes the democratic ideal of education (Gutmann, 1987).
Gutmann (1987) states that the principle of non-repression prevents any group from “using education to restrict rational deliberation of competing conceptions of the good life and the good society” and that non-discrimination can be understood as “a principle of non-exclusion” (pp.44-45). However, Howe charges that Gutmann’s “general principle of ‘non-repression’ (of which ‘nondicrimination’ is a derivative) is too weak to adequately protect marginalized and oppressed groups in negotiating the participatory ideal” (1977, p.66). Nonoppressions is offered in its place, for Howe believes that a “stronger principle – a principle of nonoppression- is required in order to protect groups that are threatened with marginalization and exclusion from meaningful democratic participation” (1997, p. 67).
Nonoppression is a more powerful concept that Gutman’s non-repression. There are many non-discrimination in schools, businesses and government designed to protect minorities from unjust exclusion. These policies make it illegal to refuse admission or hiring to people based on race, gender, religion and other factors. If a business or a school is forced to admit a woman or a person of color due to these policies, it is likely that the work climate will not be conductive to the success of that minority member. Incidents that display covert racism and sexual harassment may impede the ability of that individual to work to his/her best capability. The same holds true for students in a school settings. If the climate is not supportive of every child in the school, then true educational opportunities “worth wanting” (Howe, 1997) do not exist. It is not enough to legally remove the barriers preventing their entrance, but we must also go a step further and begin to remove the oppressive language and structures that create a hostile climate for minority students.
Read more in Meyer, E. (2010). Explorations of Educational Purpose 10: Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools, Springer.