Education and Democracy

By Fred van Leeuwen

It is hard to understand why education has so rarely come into the public debate about the future of democracy. Perhaps, many do not see the intimate link between the teaching profession, organized labor, and democratic governance. Or, it may be because we live in a short-term world afflicted with severely limited attention spans. Some may find it difficult to address a future beyond the next election or the next paycheck or the next standardized test.

On the occasion of Education International’s 25th anniversary, Susan Hopgood, the president of EI, and I thought we should try to help fill this vacuum. We felt that we might be able to stimulate discussion and action in our ranks by drawing some lessons education unions and their members have learned throughout history in defending public education and democracy. To that end, we wrote On Education & Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession, which highlights examples of truly heroic struggles of the past and present.

Some of those stories take your breath away, like in occupied Poland during World War II, when the Nazis outlawed the teaching of history, literature, and art. These were subjects they believed could thwart their goal to create a Polish slave labor force for the Third Reich. However, thousands of teachers, part of a “secret teachers group” supported by the education union, refused to let down their students and, clandestinely, continued teaching the forbidden subjects throughout the war, sometimes at great personal cost. In Nazi-occupied Norway, teachers also refused to indoctrinate students as instructed by the Nazi occupation government. The authorities finally backed down, but not without detaining hundreds of teachers in camps in the far north.

There are other fascinating examples of the lengths that educators and their unions have gone to fight for their professional freedoms and democracy. Today, in Turkey, Iran, Bahrain, Djibouti, the Philippines, and Brazil, teachers are rejecting the transformation of their schools into transmission belts of state ideology or religion. They are refusing to teach lies, let down their students, and betray their profession. They are setting examples for educators around the world.

In places where authoritarian rulers try to get a grip on the teaching and academic professions and on what is being taught in schools and universities, and where the rule of law does not exist or is only on paper, teachers’ assignments are difficult and dangerous but relatively uncomplicated: organize, mobilize, and resist. In the established and emerging democracies, where free elections are taken for granted, democratic standards may fade away, sometimes without people realizing it. That is, until they wake up one morning to discover their professional and trade union freedoms amputated, to find their public services pared to the bone and sold to the market, to realize that their media have become concentrated in the hands of a few tycoons, and to witness their politicians shamelessly exploiting racist and xenophobic sentiments.

On Education & Democracy shows that democracy is a process that is reversible, that it can easily slip away.

The purpose of the book is to raise the priority of public education and the role of teachers and their unions in helping democracy prosper. It describes threats to democracy, the role of social media, and the challenges of overcoming the effects of organized and targeted disinformation, often called “fake news,” stressing that technology will never be able to solve that problem through new algorithms or other technological tweaks. Education is all about human interaction and iteration. Teachers are central to this dynamic process.


Fred van Leeuwen (link is external) is the general secretary emeritus of Education International and the coauthor, with Susan Hopgood, of On Education & Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession.

American Educator, Winter 2019-2020
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To download an e-book version of On Education & Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession, visit here.