Public schools were a result of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that put forth the revolutionary idea that ordinary people could rule themselves, improve their own circumstances and, in collaboration with others, advance their communities. The philosophers of the enlightenment placed great hope in human reason, aided by science, as the faculty that would help people rule themselves and improve the world. Democracy, a form of government of the people and for the people, was also a result of the Enlightenment. Democratic government developed alongside the idea of human rights, a way to define the notion that people are essentially equal, core to democracy as a way of life. Public schools were invented to help all people develop the capacities to rule themselves, to assist them in developing their rational powers and capacity to act based on scientific understandings of the world, so they could improve it, and to help them understand and uphold a social contract which advanced the human rights of all, given the fundamental equality among all persons.
The leaders of independence in Latin America were keenly interested in the role of educational institutions in building a democratic spirit. They understood that democracy requires democratic citizens. One of those leaders, Francisco de Miranda, who served on the battles for Independence in France, the United States and South America, studied with interest universities in various countries, and brought together Joseph Lancaster, the inventor of a method to educate low income children in England, with Simon Bolivar and Andres Bello, Bolivar’s teacher. Bolivar, a major leader of South America’s independence, became fascinated by Lancaster’s method, and brought him to Caracas to work in the first teacher education institution he established there. Bolivar understood, as did Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Andres Bello, or Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (the founder of public education in South America), that democratic life depends on democratic citizens, and that one is not born with the skills that make democracy work, one develops those competencies in school and as a result of engaging in the practice of democracy itself.
Democracy as a way of life is a process, its genius lies precisely in the trust it places in the capacity of ordinary people to continually perfect it, to advance the arc of justice towards greater inclusion and continuous advancement of the human rights of all. The history of public education, like the history of democracy itself, is therefore a history of continuous improvement in the capacities of schools and teachers to equip citizens with the competencies they will need to make democracy work. When schools excluded children of ethnic minority backgrounds, as they once did for African American children in the United States, or for Indigenous children in Latin America, those who advanced democratic aspirations challenged them to educate these children as well as others. When schools segregated girls and boys in the preparation they received according to the pre-established roles of patriarchal societies, those advancing democratic aspirations challenged them to offer equal opportunities to learn. When schools offered unequal opportunities to learn to children of different socioeconomic contexts, they have been challenged by those advancing their democratic goals to be just in providing all decent opportunities to learn.
The advancement of the journey of schools alongside the arc of democratic justice has also involved ensuring that they help students learn the competencies that are essential to live in a democratic society, that affirms the equal rights of all. This includes teaching the legal frameworks that sustain the rule of law, teaching students to reason ethically, and teaching them ways to live together which are appropriate to life in democratic societies. Effective democratic citizenship education requires intentional curriculum, and high quality opportunities for teachers to develop the capacity to teach a curriculum that supports democratic values and practices. In the United States, for example, Facing History and Ourselves is a leading institution in the design of curriculum and of teacher preparation programs of democratic education. Their curriculum engages students in deep reflection on ethical dilemmas, historical crucibles and helps them discover the role of individual responsibility in history. Facing History works to turn people into upstanders for justice and democracy, rather than bystanders.
Colombia has, over the last two decades, made extraordinary advances in promoting education for democratic citizenship. Those have included developing national curriculum standards for democratic citizenship, the inclusion of assessments of student knowledge and skills for democratic citizenship as part of the national assessments which include also language, mathematics and science. With support from the Inter American Development Bank, Colombia hosted, under the leadership of then Minister of Education Cecilia Maria Velez, a Latin American observatory of democratic education which supported the assessment of students’ democratic skills, and the identification and dissemination of programs of democratic education. Colombia has a robust network of researchers and practitioners focused on how best to educate children and youth for democratic citizenships which have highlighted the importance of school climate, and the harmful role of school violence, in educating youth for democratic life.
In its remarkable efforts to negotiate a Peace agreement with a long standing insurgent force, Colombia has remained steadfast in its commitment to schools’ role in educating democratic citizens. As part of those efforts, the Minister of Education, Gina Parody, is leading a vigorous campaign to make sure students learn in school that all children have the same rights and responsibilities, and to curb violence and discrimination of all kind in schools. These efforts in democratic education include programs to stop homophobic bullying, a frequent practice in Colombia called ‘matonismo’ which subjects gay youth to various forms of socially sanctioned violence by their peers. These programs of civic education include also programs that educate high school students on the existence of various gender identities, including homosexual identities.
These efforts of Minister Parody, to uphold the rights of gay students, have generated vigorous opposition from some political, civic and religious leaders in Colombia. They have accused her of promoting a ‘gender ideology’, and of taking away the rights of parents to choose how to educate their children on these matters. The opposition to Minister Parody has turned personal, with several of those opposing her bringing up the fact that Minister Parody is gay as an attempt to undermine her authority.
Minister Gina Parody, and those who preceded her in these efforts, are to be applauded in understanding that gay rights are human rights, and that homophobic bullying is a savage practice that all educators around the world should cooperate to abolish. In her work to teach students to understand that all people are fundamentally equal, that all have equal rights, that we need to learn to accept our differences as a source of strength, essential to help us collaborate in the important task of improving the world, and that democracy requires the cultivation of human reason, assisted by science, so we can build societies that advance the well being of all, Minister Parody’s work is fully aligned with the vision of those audacious leaders, Miranda, Bolivar, Bello, Sarmiento, who hoped that ordinary people could rule themselves in the Americas, and who understood that democracy was only possible with democratic citizens. Gina Parody is moving schools in Colombia one step further in the long arc of justice and democracy.