by Katalin Miklóssy
How do you teach democracy? Isn’t there a profound contradiction? At least, if one believes in what Woodrow Wilson once stated: “the whole purpose of democracy is that we may hold counsel with one another, so as not to depend upon the understanding of one man“.
But isn’t one man’s understanding of democracy exactly the reason for what we can see as authoritarian backsliding of the eastern members of the European Union? How have phenomenon such as the erosion of the rule of law, high degree of corruption, over-centralisation of governance, limitations on media and curbing civic freedoms continued to grow, while a small elite was allowed to grab power and manipulate the rest of society? This is a thrilling problem because it exists within the value-based community of the EU. We have heard several possible explanations such as: shallow democratic experiences, transitions from socialism to market capitalism that were considered too fast, the unequal standing of eastern and western members of the EU, the 2008 economic crisis, globalisation, the rise of populism and the spread of Putinism – just to mention a few.
What if we have forgotten or, in the Eastern European case, never learned, that democracy is not really a grandiose idea but a day-to-day, down-to-earth hands-on process: a practice to discuss, debate and deliberate in order to arrive at consensus of how to solve real life problems.
But perhaps the explanation is a lot simpler. What if we have forgotten or, in the Eastern European case, never learned, that democracy is not really a grandiose idea but a day-to-day, down-to-earth hands-on process: a practice to discuss, debate and deliberate in order to arrive at consensus of how to solve real life problems.
Now, this one man can surely teach democracy because it is about inspiring students to rethink concepts that we take for granted – much too often. So, we as scholars can offer a useful tool for this purpose: area studies, which is in fact embedded in democratic discussions. Area studies were established in the late 19th century for practical reasons; to solve complex problems colonial administrations faced in India and Africa. While the ultimate aim was ominously undemocratic, the process of problem-solving in itself, was not. It established a new procedure where representatives of different disciplines came together, as equals, and collaborated for one purpose. The colonial administrations – fortunately – faded away, while deliberative and interdisciplinary co-operation further developed teaching and learning, now for the common good rather than sustaining state power. Furthermore, area studies provide a deeper understanding that problems of democracy are complex issues which cannot be worked out by the toolkit of a single discipline alone.
So, we need others to work with us and share our worries, dispute, deliberate and if possible, to achieve an understanding. When we look at the whole process it becomes rather obvious that this is actually the methodology of democracy .
Katalin Miklóssy is University Lecturer and Head of Discipline in Eastern European and Balkan Studies at the University of Helsinki Aleksanteri Institute and one of the BAMSE network teachers. Read more about Katalin’s research and teaching activities at the Aleksanteri Institute website.