Education and Democracy Part 2
What Education Do We Need? (2/2)

Education and Democracy Part 2

Nicolas J.A. Buchoud is the co-owner of Renaissance Urbaine, the strategic advisory consultancy he established in 2006, and the President of the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Development, an award-winning and collaborative think-tank.

Lan-Phuong Phan is a French intellectual, teacher and entrepreneur born in Vietnam and raised in France and Vietnam. She has co-founded Renaissance Urbaine Urban R&D and participated in multidisciplinary research aimed at strengthening social cohesion in neighborhoods across Europe.

Higher Education and Democracy in the Age of the Metropolis: More Evidence, Less Theory

In a recent essay, Henry A. Giroux, a pioneer in pedagogy, youth studies, media studies, and critical theory—and an acknowledged educational thinker—advocates for reinvigorating pedagogy in the era of Donald Trump. While we certainly share with Henry his doubts on Trump’s policy making, we believe intellectual debates and intellectuals need to reset their own clock too. Instead of looking into the world through the lens of theories and theoretical debates, we, as a planner, long-standing urban development practitioner and metropolitan entrepreneur, researcher and professor, suggest to look at our world as it is.

We are embedded in times of profound structural changes and we are part of that change. As timelines are colliding, so are development paths. In the same minute, while walking across the streets of Paris or New York, you can come across homeless individuals, migrants, and refugees, while Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos smiles at you from the cover page of a magazine, driving a super-sized robot under the headline “We Have the Power to Change Everything.”

As the baseline of the project titled Education Bill of Rights, the convener of this roundtable Jaroslav Anděl wisely quoted the French psychologist Jean Piaget who, in the mid 1930s, advocated that “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse.” Collapse and fragmentation is exactly what is taking place now in so many cities from the Global North and South.

Times Square, New York (Renaissance Urbaine).

In the Greater Paris area, a global city of more than 10 million dwellers, reports and evidence gathered by the Grand Paris Alliance, a not-for-profit think tank on metropolitan development, show that poverty levels are steadily growing at a pace which is quicker than in the previous decade. Local and national governments, as well as large companies or stakeholders in the startup economy, tirelessly advocate for more innovation and flexibility, meeting a growingly doubtful society. At a daily level, though, there are no clear signs that more innovation leads to more inclusion. In the private and public spheres alike, the burden of coping with change while managing hyper-complex sets of rules, by-laws, and laws is challenging. It requires ever more energy and engagement without more gains in return. Inclusive growth and positive impact economy have not yet proved a source of well-being.

Henry Giroux is right to point out the US President’s faults, but the election of Donald Trump did not occur by chance. In many metropolitan areas, suburbia is being engulfed in expanding agglomeration systems where the power lines between institutional jurisdictions are blurred. Meanwhile, social media provides a load of information highlighting “climate change,” climate hazards,” unprecedented migration flows… causing as much distress and anxiety as they are fuelling the desire to know more about the world. Change is not just occurring in a general or theoretical way. The very parameters of our very daily lives are changing, a disruption fuelled by the growing digitalization of the society.

In 2011, the columnist and founder of Richard Price estimated 6 million faculty members in the world. According to UNESCO, there were barely 100 million university students worldwide in 2000, about 150 million by 2010, 200 million today and the figure is expected rise to more than 260 million by 2025/30. That phenomenon does not come alone. It comes with digital transformations and it comes with unprecedented and rising levels of demographic and urban growth worldwide, especially in emerging countries and across Africa. The rise of metropolitan areas, that is functional urban conurbations that incorporate several local governments, is another major contemporary trend. Many universities are located in one of the 1,000 metro areas of more than 500,000 inhabitants of today’s world. We believe our mindsets are ill-equipped to fully understand the deep consequences of the massive on-going transformations, as they are occurring at very large scale and in a systemic way altogether.

The problem of politics is the problem of demographics is the problem of cities is the problem of education is the problem of education… etc.

The Synchronic Metabolism of Metropolitan Systems (Renaissance Urbaine).

Universities, their campuses and their human resources are critical resources for the twenty-first century, calling for reviewing the university-society interface. It is a multifaceted issue, ranging from the excessive pricing of university curricula to the transformation of education space to meet the need of the digital society, to responding to the imbalance between human and social science and “harder” science.

The level of integration of universities and leading public or private institutions dealing with global urban issues is critically insufficient. With the UN system, the agency dealing with urban concerns, UN Habitat, has set up a broad global university network known as UNI with more than 200 member universities, a noticeable effort reaching out only a tiny percentage of the number of universities worldwide. Meanwhile, civil society stakeholder groups are trying to gather academic input from across the globe in a networked approach. One such group is the Global Assembly of Partners (GAP), a multistakeholder platform with 16 constituent groups, including the academy, which also has around 200 members after just a couple of years. Professional networks and experts are trying to set up a global Urban Thinkers Academy out of Urban Thinkers Campuses, a series of workshops and hearings held worldwide since 2014 which has gathered over 20,000 professionals and civil society representatives, according to their promoters.

The need for knowledge to cope with changing societies and with a growingly man-made environment, sometimes quoted as a new geological era of the Anthropocene, is so huge that the formal academic system might not provide the necessary resources alone. Reversely, numerous initiatives from businesses, philanthropies, advocacy groups, and civil society stakeholder platforms are emerging for the good, but with limited resources and sometimes limited substance. Now more than ever, we believe historians to be valuable experts of time, and those who can nurture substantial comparisons with other epochs of accelerated economic, social, and technological or scientific change. We call for a review of how science grew and societies changed in the eighteenth Century, turned the times of the Enlightenment, to help us cope with the challenges and opportunities of our time and (re)infuse knowledge in the society. Otherwise, we may be dragged into dark times as fast as social networks and social media are shaping the horizons of our imagination.

Yaacov Hecht is the founder and chairman of Education Cities – the Art of Collaborations. He is internationally recognized as a leader in democratic education, learning theory, and societal change.

Education City

An Education City perceives the education system as an essential instrument for a citywide development—and the city as a central instrument in the education system’s development.

This concept should not be confused with other models, such as Educating Cities, Child Friendly Cities, and Learning Cities, that deal with education activities that are not tied to the municipal education system.

The Education City vision is led today by Education Cities Organization in Israel. In 2017, the organization received international recognition by the Finnish HundrED program that it was chosen as one of the hundred most inspirational education initiatives in the world today.

Yaacov Hecht: Democratic Education 2.0 – Changing the Paradigm From a Pyramid to a Network.

An Education City shifts from working in a Pyramid Paradigm to a Network Paradigm. This definition entails weaving a citywide network, a network of collaborations aimed at working to solve the city’s challenges.

Collaborations can exist between all the entities and residents in the city (Sharing Cities), however, in an Education City, the driving force of such collaborations, the core of the network’s hive, is the municipal education system.

To implement this approach, the entire city transforms into one big school!

The community of heads of teachers, teachers, and students begins to collaborate and the network space spreads throughout the city.

In the first phase, schools in the city begin to work in collaboration. Next, public and private organizations join in, as does the adult population in the city. Gradually, a network of collaborations forms in which every organization and every individual in the city can be a “teacher” and a “student,” or in other words, can share and acquire knowledge for the goal of promoting municipal challenges.

The city becomes a development centre focused on promoting the city and its residents.

In the increasingly growing “knowledge wave” (Alvin Toffler), in which the creation of new knowledge will be the main source of livelihood (as opposed to the information wave where knowledge transfer was the central value), the citywide process constitutes a “key player” and the municipal platform is the best fitting platform for lifelong learning.

The structure offered by the original school system (12K) is no longer sufficient for life in a rapidly changing world. That is, a world that demands a diversified, lifelong learning from us, and turns each and every one of us into a student (and a teacher) well beyond the boundaries of school. The old structure is no longer sufficient, mainly if we wish that every human being (at every age) will find what Sir Ken Robinson defines as their “Element” or their unique personal areas of strength and growth. On the other hand, municipal resources—human capital (resident and their areas of expertise), nature, culture, businesses, social centres, and, of course, all the existing educational spaces such as nurseries, schools, and universities already in the city—open new and fascinating worlds of content to the learner, in which he/she can express their uniqueness and skills. All within a collaboration between the education system and the community.

This kind of transformation is becoming increasingly more and more possible thanks to the meaningful change that occurs in the world. A change that generates productive collaborations between the state (Ministry of Education) and local authorities. The centre of gravity and control over education and other aspects of our lives is shifting from the hands of the state to the local authority. Cumbersome and lengthy processes of the past give way to simpler and more attainable processes in the local community. Mayors, municipal directors of education departments, and local entrepreneurs, are no longer required to wait for a lengthy and sluggish nationwide process, and have the mandate to implement innovative educational programs in their municipality and to promote the necessary collaborations for transforming the city into one big school.

These collaborations exist on many levels—between schools; between schools and public & private systems; between teachers; between teachers and students; between teachers and parents; and between all the residents in the city.

Yaacov Hecht, Democratic education is when you ask every day … what is democratic education?

Education Cities has created the Educational/Urban Innovation Lab for the goal of promoting these collaborations. The lab serves as a platform for nurturing and developing citywide collaborations. The lab tackles municipal challenges while empowering and supporting its individual participants, who can be teachers, heads of teachers, leaders of the education system, representatives from various organizations, business representatives, artists, and residents interested in taking part in tackling challenges.

In the lab, individual participants come together to form an empowering and supporting group for its members, which utilizes its members’ unique skills and abilities.

In the first phase—the lab is busy generating collaborations between all its members.

In the second phase—the group examines municipal challenges and selects the areas on which to focus. Next, the group sets out on a shared learning quest (for the most part, learning from coping methods utilized in similar challenges around the world).

In the third phase—collaborations around municipal challenges form between all the organizations that participate in the lab.

In the fourth phase—a “municipal currency” is created which accelerates all the collaborations in the city and connects the education system to another rapidly expanding concept today—“A Smart City.” A perception aimed at creating cross-sectorial collaborations via innovative technologies.

The shared work can occur in a classroom, school, city, and the world. From our experience, when given the opportunity to dream, learn, and experience, participants of the lab flourish and work enthusiastically and out of inspiration. Their zeal, even when directed only to a small island of innovation, is contagious and generates a movement of shared citywide creativity. And in turn, they gladly contribute to the development of the city they are proud to call home.

Education Cities—The art of collaboration in the classroom, schools, city, state, and worldwide.

Thomas Krüger is the Director of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. After being a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the former GDR, and becoming the executive director of the SDP in Berlin (East), Thomas Krüger became deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Berlin (East/West).

Rethinking Our Attitudes to Cultures of Knowledge

The Federal Agency for Civic Education spends a lot of time not only on the production and dissemination of knowledge, but also on thinking about our attitude towards universalism. The ideas and ambitions of Modernist movements had a great impact and left deep and lasting traces. In fact, they are still positive reference points for education today: enlightenment; the consideration of general human needs; the connection between different forms of knowledge. Another aspect that remains significant is the values and theories behind progressive education which sought to highlight the importance of emotion and design over and above technological and scientific insights. The aim of achieving emancipation through education and knowledge is still valid to this day.

Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) website:

Late modernity and neoliberal globalization require us today to rethink our attitudes to cultures of knowledge, since it offers no parallels to the sense of renewal and the forward-looking attitudes that dominated during the classical period of modernity. Instead, we struggle to diagnose modern phenomena such as “post-democracy,” “defective democracy,” “crisis of representation,” and “anti-politics.” Given that public confidence in institutions, science, the media and politics is waning and the gulf between social groups is widening, how can we continue to generate and disseminate knowledge that has democracy as its normative point of reference? My theory is that we need to abandon our desire to understand the world in all its complexity. Rather, we need to depart from the fiction of wanting to fully capture and understand reality.

Reality has always been a construct—a product of one’s perspective and place and time in history. More knowledge does not necessarily help to gain a clearer picture. Take universalism, for example. In Western classical modernism, pledging allegiance to universalism and internationalism, to human rights and the comprehensive validity of scientific knowledge, was a plausible act. Today, although Western societies continue to maintain their theoretical universalist loyalties, they have produced a situation in which violating the human rights of the populations in the Global South is a prerequisite of their own existence. In addition, the principle that all humans and their needs are equal, which modernity claimed at least in theory, is again increasingly being jeopardised by Identitarian movements. And even emancipation-oriented identity politics is centred more around the difference between interests and needs than around their similarities.

Fritz Heckert Housing Projects, Chemnitz, DDR (cc Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-T0426-0001)

Today, education and knowledge are categories that are defined by the conviction that some contradictions cannot be resolved and that ambiguity is inherent in cultures of knowledge. The way we approach knowledge has to be critical by default. From the perspective of civic education, plurality is the sine qua non. Political valorization free from ambiguities, contradictions and difference is a sign for a uniform society. Democracy needs objection, protest and competition in order to evaluate and integrate knowledge. The way we approach knowledge has to be critical by default. The fact that human rights continue to be violated does not mean we should abandon the concept altogether. The fact that internationalism has been perverted does not imply that we should stop working towards political and cultural inter- and transnationalisation. The fact that education has been devalued and instrumentalised for the elites does not mean that it is useless as a path towards emancipation. However, the fact that knowledge is used to literally re-format human beings and facilitate neo-colonial exploitation does challenge us to respond politically. Knowledge has a subjective dimension and calls upon us to occupy a clear position.

One of the examples of this re-formatting process is the current polarisation between metropolitan areas and non-urban environments (including small cities). Urbanism and urban planning here don’t generate knowledge about some random subject, but about its socio-political consequences. In the context of functionalism, a phenomenon of industrial modernism, the standardisation and generalisation of architecture, workflows, daily routines, and serial construction led to neutrality on such a level that this inspired a counter-movement to re-inject meaning and values into the social environment. Of course there are still faceless urban districts and uniform suburbs (there is still plenty of provincial ugliness and ugly provinciality, for instance the architectural aberrations of the 1970s and 80s that the historian Philipp Felsch mentions in his recently published book “BRD Noir,” co-written with Frank Witzel). In addition, as the sociologists Andreas Reckwitz and Walter Siebel have observed in recent years, the world’s larger cities and metropolises are morphing into environments that are geared towards the needs and interests of the wealthy and the creative classes. Design is understood as a conduit for uniqueness and particularity. Cities are turned into brands. Buildings are showcased as solitaires that are instantly recognisable around the globe. Humans are not perceived as citizens, but as paying clients. They move through staged, immersive spaces that command them to buy and consume—a world in which the “dark side” of society, the negative, is rendered invisible. Against this backdrop, we can afford to claim to be cosmopolitan in the sense that we want access to international markets. Consequently the vast range of products and services on offer masquerades as social pluralism. In a world dominated by global lifestyle capitalism, design—which does not sell products, but relevance and cultural capital—has a major role to play.

The design of urban environments and the political architecture of cities are mutually informative. Today’s new urbanism directs the spotlight to the impacts that the post-industrial age has had on politics, society, and culture. Now that globalisation has weakened the nation-state and its institutions, a potential new playing field has opened up for the local level. Today, it is not just local policymakers that are weighing in, but also sub-national stakeholders such as companies, organisations, and the creative economy. Most of them are interested in making the up-and-coming cities and metropolises more attractive in the light of the global competition—however, their efforts rarely extend to social issues. Non-urban environments and smaller cities are being deserted and their inhabitants are losing out, neglected and thus polarize. Within metropolitan areas too, spaces and social structures are becoming polarized and the divides between their inhabitants are widening. Knowledge producers play a crucial role in taking responsibility for addressing this problematic phenomenon, given that the role of designers and architects remains as yet undefined.

Helena Singer is the Ashoka Vice President for Youth in Latin America. She co-led the creation of innovative schools in Brazil and was a special assistant to the Minister of Education responsible for an initiative to foster innovation in basic education in the country.

Education as Radical Democratic Practice

In “Educated Hope in the Dark Times,” Henry Giroux takes up the main ideas and authors of critical pedagogy to bring a new perspective on the political and economic crises that many countries in the North are experiencing. Critical pedagogy reminds us that education, art, and all other fields of culture must assume their roles in civic engagement, critical thinking, and the capacity for action and change in the radicalization of democracy.

Much of what Giroux says contributes to understanding what is going on in Brazil nowadays. Just as in the United States, we have, since last year, a federal government that favours ignorance and violence. But, unlike America, this government was not elected. It came to power through maneuvers of an extremely corrupt National Congress at a time of deep economic and political crisis.

The country had come from thirteen years of a government led by the left party, the Workers’ Party (PT). This article does not aim at an analysis of the period, but we will emphasize only one aspect that dialogues directly with what Giroux says about the loss of the centrality of pedagogy to the progressive political project. As he says:

democracy begins to fail and civic life becomes impoverished when pedagogy is no longer viewed as central to politics.

The vision and educational practice of PT was forged in the popular pedagogy, elaborated by Paulo Freire,[1] who integrated the founding nucleus of the party. Freire systematized an adult literacy methodology based on a very successful experience with sugar cane cutters in the northeast region of the country in the early 1960s. The method considered the context experienced by the workers, their desires, and their reflections. The excellent results achieved led to the dissemination of the proposal throughout the country. But in 1964, the military coup that seized central power repressed the movement and exiled Freire. Nevertheless, his ideas and method continued to be widely used by social movements led by the Church and student organizations in the rural and urban areas. It was in the context of these movements and practices that the PT was born, a party created in the same years in which Freire and the other exiles could return to the country.

However, to command the federal government, the party made alliances with conservative sectors and relinquished its political project in central aspects. It was in this context that, throughout the PT administrations at the head of the Ministry of Education, smaller programs to support popular education coexisted subalternly with central policies that prioritized national student performance assessments, which determined curricula and pedagogical practices focused on instrumental skills. In Freire terms, the PT government reinforced the “banking model” of pedagogy.[2]

The social movement was disrupted and emptied. Those who took part in the dialogue with the masses were the most conservative factions of the Catholic and Evangelical churches, and thus it spread all over the country a political position ostensibly contrary to democracy, to the various forms of family organization, to gender identities and to the recognition of the ethnic influence on the social injustice.

However, since the end of last century, new pedagogical experiences have been forged in the country, initially in an isolated and fragmented way. Experiences of schools and civil society organizations focused on education in different fields as culture, art, audiovisual, communication, environment and human rights. These experiences are marked by some very important characteristics for those who, like Giroux, seek the radicalization of democracy.

In management, these organizations seek co-responsibility in the development of their political-pedagogical project. This means that the structuring of the team’s work, the organization of space, time, and the student’s path is based on a shared sense of education among students, staff, and families. In this way, pedagogical criteria always preponderate those of an administrative-bureaucratic nature.

Graziela Kunsch, Escolas (Schools), 2016. Video, courtesy of the artist.

Regarding the curriculum, the focus is on the integral or holistic formation of individuals, recognizing the multidimensionality of human experience. As the conditions for integral development cannot be guaranteed by a single organization, this organization must be positioned as a space to produce knowledge and culture of the community. To do so, it develops strategies aimed at enhancing the identities of the territory, connecting the interests of the students, the community and the academic knowledge and, based on this connection, it creates initiatives that transform the socio-environmental context.[3]

In the same direction, these educational organizations value the inter-sectoral and network connections that integrate the different equipment and agents of a territory—culture, health, social development, and others—around strategies aimed at guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the students, recognizing that the right to education is inseparable from others.

The physical environment of these organizations expresses the intention of humanized education, potentiating creativity and enriching coexistence of differences. Their architecture encourages what Giroux mentioned as “a sense of belonging, community, empathy.

Regarding their methodologies, they recognize students as protagonists, active participants in social networks, where they interact, collaborate, debate and produce new knowledge.[4] They also recognize the singularity of each one and seek to offer diverse paths for all to learn, according to their rhythms, interests and styles of learning. In the development of projects of their interest, students critically approach to the labour world and positively intervene in their communities.

With these characteristics, a few hundred schools and other educational organizations have developed in the five regions of Brazil. There are among them public, private and communitarian organizations, from kindergarten to the education of adults, including technical and regular high schools. They are in urban and rural territories, creating new practices and methodologies everyday to guarantee the quality of education in the suburban and downtown areas, in agricultural communities and in indigenous territories.

It is in the socio-cultural diversity of Brazil that resides the greatest contribution this country can make to the world debate on the necessary transformation in education towards the radicalization of democracy. Valuing the knowledge built with the experience of centuries of resistance and achievements of indigenous peoples, agricultural populations, quilombolas,[5] urban social movements and identity movements, these organizations have proved that a radically democratic pedagogy is possible in the most diverse social, economic and cultural contexts, even if each experience is unique and unrepeatable. These various and unique organizations present different possibilities for what Giroux proposes:

If young people, artists, and other cultural workers are to develop a deep respect for others, a keen sense of the common good, as well as an informed notion of community engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as a cultural, political, and moral force that provides the knowledge, values, and social relations to make such democratic practices possible.

They are pedagogical practices that create what Giroux called “militant dreamers, people capable of envisioning a more just and democratic world and are willing to struggle for it.” It is not by chance that one of the networks that articulate educators of several of these organizations is named “romantic conspirators.”[6]

These networks—most recently connected with others in Latin America and with global networks—can offer progressive movements what Giroux described as “pedagogical tools that demand respect, empathy, a willingness to listen to other stories, and to think seriously how about how to change consciousness as an educative task.”


[1] Freire’s main theories are presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970).

[2] The “banking model” of pedagogy is based on a vertical relationship between educator and learner, in which the educator is the subject that holds the knowledge, thinks, prescribes and “deposits” amounts of his knowledge in the learners. In contrast, Freire argues that learners also have knowledge and experience, different but as valuable as the educator’s knowledge. It is the dialogue between them that will result in the construction of a truly emancipatory knowledge.

[3] Specifically, about the holistic proposal and movement in Brazil, see Helena Singer, “Innovative Experiences in Holistic Education: Inspiring a New Movement in Brazil,” in The International Palgrave Handbook of Alternative Education, edited by H. Lees and N. Nodings, pp. 211-226 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[4] About the proposal and the practices of different organizations in Latin America that favor the students as protagonists, see A. Lovato, C. Yirula, & R. Franzim, (eds.), Changemaking: The Power of the School Community (São Paulo: Ashoka/Alana, 2017).

[5] People who live in quilombos, Brazilian hinterland settlements founded by escaped slaves.

[6] About these networks in Brazil and in the world, see P. Greiger and T. Gouvêa, Edushifts: The Future of Education is Now.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Curated by

Jaroslav Andel is an artist and independent curator who lives in Prague and New York. He served as a consultant to the Council of Europe on its conference and new platform “Smart Creativity, Smart Democracy”.

Contributions by

Nicolas J.A. Buchoud is the co-owner of Renaissance Urbaine, the strategic advisory consultancy he established in 2006, and the President of the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Development, an award-winning and collaborative think-tank.

Contributions by

Lan-Phuong Phan is a French intellectual, teacher and entrepreneur born in Vietnam and raised in France and Vietnam. She has co-founded Renaissance Urbaine Urban R&D and participated in multidisciplinary research aimed at strengthening social cohesion in neighborhoods across Europe.

Contributions by

Thomas Krüger is the Director of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. After being a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the former GDR, and becoming the executive director of the SDP in Berlin (East), Thomas Krüger became deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Berlin (East/West).

Contributions by

Yaacov Hecht is the founder and chairman of Education Cities – the Art of Collaborations. He is internationally recognized as a leader in democratic education, learning theory, and societal change.

Contributions by

Helena Singer is the Ashoka Vice President for Youth in Latin America. She co-led the creation of innovative schools in Brazil and was a special assistant to the Minister of Education responsible for an initiative to foster innovation in basic education in the country.

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