Civic Education and Democracy: The NED Experience

Remarks by Carl Gershman, President

The National Endowment for Democracy

Seoul, South Korea

Remarks given at the “Civic Education and Democracy in South Korea” Conference, December 14, 1999

I want to congratulate the Korea Council of Civic Movements and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung for taking the initiative to organize this timely conference on “Civic Education and Democracy in South Korea.” This is a critical moment in South Korea’s transition to democracy. Though the country is going through a difficult period of economic adjustment and renewal, it has an historic opportunity to move forward toward a fully consolidated democratic polity. Its success in doing so will obviously depend upon the restoration of economic growth and continued political stability, both foremost national priorities that demand urgent attention. Of no less importance, though, is the long-term goal of developing a vigorous democratic culture deeply rooted in the values of democracy and freedom. This depends upon the education of a democratic citizenry, a goal that can be accomplished only if the method and content of education itself are imbued with the values of democracy.

In its founding “Statement of Principles and Objectives,” drafted fifteen years ago, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) placed education for democracy among its highest priorities. “Democratic political institutions,” the statement read, “will not long endure unless they are buttressed by a strong civic culture and supported by a populace that is committed to such ideals as the rule of law, individual liberty, freedom of religion, free and open debate, majority rule, and protection of the rights of minorities. Nor will the demise of dictatorships give birth to genuine and lasting democracy where the citizenry has not already begun to understand and appreciate democratic values.”

Democracy, after all, means self-government. If people are to rule themselves and not need the direction and discipline of a master, they must be able to make intelligent and informed choices. They must also be aware of their social environment and be prepared to agree, disagree, and respectfully interact with other citizens. “A democracy,” the great American philosopher John Dewey once wrote, “is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” Education in a democracy must prepare people not only to be knowledgeable about their society and able to contribute productively to its development, but also to participate jointly with others in the common enterprise of self-government and problem-solving.

In preparing for this conference, I leafed through an old copy of Dewey’s Democracy and Education which I had read many years earlier as a graduate student. Written at the beginning of the twentieth century, this classic work has lost none of its power and freshness and should find a new audience today in countries, like Korea, that are undergoing the process of democratization. Its essential message is that “education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” in which knowing and doing are closely linked. Education enables the individual “to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.” But it can succeed only if it is “an outgrowth of existing conditions” and is “founded upon the intrinsic activities and needs (including original instincts and acquired habits) of the given individual to be educated.” The education of an individual is like the growth of a plant — it starts from the roots.

In fact, this is just a matter of common sense. If we want to move forward, we have to start from where we are, not from where we or others would like us to be. Dewey has added the notion that we learn from doing (“we get used to things by first using them,” he wrote), from interacting, and from constantly readjusting to new the situations produced by these varied interactions.

The development of democracy in a country, like the education of an individual, also proceeds gradually, one step at a time. In this respect, those who think that democracy can be achieved through a “great leap” are as mistaken as those who think it cannot be achieved at all in the absence of certain preconditions, be they economic or social. Both overlook the need to base action, as Dewey wrote, “upon a consideration of what is already going on; upon the resources and difficulties of the situation.” Rather than see democracy as a distant goal or as a Western idea unsuited to non-Western cultures, it’s much more practical to start by tackling real problems related to establishing a democratic system and to grow and learn by solving them. In this way, to quote Dewey once again, “Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved.”

Such pragmatism, and the recognition that democratization is a gradual process, have always informed the NED’s approach to civic education, regardless of the country or region involved. In all cases — and in this paper I review our programs in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Russia — the programs have grown out of the specific circumstances and possibilities inherent in the situation that has prevailed in a country at a particular moment.


In Africa, for example, civic education only became possible with the promulgation in 1986 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Open discussion of democracy and politics was dangerous under the dictatorial governments that prevailed in Africa at that time. Nonetheless, by talking about human rights within the framework provided by the Charter (which had been signed by nearly all African governments), civic groups in many African countries were able to address issues such as the rule of law and freedom of speech and assembly.

Thus, in 1988 the Endowment made a grant to the Uganda Human Rights Activists (UHRA), one of the first African groups to take advantage of the political space created by the Charter. With NED support, UHRA conducted human rights monitoring and was able to carry out some civic education through training workshops and a newsletter. Other early human rights groups were the Mouvement Burkinabe des Droits de L’Homme et du Peuples in Burkina Faso and the Civil Liberties Organization in Nigeria. The Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have since been translated into scores of African languages, and they continue to serve as the basis for most education programs dealing with civil and political rights in Africa.

A second important foundation for civic education in Africa has been the enormous increase in the number of elections on the continent following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Beginning with the first elections in Benin, Namibia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cape Verde, Sao Tome, and Zambia, multi-party elections soon spread to nearly every country on the continent. Even where these elections were not free and fair, they served as a mobilizing vehicle for education about democratic rights. The NED was able to help groups such as the Benin-based Study and Research Group on Democracy and Development (GERDDES), a regional civic organization that conducted workshops and seminars about democracy and political parties, the meaning of the vote, transparency, the role of the military and the legislature, and many other issues that went beyond basic human rights.

In order to prepare for elections, civic education programs had to be conducted on a massive scale, often with international assistance and the acquiescence and cooperation of the local government. Opinion polls conducted in South Africa, Congo (Zaire), and Liberia show evidence of rising levels of civic consciousness, attributable largely to the civic education efforts and increased political participation that have occurred over the last several years in the context of elections. Similarly, a study by GERDDES of several West African countries shows strong support for the new freedoms brought by democracy, even where the performance of the elected governments has been disappointing. Civic education, whether carried out directly through formal programs or through the newly assertive African press, has permanently altered the political discourse in Africa and limited the extent to which governments that still lack a strong commitment to democracy can resist continuing demands for more reform.

Looking to the future of civic education in Africa, much depends on the development of radio, the medium that reaches the largest audiences. Independent stations, especially smaller community-based stations, not only provide consciousness-raising news reports, but also information on people’s rights and responsibilities, politics, health, and the economy. Although such stations are often financially self-sustaining, many have to contend with government suppression or over-regulation, competition from well-funded international networks, and a weak advertising base. They need more help, and the NED will continue to look for strategic ways to do so.

One example is our support for Radio Anfani in Niger, whose director, Gremah Boucar, recently won the International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists for his resistance to government repression. The station has a club with 36,000 members, each of whom pays $1 a year (a substantial sum in a country where the annual per capita income is $200) for the right to take part in “walk-in” programs — a kind of community meeting where listeners gather at a local station to express their views on all issues of concern, including the content of the station’s programming.

Latin America

Not surprisingly, the social and political context for civic education is different in Latin America, where human rights have been recognized and elections conducted for many decades. Here civic education programs are generally targeted at specific problems, such as increasing awareness of how citizens can deal with corruption, strengthening participation in local government, or teaching people how to resolve conflicts peacefully. The fact that such programs are means to an end which often has more to do with governance than education does not mean they are not forms of civic education. As Dewey suggested, people learn from doing, and they are far more likely to absorb lessons about democracy through such programs than by listening to a lecture on democracy that does not relate to the concrete circumstances of their lives.

Here are a few examples of such programs in Latin America:

  • In Colombia, a country engulfed by drug-related, paramilitary, and guerrilla violence, the NED supports the Centro de Investigacion y Educacion Popular (CINEP) which trains primary and secondary school teachers to promote a culture of peace, tolerance, and respect for human rights. Working closely with the national teachers union, the group works with teachers to identify and analyze the sources of violence in their communities as the basis for developing new currcula, projects, and materials that foster tolerance. It also organizes forums where parents, teachers, students, and community leaders can evaluate this work as a way of assessing its potential for use in other schools.
  • Another program in Colombia trains civil society leaders to monitor local government, a need created by the constitution of 1991 which fostered decentralization and strengthened the powers of local officials. With NED support, the Corporacion Viva la Ciudadania has created Democratic Leadership Training Schools which draw participants from a broad range of civic organizations and sectors, including government officials, political leaders, trade unionists, indigenous leaders, local activists, educators, ex-guerrillas, rural workers, health care workers, and youth leaders. All participants must be sponsored by their organization, and graduates are awarded a diploma certified by public universities. The subject matter of the teaching modules ranges from democratic thought to school government and environmental politics, and the schools also work closely with the regional committees of the Civil Society Assembly for Peace to foster peace and tolerance.
  • Local government is also the focus of a leadership training program carried out in Peru by the Servicios Educativos Rurales (SER). Here the problem to be addressed derives from the decline of the traditional political parties and the emergence of local government as a possible wellspring for new leaders and modern, popularly-based parties. SER has created a school for democratic governance which offers technical assistance to local elected officials and community activists in leadership skills, conflict resolution, mechanisms of local democratic participation, strategic planning, and democratic public management.
  • Finally, in Mexico a group called Presencia Ciudadania is working to increase the democratic participation of youth at a time when the old corporatist structures of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) have lost much of their influence and legitimacy. In a country where nearly half of the economically active population is under thirty years old, Mexico’s stability depends on the development of effective mechanisms that give youth a chance to participate and to influence the policies of federal and state legislatures. Toward this end, Presencia Ciudadania has organized regional “youth promotion committees” that conduct civic education workshops and develop proposals for reform, and that feed into a national forum where young leaders are able to exchange ideas with well-kown academics and politicians.

Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe has presented NED with still a different circumstance and challenge. During the 1980s, when communism still existed, the most that could be done was to assist educational activities conducted by independent groups such as the Committees for Education, Culture and Research (OKNO) in Poland, underground publishers, and a large number of “samizdat” journals and books. The fall of communism obviously created vast new opportunities for civic education, but ironically it also presented civic educators with a new obstacle — the association of civic education with earlier communist programs of indoctrination.

Civic education would be rejected by the people if it appeared as a new form of indoctrination with different objectives. It could gain legitimacy only as an authentic expression of national identity which engaged the newly liberated peoples’ hopes for the future. In Poland, the problem was solved by creating a new civic education framework that synthesized three different elements: 1) the pre-communist Polish tradition of civic education that dated back to the period of the May 1791 constitution and the twenty years between the two world wars; 2) the Polish need to fashion a modern democracy fully integrated into Europe and the democratic world; and 3) the social and educational experience of countries with a long tradition of democracy, in particular the United States.

The last element was provided by the Mershon Center of Ohio State University which, with NED support, joined with the Center for Citizenship Education in Warsaw to create the Education for Democratic Citizenship Program (EDCP). The program produced several western-style curricula and accompanying materials, such as textbooks, resource guides, and student workbooks, that today are being used in over 800 Polish secondary schools. A NED grant also helped the Mershon Center work with Polish educators to establish the Foundation for Citizen Education which is Poland’s leading civic education organization.

One of the unique aspects of NED-supported civic education programs in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union (NIS) has been so-called “East to East” work in which civic educators from Poland and other democracies in the region help their counterparts in countries further to the East where democracy is less advanced. Much of this work is carried out through the Foundation for Education for Democracy (FED) which was established with NED assistance by Poland’s Teachers Solidarity in cooperation with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The FED has spawned counterpart civic education organizations in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and has conducted hundreds of workshops training teachers, trade unionists, student activists, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Central Asian countries, and even as far east as Mongolia. Over sixty “how-to” brochures and hundreds of pages of civic education materials have been produced in Russian and the other languages of the region, including Crimean Tartar, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Mongolian.

Among the other outgrowths of these initiatives have been the Centers for Pluralism, which links hundreds of democracy-building NGOs in fifteen East European and NIS countries, and the AFT’s clearinghouse for civic education materials and its world-wide database of civic education practitioners. Other NED grants have supported ethnic and minority rights education programs and, most recently, voter education programs in Slovakia where voters replaced the authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar with a prodemocracy coalition.


Finally, I would like to say a brief word about NED’s efforts to support Russian democracy through civic education. In this regard, I would like to refer you to a perceptive evaluation of six NED-supported civic education projects in Russia that has just been produced by Mark S. Johnson, a specialist on Russian education who teaches history at Colorado College in the United States. The six projects are:

  • A legal education project at the secondary school level conducted by the Institute of Law, a private institution associated with the St. Petersburg Law School;
  • A series of English-language civics seminars conducted in cities and provincial areas throughout Siberia and in the Urals region by Educated Choices Heighten Opportunities (ECHO), an organization based in Novosibirsk run by American educators;
  • A broad range of activities (seminars and texbook and curricula development, among others) in the Urals region carried out by the Development Through Education Fund (DTEF) of the City of Togliatti, an indigenous effort funded by the city that cooperates with ECHO;
  • Three projects carried out in cooperation with Teachers’ Gazette, one of Russia’s leading pedagogical newspapers: 1) a weekly civic education supplement to the newspaper; 2) the development of the Russian Association of Civic Educators which fosters cooperation among like-minded researchers, journalists, publishers, teacher educators, and teachers; and 3) a student competition called the Civic Education Olympiad.
  • The development of human rights instructional materials for elementary and secondary schools and programs for teacher training in this area conducted by the Youth Center for Human Rights and Legal Culture (YCHRLC); and
  • The development of a Russian economics textbook carried out by the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), one of NED’s four core institutes. (NED also has two party institutes and a labor institute.)

Some of the conclusions of the evaluator are worth noting. I’m proud to say that he considered NED’s strategy of taking risks on smaller, more innovative organizations “strikingly successful.” He also pointed out that the five indigenous projects “initiated and developed by Russian activists and educators” were “distinctly more successful” than the one project (ECHO) initiated by American activists and consultants. The five indigenous programs were deemed especially effective in creatively adapting international experience or foreign models to Russian circumstances and integrating this material into humanistic and democratic elements drawn from the Russian tradition. Finally, the most successful and dynamic organizations were those most open to staff participation and internal democracy and most able to connect with rank-and-file teachers and grassroots activists.

According to the evaluator, the Russian civic educators whose efforts he reviewed “have done heroic work under incredibly difficult circumstances.” These circumstances have included “growing inequality, rampant corruption, criminality, and the gross manipulation of public power and ‘democratic’ rhetoric for private gain.” On top of this, at the time of the evaluation Russia was in the midst of a catastrophic economic crisis that left teachers with wages unpaid and their pensions bankrupted, causing the brightest teachers to leave the field and producing massive staff vacancies in the schools.

The fact that these programs were able to succeed in this horrific context is something of a miracle which speaks to the incredible strength of character and devotion of the Russians involved. Nonetheless, the evaluator said that the Russian civic educators had to do even more to “contribute to the broader struggle for Russian democracy” by focussing on the rights of teachers to introduce new materials and on the democratization of school governance and instructional methodology, as well as by mobilizing networks of volunteers and teacher activists to be more active in their communities. Only by “invigorating civic engagement and civic activism,” he wrote, can they even begin to address Russia’s enormous problems.

I read this report soon after Galina Starovoitova was assassinated in St. Petersburg. She was a courageous and decent person, a great democrat and a dear friend. It is possible to despair over her death and the terrible fact, as reported in the American press, that the modern Russian use of the English word “killer” today matter-of-factly describes a job like any other.

But there is another side to Russia. For all the people who are corrupt, venal, and violent, there are others who are planting the seeds for a different future. Galina Starovoitova was not alone, and we owe it to her memory and Russia’s future to do whatever we can to help Russian civic educators and others who are trying to nurture there a new culture of pluralism and democracy.

It is as true in Korea as it is in Russia that civic education is about the future. Let me close on that note with another thought from John Dewey. “While all thinking results in knowledge,” he wrote, “ultimately the value of knowledge is subordinate to its use in thinking. For we live not in a settled and finished world, but in one which is going on, and where our main task is prospective, and where retrospect and all knowledge as distinct from thought is retrospect –is of value in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future.” So let us work together, in Korea and beyond, to build a brighter future for us all.