Democracy deficiency, crisis of democracy, democracy threatened: these are some of the phrases used in recent years to describe the current state of democracy. And in light of developments in the world, it seems this is not just empty rhetoric. Fake news, hate speech and lies, among many others, are contemporary, widely used terms that could be listed in elementary-school vocabulary lists.

But if you catch yourself feeling nostalgic and longing for the good old days, it is helpful to remember how close we actually are to the time of European dictatorships. In addition, the black-and-white documentaries from 1970s Finland are surprisingly quick to revive one’s sense of proportion.

Democracy is the way of living which we have chosen to found our communal life on. Education and schooling play a special role in its adoption and entrenchment. Although this is true in education policy and at the level of curricula, in practice this role often remains in the margin – in teacher education as well.

This marginalization is a European-wide phenomenon. In our newly published book, Teacher Education and the Development of Democratic Citizenship in Europe (Routledge), we examine democratic citizenship and democracy culture in teacher education in different parts of Europe in terms of the twenty competences for democratic culture defined by the Council of Europe. At the level of rhetoric and educational premises, these competences are at the core of teacher education in all countries, but the gap with practice is wide. In practice, the group of developers and researchers is small. This applies to Finland as well.

Historically developed cultural features bring a special country-specific character to how one grows into democratic citizenship, and cultural specificity was also apparent with relation to the competences for a culture of democracy. In Finnish education and schooling, attention is typically paid to skills and practices. These are important, of course, but if the idea of the integral democratic culture underlying the skills and activities is missing, this will easily lead into the promotion of individual culture only, without any communal dimension.

If democracy becomes seriously riddled with fake news and the other dangers listed at the beginning of this text, the foundation created by formal education is in poor shape. The thin line between democracy and education is illustrated by the usage of the concept.

Although in the 2020s we can talk about democracy and democracy education without fear of overly upsetting people around us, one still hears comments regarding the relationship between school and democracy, asking that “couldn’t you replace the word ‘democracy’ with something else; it’s so emotionally loaded and dull”.

On the contrary – we should speak even more forcefully on behalf of the democratic ideal. Democracy will not develop and thrive unless we keep working for it everywhere in society.

Matti Rautiainen, Lecturer, Department of Teacher Education

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.