Do we educate to strengthen democracy and the common good?

Josep M. Vilalta, GUNi Director and Executive-Secretary at ACUP

"Curricula seem to be an infinite repository to which we tirelessly add subjects and knowledge"

Pupils at a public school in Valencia. Mònica Torres

Article originally published at ​El País Educación (26/05/2021)

Political disaffection? Rise in intolerant attitudes? Growth of populism and neofascism? Crisis of democracy? Individualism? Disinformation? Lack of shared ethical values ​​and social commitment? Poverty and inequalities on a global scale? These are just some of the challenges we face as a society. Complex problems that undoubtedly require reflection and joint action. This is also the case in the education world, in order to build tolerant societies, committed and empowered citizens, young critics. Without all this we will fail and no democracy will be stable.

In her book Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities, Martha Nussbaum excellently outlines, in my opinion, the main skills that need to be treasured in an advanced democracy. Nussbaum speaks of the ability to reflect on political issues, recognise other citizens as people with the same rights, be concerned about the lives of others, properly imagine a series of complex issues (childhood, adolescence, family relationships, illness, death, etc.), critically judge political leaders (and do so realistically), think about the common good, and view one’s country as part of a complex world order that requires intelligent transnational deliberation.

Education goes far beyond the walls of schools, colleges and faculties. Families and society of course play a major role: family education, non-formal and informal education, cultural activities, the media and social networks. But schools, colleges and faculties embrace a fundamental responsibility that, deliberately or not, I believe we are over-neglecting.

We speak incessantly about a shift from knowledge to skills and, at the same time, about how schools should be the cradle of democracy and coexistence. However, are the skills that we teach linked closely enough to social commitment, ethical values ​​and human rights? To respect for the environment, global justice and the Sustainable Development Goals? To active social and political participation in an advanced democracy and respect for minorities? I believe that our education system requires substantial improvement.

Curricula seem to be an infinite repository to which we tirelessly add subjects and knowledge. But political and social education is too frequently conspicuous by its absence, very often the result of well-intentioned but limited voluntarism, or of extraordinary and non-nuclear activities within the institutional education system. Likewise, it is sometimes education centres and their own staff who avoid the development of these skills for fear of being accused of indoctrination.

The challenge is immense and, of course, simple manuals and sterile decrees from official authorities are not enough. Neither is it a matter of adding this or that subject, as has often been the solution in our country. What really matters is to rethink the social goals and priorities of education in its various stages. To educate critical, tolerant and committed citizens on a local and global scale. To create a feeling of belonging and community, in order to work for the common good and support an advanced democracy that leaves nobody behind.

To achieve all this, as we know, knowledge must also include skills, attitudes and values. Practical experiences, emotions, community work. As Josep M. Puig Rovira defines so well in his recent book Pedagogía de la acción común (Pedagogy of common action) “democratic education ― and of course education in values ​​and for citizenship ― must incorporate the pedagogical dynamism of common action at all levels and moments; it must do so if it is to commit to building an alternative to an unsustainable way of living. To depart from the Homo oeconomicus model and replace it with the Homo cooperans that we will have to learn to conceive and build.”

Recent studies have shown the robustness of pedagogical methods like service-learning, bodies and councils for the participation of children, volunteering, educational leisure activities and work on values ​​and attitudes through sport. Evidence shows, in this regard, that participatory experiences in childhood positively affect the creation of future citizens. Treating young people as citizens with full rights and with full capabilities. Offering them educational experiences that empower them and enable them to forge a shared future that is worth living for. Let’s make that possible from the education system too.



  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government