As I sat during five minutes of peace between the end of one of my lunchtime clubs and the start of that afternoon’s lessons, I picked up the book on my desk: Against Democracy by Jason Brennan. Brennan is an ethics Professor at Georgetown University, and his book considers arguments for replacing democracy as we know it with a form of epistocracy: a state of affairs in which suffrage is no longer universal, and the right to vote and participate politically in our society becomes restricted only to those sufficiently knowledgeable in relevant areas. It’s an interesting idea to consider, one with roots in Plato and Mill, and I thought there might be something in it to use in an upcoming Year 11 enrichment class I was teaching on Political Philosophy. I am an RE and Philosophy teacher with a bachelor degree in Politics and Philosophy, an MA in Social and Ethical Philosophy, and a PhD in Political Philosophy, so the book was of great interest to me, both personally and professionally. But as I picked it up to read, it struck me that, according to the professional Teacher Standards imposed by Michael Gove in 2011, and unchanged by his successors since, reading such a book is now ostensibly against the rules of my profession. By definition, a book entitled Against Democracy is a book which violates Part Two of the Teachers’ Standards document, relating to my “personal and professional conduct” as a teacher; specifically the section which states that to “uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school”, one of the things I have to do is avoid “undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
The claim that being a teacher – or, for that matter, being British – means unwavering commitment to the concept of democracy is something that I find deeply troubling. Not because I necessarily agree with the conclusions reached in books like Against Democracy, but because I believe that any idea, no matter how controversial, should be open for debate and discussion, especially in an educational context. For is that not the very point of education? To develop the critical capabilities of young people so that they can use their intellect to the fullest? Yes, it is important that our students pass their exams so that no door is closed to them in their future, but, surely, if our students aren’t sitting those exams whilst also thinking about how ridiculous and arbitrary the entire system of assessment is – and possibly, for that matter, questioning the underlying political and economic structure that requires it – then, in an important sense, we have failed them.
When Churchill famously damned democracy by calling it the least worst system of government, he was touching on an important truth: democracy is not a sacred cow which we must cling to without criticism. It is a functional, man-made system we have imposed on society for a purpose: as the best hope we have hitherto discovered to reach certain ends. This means, crucially, that the case for democracy is contingent on it fulfilling that purpose, and if it turns out it is failing in that regard, or that those ends can be achieved in some other way, then it is perfectly justifiable to suggest we might jettison democracy for something better. Such an idea is so non-controversial that I was once paid for three years by the UK government – through the generous funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council – to research my doctoral dissertation on this very subject. My PhD thesis argued that authentic democracy is nothing like the current democracies we are living in, and that what we actually need is a form of anarchism to replace the current system if “democracy” is to truly fulfil its justifying promise.
Ironically, pre-Gove, that very same PhD was something which made me such a promising prospect as a teacher – expert subject knowledge in my field but eager to inspire young people instead of disappearing into the insular shadows of the Academy. Yet now, as someone who has publically argued the moral case to replace contemporary democracy with anarchism, technically, I no longer meet the standards of what is considered necessary to be a good teacher. Although my lesson observations and work scrutiny are consistently outstanding, although I run an RE and Philosophy department which has been praised by both my SLT and a variety of outside agencies who have come to see it over the years, it is clear that I cannot pledge total commitment to the supposedly fundamental British values of democracy and rule of law even if, as a public employee, Sajid Javid asks me to swear an oath. Democracy, in its current form, has given us Brexit and, in America, Trump. To scrutinize and ask questions of concepts is how we evolve our ideas and our institutions to make them better. Yet, apparently, to do so whilst working as a teacher, renders you unfit for the profession.
Worse, statutory guidance actually suggests it might make you a terrorist! In the 2015 publication, Keeping Children Safe in Education, we were told “all schools…are subject to a duty under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015…to have ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’…Schools are expected to assess the risk of children being drawn into terrorism, including support for extremist ideas that are part of terrorist ideology.” What extremist ideas, specifically? “Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy.” Although this guidance claims that “the Prevent duty is not intended to limit discussion of these issues” we are reminded that “Schools should…be mindful of their existing duties to forbid political indoctrination and secure a balanced presentation of political issues.” Unless, of course, the notion of democracy as an incontestable idea is the thing we are indoctrinating; an idea we are no longer at liberty to balance against its criticisms.
Quite rightly, the government are worried about the phenomenon of home-grown terrorism amongst vulnerable young people and are desperate for the next generation of Britons to get on board with the idea of using the ballot box when they feel politically frustrated rather than opting for more radical alternatives. However, just as the value of democracy is contingent on its efficacy in achieving the purpose for which it was first established, the value of the Prevent strategy lives and dies with its actual efficacy in preventing susceptible young people from getting drawn into extremism. And so far, the results are not good. As the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly, Maina Kiai, noted in April, “by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it”; a thought echoed by human rights group, Rights Watch UK, who issued a report in July which “uncovered a number of instances where children have been referred to Prevent for legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression in situations where they pose no threat to society whatsoever.”
A student taught to question everything – even democracy – is a student who knows how to analyse and probe every idea that they hear and come to independent conclusions. But you cannot teach such analytic and probing thought to become second nature to young people if, at the same time, there are some fundamental ideas which we are told we can never call into question.
The bell rang and I put the Brennan book down. More than anything, its compelling case against democracy had me thinking of all the ways Brennan’s arguments might have failed, despite their seeming initial force. I, the advocate of anarchism, then spent the rest of the afternoon teaching while mulling over a variety of defences for democracy in the back of my mind. I thought about the words of John Stuart Mill: “However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as dead dogma, not a living truth.”