Past Meets Present: Carving New Democracies Through Education

Story posted September 20, 2005

There is something conspicuously missing in America's ongoing, labored efforts to rebuild Iraq, says Education Department Chair Charles Dorn. Amid the scramble to restructure the Iraqi political structure and parliament, to get a constitution written, and to resurrect its economy, very little has been done to establish an educational infrastructure that will "foster a democratic society," he says.

"We're a couple of years into this now, and you would think that at some point there would be a real emphasis on reconstructing the educational system in Iraq. The social piece of postwar reconstruction, which includes education, seems to be missing in action."

A German classroom
A German classroom, ca. 1940s

It was a very different landscape in Germany following World War II, says Dorn, whose recent research on post-WWII educational restructuring has brought him international attention. "There was a real sense that if the Allies didn't get the educational system right in post-war Germany, another generation of well-schooled dictators and Fascists would arise. They thought, 'We need a whole new generation of people educated in democratic values. Those are the people who will take power in Germany.' "

"The social piece of postwar reconstruction, which includes education, seems to be missing in action."

Dorn has been studying U.S. efforts to reconstruct and reform education systems in post-WWII Europe. He recently published a paper on the 1946 U.S. Education Mission to Germany in American Journal of Evaluation, and is among a group of international scholars whose work on the founding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will be included in a Paris symposium commemorating the organization's 60th anniversary this November. His research on UNESCO will be published in the international journal History of Education later in the year.

"I'm interested in how we have thought about educational institutions as having civic purposes, how educational institutions have adopted those purposes and how society has ascribed civic purposes to them over time," says Dorn.

"As it turns out, national crises - whether WWII or the invasion of Iraq - help illuminate these purposes. When that happens, you often find things you hadn't anticipated."

Charles Dorn
Dorn was asked to be one of two panelists discussing "The Role of Education in Democracy Building" at a San Francisco Bay Area Evaluators conference in September.

In both Germany and Iraq, notes Dorn, the United States faced the same critical dilemma: how to occupy a foreign nation and still remain democratic. "You simply cannot impose democracy on a foreign people. Once you've fought a war and toppled a dictatorship, how do you infuse the defeated nation with democratic principles without employing coercion?"

Following and even during WWII, he argues, education was seen as a key - if not primary - player in establishing a new democratic republic in Germany. In 1945, Allied leaders including Harry Truman stated in the Potsdam Agreement that German schools should be closed and a coordinated system of educational "reorientation" established to eliminate Nazi doctrines and reintroduce democratic ideas.

The "denazification" of Germany became a top priority of the U.S. Army, which commissioned experts in education, culture and religion to join its Allied Expeditionary Force. A European group was meeting on the issue simultaneously. Ultimately, members on both sides of the ocean would join together to create UNESCO, with a primary objective of refashioning Germany's school system into a democratic model of education. (That organization ultimately shifted shape to become an organization for intellectual cooperation and exchange among nations.)

"The U.S. desired to participate in the reconstruction of European educational systems in the post-World War II era. It had the money and influence to see that it would happen," says Dorn. "However the mechanics of rebuilding the physical infrastructure of elementary and secondary education proved problematic - from finding school books without anti-Semitic content to finding qualified teachers without Nazi affiliation."

Efforts were further derailed by the coming of the Cold War and the inability to reunify Germany. But the biggest obstacle, argues Dorn, was the inherent dilemma of implementing democratic reforms without resorting to undemocratic methods.

"How do you infuse the defeated nation with democratic principles without employing coercion?"

"Ultimately, the United States failed to establish a German educational system that reflected America's 'democratic' system of public schools," says Dorn, adding, "the U.S. did have an influence on the curriculum and some reorganization, but, structurally, education in Germany today looks very much like it did prior to World War II.

"The great irony is that when Americans look abroad for an educational system from which to draw lessons for U.S. school reform, Japan is one model and Germany is the other. For Japan, the appeal is rigor and for Germany it's the vocational component. The United States strove to reform those two nations' educational systems following World War II ... There's a wonderful contradiction there."

Dorn believes that what he calls "the dilemma of cooperation or coercion" exists in America's current situation in Iraq - with one major difference: The U.S. is now largely alone in its efforts to establish democratic systems, educational and otherwise.

"The dilemma that a democratic nation confronts when it resorts to coercive occupation policies cannot be resolved," states Dorn, "but it may be attenuated. If you have 100 nations agreeing that this is a good program for Iraq, then it might be easier to convince the Iraqi leadership and people that the world is here to help, but that they will have to go along with the effort. It's still a form of coercion, but not at the point of a gun. As U.S. foreign policy stands today, there is a kind of leap of faith that the Iraqis will think that what the United States has to offer is worth going along for the ride."

"Historically, Americans have had a sense of educational institutions fulfilling dynamic civic purposes and preparing democratic citizens."

As an educational historian, Dorn also observes a disturbing difference in methodology in today's efforts. Whereas some of America's leading civic institutions were engaged in guiding, building and evaluating educational reconstruction in Germany, a majority of that work in Iraq has been done by the military and private contractors.

"I find it interesting that in the 21st century, our solution to the problem confronted following WWII - convincing people they should embrace a democratic form of schooling - is that we have soldiers building schools and have hired private corporations to develop curriculum. That's a novel but disconcerting solution. Who runs these companies? To what end is the curriculum being designed? Who is overseeing this? Are we talking about military, public, or private control?"

Dorn acknowledges the challenge of convincing a defeated people to embrace democratic principles through education, yet he is still disturbed that little public attention - or, maybe more importantly, governmental prioritization and planning - has gone into it.

"It could be that Americans to some degree have lost faith with education," he says, "that it doesn't have the kind of power that we thought it did 50 years ago. Historically, however, Americans have had a sense of educational institutions fulfilling dynamic civic purposes and preparing democratic citizens. Americans have, traditionally, been unwilling to radically transform their educational system during moments of crisis, primarily because they believe that the crisis will pass and democracy needs to carry on."

Dorn was selected to be part of a September 21st panel discussion comparing U.S. education evaluation efforts in post-WWII Germany and Iraq at a conference of the San Francisco Bay Area Evaluators.

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