Reflections on the ‘Strengthening Democracy Through Education: Conceptual and Practical Perspectives’ conference

EN

Pauliina Jääskeläinen of University of Lapland/Lapin Yliopisto debriefs us on a recent conference hosted by the Democrat project, AECED’s ‘sister project’ under the Horizon Europe scheme.

It was a pleasure to attend such a well-organised conference by our sister project, Democrat, at Tallinn University on 27-28 February 2024! Our AECED project was presented by the Principal Investigator, Professor Susan Meriläinen (University of Lapland, Finland). In addition, Professor Susanne Weber from the German team attended the conference and presented her work in one of the parallel sessions.

My main impression was that all of our sister (and brother) projects are working around very similar issues related to democracy in education. It soon became clear that all our projects are needed in these times, where such phenomena like populism, fatalism, polarization and conspiracy theories threaten democracy as Gerry Stoker (Professor and Chair of Governance, University of Southampton) mentioned in his keynote speech. However, Stoker reminded us to stay realistic about what it is possible to achieve, as we might face counterforces to our actions, like a lack of interest, which in the worst scenario leads to apathy diminishing agency and participation in any democratic processes.
In the second day’s keynote, Leif Kalev (Professor of Political Science, Tallinn University) emphasized how in reinforcing democratic agencies, we need to also mediate the risks of polarization and radicalization by cultivating the responsibility:

a) towards oneself
b) towards others/community
c) towards democracy and
d) towards nature and other fields.

According to Kalev, we should also be able to resist emotional manipulations as well as radicalizing and polarizing impulses. Kalev’s thoughts echoed Stoker’s speech by agreeing that one of the major threats to democracy is that we become passive objects that are taken care of by ‘more competent’ depoliticized managers.

In addition to addressing the problems, there was also an emphasis on thinking about what democracy education and education for democracy could mean in practice and we heard some inspiring examples of good practice and cases during the conference. For example, Dr. Charlie Moreno-Romero told us a touching example of how they handled a very difficult case of discrimination by creating a reflective space for dealing with emotions through dialogical methods.

This was one of the many moments during the conference when I thought that there really is a lot of potential in our AECED project to provide insights into how aesthetic and embodied methods can help us go even further in engaging learners, educators and stakeholders in democracy-as-becoming at a personal, grass-root educational level. In our project, we concentrate on the experiential level of democracy in educational settings and ask such questions as: ‘how does it feel to be included?’; ‘what does it mean in practice to give space to the different other?’; ‘what do my reactions and emotions tell me about my ways of attending to different groups?’; ‘how do my personal ways of relating affect collective decision-making?’ and so on. These questions and many others address the experiential level of democratic becoming and, from our point of view, it is in these micro-relations that possibilities for transformation unravel, one encounter and one educational situation at a time.

Most of all, it was refreshing to meet colleagues from the sister projects in person. It became (again) very evident how important it is to meet in person, to chat informally and to be able to interact, feel and sense the others through our whole bodies. Experientially, it is something completely different compared to the two-dimensionality of videocalls.

One thing that I was left wondering: how could we teach each other in these conferences by taking the embodied and aesthetic dimensions of our beings better into account? Would it be possible to engage with the concepts, phenomena and other content through arts-based, aesthetic and embodied methods and with that, co-learn about them in a more holistic manner?

At the end of the conference, Tallinn City offered us a guided, medieval tour of the old town, which was led through a storytelling method. The stories the guide told us were so engaging that they made at least me feel almost as if I was in Tallinn – or should I say in Reval – during medieval times. Thank you to the Democrat project and organisers, especially Leif Kalev and Maarja Hallik for this wonderful two-day conference.