E D U C A T I O N ... A T T H E S...

Tevan Poghosyan and Christine Sargsyan
Since the independence of the Republic of Armenia (RA), democracy has become among the
most frequently used buzz words in national discourse. Whether raised by politicians when
addressing constituents or among laypeople engaged a dialogue on the future of Armenia, the
idea of democracy frequently draws at least a couple of references in regular Armenian political
discourse. Armenians aspire to a vision of a more democratic society in the 21st century.
However, this vision remains a broadly abstract but unrealized ideal. Armenia must move
beyond political rhetoric or popular aspiration if democracy is to be realized. This will require
Armenians to articulate a clear definition of the structure of their democratic institutions, to
demand better democratic governance from their political leaders and civil servants, and to
normalize democratic practices in their daily lives.
It is essential to first define democracy to understand the nature of this political project and the
particular actions required to achieve it. Plano and Greenberg (1993) provide a standard
definition of democracy: “A system of government in which ultimate political authority is vested
in the people. … Democracy requires a decision-making based on majority rule, with minority
rights protected” (pp. 8-9). Political systems are also the products of particular value systems
that are shaped by social actors. Political systems are also not mere reflections of the political
status quo, but they may also shape future patterns of behaviour, structuring social interactions
in ways that can reinforce and strengthen social and political values. Liberal democracy, as a
political system, is more than just a mechanism for electing representatives or facilitating
citizenship involvement. It also implies a specific liberal value system and ideology, which
usually can be defined by the following specific pillars: respect for human rights, equality before
the law, political pluralism and tolerance to diversity. Failure to establish such a liberal value
system corresponds with the emergences of various forms of illiberal or hybrid systems,
systems characterized by abuse of office, denial of rights, corruption and predation that will
leave social expectations for democracy unfulfilled.
Liberal Democracy has become a popular political aspiration of people across different cultures
and geographies, but it remains a relatively rare form of government. Even among democracies,
levels of liberalism remain weak. Freedom House measures democracy under a number of
qualitative, generally liberal, indices such as political rights and civil liberties, and rates different
countries on their level of democracy. Its ratings found that, as of 2003, only 61 of 148 states
can be considered as either free or partly free (Somit, A. and Peterson, S. A., 2005). Despite the
increased discourse on democracy in Armenian life, for instance, the country has remained only
“partly free” since 1993 and its democratic scores have actually suffered throughout the first
decade of the 21st century (Freedom House). Although Armenia has experience an
intensification of popular support for democracy, it has actually suffered a regression in
democratic practices.
This apparent contradiction requires analysis of the conditions that enable the building of
democracy. Somit and Peterson (2005) suggest that establishment of democracy requires two
categories of enabling conditions: “decisional” requisite conditions, which are the requirements
within the country where democracy is being built, and “operational” conditions, which
primarily are defined as conditions that must be secured by the government. “Decisional”
requisite conditions include a viable state, a per capita annual income of at least USD 5000 and
expansion of public education. “Operational” conditions are political conditions such as basic
liberties; the institutional legacies of previous regimes; and the presence of pro-democratic ‘out
elite’ and pro-democratic civic dispositions. Whether Armenia meets the conditions needed to
build democracy is a question that requires a more detailed and comprehensive analysis. This
paper focuses on only one of the “decisional” conditions – education. Education has long been
seen as vital for the cultivation of a democratically disposed culture where popular aspirations
towards democracy are more likely to materialize in liberal democratic transitions. It addresses
the question of how the Armenian education system has adapted to the need for cultivating
democratic values and competencies of active citizenship, and how to overcome some of the
challenges of educating more democratic citizens
Somit and Peterson (2005) argue that “for democracy to take root, especially in a newly
liberated nation, a major proportion of the population and its political leadership must be willing
to abide by three basic rules: to utilize discussion, persuasion, and voting as a means of resolving
political issues; to compromise and settle for ‘half a loaf’; and to accept defeat peacefully, if not
graciously, without resorting to arms” (p. 52). Democratic transitions may therefore require
changes in social norms and habits, a process that may occur slowly and which may be a costly
exercise that requires time, will, money and skills. Further complicating this process for
Armenia is the country’s tumultuous past, which may have created a “culture of survival” that
may frustrate progress towards the civic, cooperative norms needed for further democratic
transformation. To overcome these obstacles, new norms and values need to be adopted and
incorporated into Armenian life.
Armenia was unprepared for the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and lacked the
skills necessary to quickly transform itself into a more market-driven economy, resulting in
widespread poverty. In 2009, the Republic of Armenia’s National Statistical Service, reported
that 34.1 percent of the population was poor (Social Snapshot and Poverty in Armenia:
Statistical Analytical Report, 2010). Political difficulties further imperilled democratization.
Many of the country’s political leaders had acquired their influence and experience in prior
regimes, and lacked the skills necessary to shift to more democratic patterns of governance.
Democratic and economic reforms have also been complicated by the protracted conflict with
Azerbaijan and Armenia’s closed borders with Turkey. Given this, many members of society
remain suspicious of their politicians and civil servants and have adapted to conditions of
material scarcity with a variety of strategies to overcome Armenia’s current hard times. This
social response to current difficulties has not propelled the norms of trust or produced the social
capital that often correlate with democratization. As a result, many non-democratic political
habits and norms have endured since the fall of the Soviet Union frustrating the transition to
more democratic practice.
There have been efforts at institutional and democratic reform, however. In education policy,
different initiatives have been undertaken to start teaching Armenians about democratic
citizenship. But old habits persist. As Bacon once argued, “Men’s thoughts are much according to
their inclination; their discourse and speeches according to their learning and infused opinions;
but their deeds are after as they have been accustomed” Although Armenians are engaged in a
vigorous discourse on democracy, government practices and the behaviours of political leaders
still reflect and perpetuate past authoritarian practices. Changing this status quo will requires
that reforms continue in order to educate citizens on democracy and more broadly normalize
the vales and practices of daily democratic governance and social interaction.
Each state establishes both its own definitions of “good” citizenship and the educational
curricula it utilizes to create “good citizens.” Fernández and Sundström (2011) claim that
education for democratic citizenship (EDC) “presupposes a shared conception of what a good
citizen is, the special qualities and virtues that distinguish him and her, and the methods that
should be employed to educate such citizens.” The Council of Europe has defined education for
democratic citizenship as “a set of practices and principles aimed at making young people and
adults better equipped to participate actively in democratic life by assuming and exercising their
rights and responsibilities in society.” (Bîrzéa, 2003, p. 7)
In general, EDC policy options have been categorized under two major approaches (Bîrzéa et al,
2004). The first approach achieves EDC as a distinct part of the public agenda and has been
implemented in the Scandinavian states and the UK. Education in democratic citizenship is
considered critical for the development and practice of democracy in all spheres and is included
in various policy sectors. Although EDU is more broadly incorporated in national policy, this not
does always mean that financial resources have been specifically targeted towards EDC goals.
The second approach incorporates EDC is a part of education policy and curricula development.
Examples of this approach are found in Austria, the Netherlands, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine,
where EDC is considered a key aspect of education reforms. EDC is an explicit component of
educational goals and is often a priority area in educational reforms. This naturally attracts
targeted financial and labour resources. In countries having adopted this approach, the “actual
policy is transmitted through normative frameworks: regulatory instruments, formal curricula,
guidelines and methodologies” (p. 31, ibid). Subsequent funding is ensured to assist the
implementation of these curricula in educational institutions. The Armenian government seems
to have followed the second approach, of establishing EDC as part of educational policies.
Regardless of the approach taken, democratic states often consolidate democratic norms
through established programs that indoctrinate and normalize the rules and values of
democratic governance. However, states transitioning from non-democratic to more democratic
governances face greater challenges as they must forge new institutions even as they reconcile
this educational program with established norms and customs. New ideas and policies may be
rejected if they challenge established practices while those who have benefitted from preexisting institutions might be threatened by, and resist, necessary change. Armenia’s current
practices and challenges reflect both the difficulty and obstacles of educational reform in
transitional states.
Current practices in Armenian Education for Democratic Citizenship.
Officially, Armenia considers democracy a core value that must be adopted by future
generations. The RA Law on General Education, ratified in 2009, was enacted to ensure “the
principles of democratic governance in the sphere of general education.” This education would
include the principles of “individual’s free and comprehensive development, promotion of civil
conscience, respect for the individuals and his/her rights and freedoms.” It outlines that the
objectives of general education will include: “encouragement of creative work in educational
institutions; prioritization of the students’ analytical, critical thinking, independent attainment
and application of knowledge, development of information technologies skills.” The RA Law on
General Education of 2009 explicitly advocates education of free, informed and independent
individuals, who practice and respect democratic principles. Although the law articulates broad
policy objectives, implementing and achieving these goals has required that the state adopts
both new policies as well as adapt pre-existing institutions and resources.
Armenia’s main ‘regulatory instrument’ directly responsible for achieving the national goals and
establishing the content of civic education is the curriculum of social sciences for grades 8-9. The
curriculum specifies the content of the course, which comprises the following major themes:
Introduction of social science: relations of nature, a human and a society; value systems,
consciousness; gender and age roles; definition of society; big and small groups;
democratic principles;
Human rights: human rights and freedoms; individual and state; civic rights and
freedoms; economic and social rights; rights of children and women; protection of
human rights;
Civic education: democracy: definitions, ideals and principles; participatory democracy;
elections; election campaigns; definition of civil society; regional governance and
This program expands in high school, where citizenship education is included in the political
science curriculum. The formal curricula are occasionally supplemented with extracurricular
activities or optional courses that are usually provided in upper grades and through the support
of non-governmental organizations. One of the pioneer civics projects was a civics course for
high school students introduced in 1999 and has since become mandatory in all schools. Another
such large-scale initiative was “Project Citizen,” a program by the CIVITAS Armenia team and the
Civics Mosaic Partner team from Maryland, USA under the auspices of “Civics Mosaic II: Political
Issues Facing Our World,” a Civic Education Exchange Program funded by the US Department of
Education. Over 6000 students from age 13 to 16 were involved in exploring public policy
problems in their communities as part of the Project Citizen program in 2008-2011. These
projects remain optional and school involvement usually depends on the goodwill of the school
management and proactive attitude and behaviour of individual teachers. Whereas current
formal curriculum targets political education and social studies, extracurricular activities
continue to incorporate a more skill-oriented interpretation of civics education. More
specifically, the latter emphasizes learning of analytical and critical skills, persuasion and
negotiation skills.
The current practice of education for democratic citizenship in Armenia has followed the trend
in Southeast, Central and East European regions. In those regions, “the political changes of the
‘90s led to a need for greater curricular support for EDC in the form of a specific and mandatory
subject” (p. 20, Bîrzéa, 2003). The reformed educational policies were achieved through formal
curricula and explicit extracurricular projects that aimed at democratic participation of students
in their schools and communities. This allowed the state to more directly intervene in the
educational ideology and policies of the country and thus cultivate pro-democratic dispositions
in the society. When the reform efforts began in the mid-1990s, Armenia had different priorities.
However, on-going transformations within Armenia’s educational and political system and
society has led to significant social changes that will require that Armenia revise its approach to
providing EDC as part of public education.
Challenges of implementing intended EDC policy
Armenia faces a number of significant challenges to its momentum towards further
democratization. The growing marginalization of various social groups has led to a weakening
of social cohesion. Despite official claims of economic growth, poverty has grown. The country is
experiencing increases in migration rates as its people seek economic opportunities elsewhere.
The country continues to suffer from relatively ineffective government practices in part because
recent institutional changes have yet to be reflected in generally practiced norms. Large-scale
corruption remains in almost all sectors and many citizens doubt that either the ruling political
elite or the oppositional “out” elite favour the creation of a more democratic polity. Popularly
decided democratic succession through fully free and fair elections has yet to be practiced.
There has also been little evidence of the respectful compromise or exchange between governing
and oppositional parties through cooperative political dialogue, an essential practice of normal
democratic governance. Thus, both the “decisional” and “operational” conditions for democracy
remain incomplete and unfulfilled at best. Regardless of the stated ambitions of formal law, the
social, political and cultural milieus of Armenia do not yet support the practices or skills of
democratic citizenship.
Armenia’s economic and political difficulties in transitioning towards a more market-economy
and democratic state should not prevent the stakeholders involved in EDC from taking concrete
actions to address the challenges of implementing EDC. One of the most serious issues inhibiting
the effectiveness of EDC remains its secluded practice. Because EDC has been treated as a
separate subject aimed at transferring political knowledge, the civics curriculum is regarded
simply as another stand-alone school subject. Absent a more interdisciplinary approach, it is
unlikely that that EDS alone can support the furtherance of relevant civics knowledge.
Furthermore, current emphasis on political education and social studies in the formal
curriculum also restricts opportunities for development of adequate skills, such as persuasion,
critical appraisal and negotiation that will be needed as Armenia transitions towards democratic
governance and a modern-rational capitalism. Although these skills in critical thinking and
cooperative interaction are sometimes taught and practiced in extracurricular projects,
participation in these projects is optional and many schools lag behind. Other challenges reflect
the persistence of normative and cultural legacies left from past regimes. These include:
Overall school governance remains authoritarian and often subdues practices of civic
behaviour among members of its student body.
Lack of adequate knowledge on social activism and the prevailing authoritarian culture
do not support student involvement in school governance. Practice of formation of
student unions is quite rare, and even if there are student unions, few are fully
Teacher associations are archaic, traditionally conservative and, as a rule, almost nonfunctional. This inhibits the process of reforming the authoritarian school practices into
more democratic ones.
Serious large-scale social, economic and political improvements will be required to support
broad cultural and educational changes. But in the interim, comparatively modest steps can be
undertaken to improve the quality of citizenship education and promote the social norms and
cultural practices that might further promote democratic transition. Five relatively modest
steps should be initiated:
1) The civics curriculum should be revised to equally emphasize skills development. It is
essential to teach communication, persuasion, critical appraisal and negotiation skills as
part of the civics education. Although the explicit teaching of political content was once
the priority, equally strong emphasis is currently needed on skills development.
2) Project-based teaching principles should be adopted for teaching civics to encourage
interdisciplinary teaching. Current optional civics projects should be re-evaluated and
the most successful should be incorporated into the formal curriculum, which will
provide a concrete platform for the practice of acquired skills. This does not mean that
extracurricular activities should be formalized. Rather, they need to maintain their role
and become a crucial anchor for service learning, an experiential education method that
aims at the development of civic responsibility.
3) Employing a service learning approach should be adopted to allow for the teaching of
democracy through civics to students of all ages. Although the EDS approach is a
relatively recent adaptation to the curriculum, older instructors are familiar with the
concepts of service learning. The majority of those in the teaching profession are of an
older generation who may be struggling with incorporating democratic values and
competences, like pluralism and debate into their teaching. They are, however, well
versed in service learning. Service learning was practiced basically in all Soviet schools
through membership in young communist and scouting organizations. As a result,
senior teachers have both the skills and experience to engage their students in service
learning. They will need to be retrained to design instructional projects based on a
different set of values. This may sound simplistic and optimistic, since teaching values
which have not been internalized may seem hypocritical. Cultivation of civic
responsibility can, however, be anchored on more universal values and thereby support
the concept of democracy.
4) Pre-service and in-service civics teacher education should include a component on
negotiation skills. Teachers, as primary providers of quality of education, should be able
to model and teach skills that can help their students discuss, persuade and vote as the
means for settling conflicts.
5) An important component in teacher education should be the use of Information and
Communication Technologies (ICT) for teaching. Computer literacy and computer
assisted teaching will diversify information and knowledge creation sources, minimize
the traditionally authoritative behaviour of teachers, and lay the foundations for
functional pluralism in learning and teaching processes. It is especially important to
include such modules in pre-service education, since the current system and practice of
in-service professional development is quite confusing and inefficient, and intervention
only at this level will not generate a desirable change.
These are basic and concrete recommendations but will require significant effort, goodwill and
investment. Unless these recommendations are implemented, it is unrealistic to call for
improvements in school governance either though participation in school life by forming teacher
associations and youth clubs, or though practice of dialogue and negotiation in daily school life.
School governance remains largely authoritarian and those in power will likely resent attempts
to jeopardize or minimize their power. Gelb (2004) claims that “democracy requires that losers
believe they will not lose their essential values or their lives. Such trust and confidence takes
decades to develop. It is Utopian to believe otherwise.” It would be wishful thinking that the
good will of the school managers and policy makers will change old habits and transform past
practices. Managers and policy makers may change and reform habits, however, if they believe
such changes are in their long-term interests and that their future is more secure through
change rather than maintenance of the status quo. In order to succeed, it is crucial to promote
strong momentum for change from the ‘bottom’, so that the policy makers can be pressured by
popular demands for democratic education, which will, in the end, create the sufficient
‘decisional’ condition for overall democratic transformation.
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