Education for democratic citizenship | Sunday Observer

Education for democratic citizenship

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics, philosophy, geography, navigation, natural history, commerce and agriculture to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary and tapestry.”- John Adams – the USA second President

Sri Lanka just completed its 16th parliamentary election within the democratic framework defined by the Constitution that has been amended 19 times after its ratification in 1978. Almost all Sri Lankans are happy that they experienced a fair and free election without any violence or unlawful activity.

Right to vote

The citizens who exercised their right to vote are happy that they did their duty in selecting the group of people who have volunteered to be a member of parliament that will have the responsibility of legislative procedures.

Sri Lankans have gone through this process 15 times prior to this, since 1948. One may see this usual trend where the citizens are hopeful and happy immediately after the elections and then the happiness wears out gradually with the time only to reach the summit of disappointment at the end of the five-year period at which time they become hopeful again thinking that they get their next chance to exercise their right and change things around.

They feel empowered by this right given to them by the Constitution to change the Government if they don’t like it. More often than not they have done that: change the Government.

Well, to be specific, they have changed the name of the party that the majority of parliamentarians belong to. But the way the country has been governed has, at the best, stayed the same, if not going from bad to worse, and therefore they did it again for the 16th time, perhaps hoping that 16th time is the charm. Of course, we all will hope for the best. At the same time, one might feel that it is this kind of human behaviour that probably prompted Albert Einstein to define insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Interestingly enough, this is not unique to Sri Lanka. This is a common phenomenon in almost all the two-party democracies in the world where the voter who is disappointed at the end of one period feels that the only other choice is the other party. Since we are dealing with millions of voters, there can be millions of reasons for this phenomenon. But a careful analysis would show the importance of understanding the reasons for disappointments with one period and the reasons for not seeing any other alternative other than the two that have been tried and tested alternatively over and over again.


Two main reasons, of course, are: a) people did not receive the benefits they expected either for themselves or for the country, b) the Government did not deliver the promises they made during their campaign to get elected. If we look at the reason b) first, assuming that the promises were made in good faith with genuine expectations of fulfilling them, the main reasons for not doing it would either be the inability of the members of the Government or the superhuman nature of the promises that were made.


The other possibility is that the promises were not made in good faith. That means the candidates knew that they will not be able to fulfil those promises, but the voters can be fooled to believe them so that they can get the vote. In that case the voter has to accept the fact that he or she has been fooled by someone smarter than them. If the voters want to avoid that in the future, they should make sure that they are at least as smart as the candidates.

If the reason is the inability of the members of the Government, the voters should make sure that they will not vote for incapable candidates in the future. Voters should improve their awareness of the candidates as well as the scope of the promises they make, to do that.

If the promises were unachievable to begin with, that also should have been realised by the voters. That means voters should improve their awareness at least of the matters related to those campaign promises.

They should at least have some idea about the sustainable development goals declared by the United Nations, international trade agreements and influences by foreign governments and international aid organisations and other such factors involved in implementing the programs described in those promises.

If the reason for the disappointment is a), not getting the benefits that were promised, that means voters did not have knowledge to realise that those promises were not deliverable or the candidates did not have an intention to deliver them at all. Voters would be able to avoid or minimise the disappointment by acquiring knowledge of the capabilities of the candidates and the factors related to the promises they make.


Since the colonial days, the people have been conditioned to accept their role as the ruled who would passively accept what the rulers impose on them.

Our education system and the cultural norms train our youngsters from their early ages to be subservient to elderly, authoritative figures and the clergy. Free and creative thinking is not promoted in our education system all the way through universities.

The average citizen does not get a chance to develop the courage to question the authorities or initiate changes within the system. Many people are not brave enough to take the responsibility to find an alternative or even if some can see such an alternative, they will be reluctant to be an instrument of change, since it is easier to be in the comfort zone as others do. Here again, education is the key to install these valuable qualities within the citizens of a country where they will understand the duties, responsibilities and the rights of a citizen in a democratic nation.

The writer has served in higher education sector as an academic over 20 years in the USA and 13 years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]