Primary school – place of education for direct democracy and culture

A task that has not yet been solved

by Dr Eliane Perret, curative teacher and psychologist

A few years ago, Mario, a young man originally from Sicily, said: “In Switzerland, people have much more to say than in our country”, after we had talked in history class about the Swiss political system and the possibilities of co-determination. He thus summed up what distinguishes Switzerland’s direct democracy with its federal structure and subsidiary division of tasks: the co-responsibility of all citizens as the basis of equal coexistence within the framework of our constitutional state. This includes the right to respect for the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, such as freedom of opinion, freedom of belief, universal voting rights, legal security and equality under the law, as well as the right to education.1
  I silently wondered whether all parliamentarians elected by the people still carry this with them as a guideline for their actions. Mario’s statement about direct democracy made me realise once again that primary schools and myself as a teacher have the important task of giving children an understanding of the political system and the country they live in, because it was created in small steps by previous generations. Mario and also the other children, I was sure, would leave school with an educational backpack rich in the tools of responsible citizenship. This includes not only the secure handling of cultural techniques such as reading, writing and arithmetic, but also the human education that is necessary for our direct democracy to remain alive and functioning: it needs active citizens who can responsibly exercise their rights and duties.

A task to be accomplished

In recent years, it has been all too easy to forget how much work responsible, honest and far-sighted people have done to create in our country a primary school based on a democratic constitution – with educational content adapted to the realities of our country. It seems all the more important to me today to remember this, as the achievements of democracy and popular education and the associated task of primary schools are only marginally part of the training content of teacher training colleges and primary school curricula, which are oriented towards a globalised curriculum (see below). This is a serious process, because it undermines coexistence in our direct democracy. Remedying this situation is a long overdue task. Who wants to – historically carefully documented material would be available in abundance!2

 Direct democracy is not folklore

What seems self-evident to us today is the result of almost two hundred years of efforts to make regular school attendance and thus the acquisition of education accessible to all children. The realisation that a person cannot develop according to his or her nature without education was a result of humanism and the Enlightenment. The importance of education for all was therefore recognised early on as the cornerstone of a democratic state. The founders of the democratic constitution of Switzerland focused their attention on the establishment of a primary school for all, regardless of gender, religion and social class; as a model for living together in our country. Democracy and direct democracy in particular, according to their still valid assumption (!), presupposes a certain level of education, combined with rootedness in one’s own culture and values. Only in this way can current issues be grasped in their scope, thought through in a larger context and discussed in peace, so that well-founded answers and approaches to solutions result. And this is the task of our primary schools, because people educated in this way are able to exercise their political rights and participate in political events.
  What previous generations have left us as a “gift” (and a task!) must not increasingly degenerate into folklore today, which is determined by money, power and manipulation and where people ultimately turn away from political life in resignation because “those up there do what they want anyway”. Perhaps also because they have experienced that current and former (educational) politicians try to control the will of the people with armies of PR experts and spin-doctors?

Building on the personalist concept of man (Menschenbild)

The development of our primary schools was closely linked to political and social developments.3 A look back at its almost two-hundred-year history shows that educational goals were linked to the further expansion of democracy. In addition, there were scientifically substantiated findings from pedagogy and psychology, which were constantly incorporated in order to correct any undesirable developments. Thus, the primary schools – contrary to alternative propaganda slogans – always had its finger on the pulse of the times, before a reform cascade began without objective necessity, which was supposed to give our primary schools a new orientation. Prior to that, the orientation towards humanistic and social science knowledge was fundamental for this long period of positive development, in connection with a personalist concept of man, according to which man is a relational being, equipped with a social nature and capable of reason and ethics. (Findings which, by the way, have been confirmed by new, well-supported research in developmental psychology and should urgently be incorporated into the training concepts of prospective teachers!4). From this perspective, a child’s personality development begins in its first hours of life with the establishment of trusting relationships and emotional anchoring in its family environment. In a continuous process, the foundations for an inner value system are laid. This development work should be continued at school – as stated in the educational articles of various cantons – and supplemented where necessary. In this way, children can grow up secure in their personality, capable of shaping their lives in a self-determined way, mastering stressful life situations, willingly getting involved and taking responsibility for the common good, as is part of direct democracy.

Paradigm shift soft-footed

The personal view of the child and the methodological concepts based on it were taught and practised in the training centres for future teachers until the 1980s. With such a didactic, pedagogical and psychological training, the future professionals received a tool for shaping their everyday pedagogical work. It formed the foundation for the fulfilment of the school’s educational mission, which deserves its name and includes emotional and intellectual foundations for living together in a democracy.
  In the years to come, there was a paradigm shift from a personalist view of man to a biologistic, mechanistic view that denies a holistic approach and is currently dominated by neuroscientific trends. This has been accompanied by the devaluation of previous foundations of pedagogy that do not follow current fashion trends.

Ideological aberrations

This development was embedded in social processes that put the nation-states and thus also Switzerland and its perpetual armed neutrality in the crosshairs. It received support from the cultural scene, which was caught up in the ‘68 movement and did not hesitate to question the legitimacy of the Swiss direct-democratic system and Switzerland as an independent nation with the slogan “700 years are enough” at the World’s Fair in 1991. In their negation of Switzerland, they obviously had no inhibitions about joining forces with neoliberal big business, which wants to let its money flow without limits … and also seeks Switzerland’s financial reserves to do so.
  These social aberrations (they cannot be illuminated in detail here) and concepts naturally also had an effect on the training content of the newly founded teacher training colleges, because many lecturers had arrived there and at the universities on their “march through the institutions” or had made a detour across the big pond.
  The reforms at our school that began more than thirty years ago happened against this ideological background, against the will of the vast majority of teachers and against the will of parents. Pro memoria: Until the nineties of the last century – before the wave of reforms – Swiss schools had always been attested a very high quality in international comparison. Have you forgotten already? The primary schools were said to be well anchored in the democratic system of our country. Have you forgotten? The new curricula that have been created since then, on the other hand, are shaped by the political objectives described above, not only methodologically but also in terms of content. Thus, the subject “Swiss History” has meanwhile lost its independence and leads a wallflower existence. According to the requirements of Curriculum 21, children in the middle school are no longer concerned with learning about the history of our country (or host country) and identifying with its values, but should become “competent” “ distinguish history and stories from each other”5 (Curriculum 21) and thereby “explain the intentions of legends and myths (e.g. the legend of William Tell)” or “critically reflect on the use of legends and myths in the present day and recognise their use in political discussions”. Doesn’t that seem very cool and unemotional? How can the desire to proudly stand up for the interests of one’s own country arise?

Back to Mario

“In Switzerland, people can have a much greater say than at home,” Mario had said. Yes, if we preserve what has been achieved over generations and pass it on to the next generation. If we ourselves appreciate the fine set of rules of democracy, which lays the foundations for an equal coexistence of people who can actively shape the fate of our country “from below”. A unique model worldwide! For this, we need educated youth. They must not be cheated out of their education by false theories and ideologies that declare insight into the history of our culture to be an arbitrary narrative. For there is no such thing as globally interchangeable educational content (even if that would be lucrative for the education corporations), but it must be adapted to the circumstances and needs of the respective country – in our case, to the political culture of direct democracy. The intentions that led to the founding of the primary schools are therefore still relevant. Like every previous generation, we have to rethink this and decide how our education system should be structured. This includes embracing democracy as a way of life.
  What else should we say to Mario?  •

1 cf. Verein zur Förderung der Psychologischen Menschenkenntnis VPM (Association for the Promotion of the Psychological Knowledge of Man) (ed.). (1995). Erziehung zum mündigen Mitbürger. Die Bedeutung der Schule für die Demokratie. (Education to become a mature citizen. The importance of school for democracy). Zurich, Verlag Menschenkenntnis. p. 9
2 For example: Erziehungsrat des Kantons Zürich. (ed.). (1933). Volksschule und Lehrerbildung 1832–1932. Festschrift zur Jahrhundertfeier. Zurich: Verlag der Erziehungsdirektion or also: Tagungsbände Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie, René Roca.
3 VPM (ed.). (1995). Erziehung zum mündigen Mitbürger. Die Bedeutung der Schule für die Demokratie. (Education to become a responsible citizen. The importance of schools for democracy) . Zurich, Verlag Menschenkenntnis
4 cf. Kissling, Beat. (2022). Sind Inklusion und Integration in der Schule gescheitert? Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung. (Have inclusion and integration in school failed? A critical examination). Bern: Hogrefe. S. 109–162
5 Curriculum Volksschule des Kantons Zürich, NMG 9.4.;|6|1|9|0|4

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