About Democracy Web

What Is Democracy Web?

Democracy Web, a project of the Albert Shanker Institute, is an on-line resource for the study of democracy. It has had many millions of users around the world since it was launched in 2009. Its content is now being updated in order to reflect the world’s current events and the updated content will be posted shortly.

Democracy Web is composed of an online Study Guide and an interactive world map designed for use by teachers, professors, and their upper secondary- and lower college-level students (although selections also have been used at the lower high school and even middle school levels). The Democracy Web Study Guide is based on Freedom House’s annual Survey of Freedom in the World. It offers first an overview of the essential principles and historical background on the basic architecture of democracy using the 12 categories of freedom measured by Freedom House in the annual survey. The Democracy Web Study Guide then provides a framework for comparative analysis of the state of political rights and civil liberties around the world through Country Studies related to each of the 12 measurements of freedom. Each of the 12 units includes three country studies, one each for a “free,” “partially free” and “not free” country, examining how that aspect of democracy is practiced or not practiced in each country. A Resources page is also provided in order to allow further examination and study of the democratic principle in each unit, including links and citations of current news stories and background information on each country.

Through this comparative studies format and a series of questions and activities, students are challenged to think critically about the foundations of democracy, the arc of freedom in history, the development of democracy over time, and the reasons for the ebb and flow of democracy in different eras, different regions, and within different countries. In this way, students are encouraged to think about the history and practice of democracy in their own country and how it is functioning today.

Why Democracy Web

Democracy Web emerged from the longstanding effort of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI) and its founding organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to foster education for democracy in America’s schools — and worldwide. In 1987, the AFT released Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles, which was signed in by a large and bi-partisan group of prominent Americans, including two former United States presidents. As it stated:

[W]e believe that the great central drama of modern history has been and continues to be the struggle to establish,  preserve, and extend democracy.

The 1987 statement (and an updated version, released by the ASI in 2003) argued that the story of democracy is often lost in the teaching of American and world history and its related subjects, social studies and civics, which frequently focus on litanies of unrelated facts and processes instead of the ideas, principles, and practices of democracy and governance. The statement encouraged that the struggles to attain and preserve democracy should be a major theme throughout all these subjects. Only in this way could schools "purposely impart to students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society.”

Democracy Web attempts to help in this mission. It starts from the premise that one of the best ways to understand democracy is through comparative studies — by seeing where democracy has been practiced and where it has not, where it is respected and where it is under threat, where it has fallen short and where brave individuals and movements in countries around the world have risked everything in an attempt to achieve its promise. It is through such comparison that one can find the “central drama of modern history” and to test the other comparative premise of the Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles: “that democracy is the worthiest form of human governance ever conceived.”

Today, there are many critics of democracy, both at home and abroad. Indeed, after a period of expansion across all regions of the world, democracy has had a sharp recession in the last decade. Although some countries appear to be making progress (for two examples see the country studies of Estonia and Tunisia), there are many more examples where democracy has failed to take firm root or has been weakened or reversed (see, for example, Venezuela and Azerbaijan in the unit on Free Elections). And there are numerous countries that the human rights organization Freedom House has designated as free where democracy seems to be fairly well established, but where there are disturbing trends in the basic functioning and practice of democracy. Overall, Freedom House reported the 11th straight year of declines in its 2016 global Survey of Freedom.

Recent events, including in the United States, have given a new urgency to Democracy Web’s purpose. Indeed, much of the political rhetoric and media coverage during the 2016 elections in the US has shown a drastic lack of understanding both of basic democratic principles and basic facts of American and world history. Despite the many attempts at improving the teaching of history, civics and social studies, the teaching of the  principles, history and challenges of democratic governance are as absent from schooling as when Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles was first issued.  Democracy Web seeks to provide teachers and students with an innovative resource to help meet this need. As AFT president Randi Weingarten recently wrote in a column about the state of American politics, “In a very real sense, American democracy is being tested.” To meet that test, “we need an informed, engaged citizenry that is deeply involved in civic life.”

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 The Albert Shanker Institute is grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for providing the core funding for the original project. 


June 23, 2016