Study Circle Democracy

Deliberative democracy through study circles.
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 A nation can be maintained only if, between the state and the individual, there is interposed a whole series of secondary groups near enough to the individuals to attract them strongly in their sphere of action and drag them, in this way, into the general torment of civil life.

—Emile Durkheim

Not long ago, I gave a presentation to an environmental group about simplicity study circles, a small group, peer-led form of education and social change. When I finished, a man spoke up: “Your ideas are all well and good, but most people out there are intellectually challenged!”

My spirits dropped. “Yes,” I thought, “this is one reason a lot of us don't get actively involved in environmental organizations, even though we care about the planet.” We're afraid that people will think we're stupid.

But if you're working for social change, people are all you have. Perhaps you favor a benign dictatorship? If there's one lesson from history, it's that power must be shared, and democracy is the only hope.

But to believe in democracy, you need to believe in the power of people to find answers to the problems they're facing. You must commit to the idea that people have the wisdom they need. Our job as activists is to help them discover that wisdom. In my work as an educator, I've discovered certain basic truths: First, facts are not enough. We need to set people's spirits on fire. We must enliven as well as enlighten. We must inspire and motivate people to care about the common good. Second, we want people to learn to trust their own judgment and speak out, to refuse to be silenced and intimidated by those who claim to be authorities and experts. Third, we want to help people think critically—to spot the sham, manipulation, and false promises that undermine the greater good. Finally, people need the ability to work with others in a cooperative, collegial manner to bring about change.

I've found I can best pursue these goals through the study circle—a method of adult education and social change popular in Sweden, where study circles are referred to as “education by the people, for the people, and of the people.” Sweden has been called a study circle democracy. Studies have found that people who participate in study circles are more apt to be civic minded, no matter what the topic of the circle.

Here's how a study circle works as I've tried it: First, the circle must be small, between five and seven people, so that acceptance and caring can develop. Let's say that the evening's session is on the topic of community. We begin by asking the question, “When in your life have you experienced community?” Everyone has a story, and we proceed around the circle, listening to each person's experience. In telling their stories, people learn to trust their own voice instead of just listening to the voice of the experts.

Next, we ask the question, “What in our society is undermining community?” At this point participants learn to think critically about unsustainable and unjust forces in the larger society and about what policy changes are needed.

Finally, we ask, “What small thing can you do this week to create more community in your life?” By making a public commitment—maybe something as simple as bringing one's neighbor some cookies—people learn that change is possible. Too often we slip back into our old ways, but when we know someone is waiting to hear our story, we are more likely to take action.
Then, the following week we return to the group and report. If things didn't go well, there's brainstorming about more effective approaches and thoughtful insights about why something failed. There is always encouragement and support. Too often we neglect this act of reflection, but it not only helps us think more clearly, it's also lots of fun.

Thus, people in a study circle link personal and political change, they begin to learn to trust their own judgment, they learn to think critically about the broader society, and they learn to take action. Ultimately they begin to believe in themselves and to feel inspired to continue to work for broader democratic change. Study circles are a way for people to take back their education as well as rekindle deliberative democracy.

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