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Tenets of Democracy


Democracy is a process of self-government in which individuals operate upon their environment directly and indirectly- directly as they make decisions for themselves, pursue careers, enter into relationships with others, and otherwise live their lives and indirectly through political representatives accountable for them. The system of government makes possible centralized decision making and rule-setting in matters that affect all citizens (the responsibility that accompanies all freedoms), and decentralized decision making and rule-setting in those best addressed on the local level. It is, in short, a social and political system characterized by a high degree of personal liberty and equally high degree of political liberty, manifested in regular and free competitive elections, protected by a legal system based upon a constitution, and often articulated by means of federalism. (Lakoff, 1996, p.32)

The Republic is a government in which the supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to the law. (Webster, 1991)

Democracy is the best basis for social organization because the logic of democracy denies that absolute truth can be known with certainty, and therefore allows for diversity, tolerance, openness to change and recognition of error. Democracy maximizes the opportunities for self-determination, for persons to live under laws of their own choosing. It facilitates moral autonomy, the ability of each individual citizen to make normative choices and thus to be, at the most profound level, self-governing. Consequently, the democratic process promotes human development (the growth of personal responsibility and intelligence) while also providing the best means for people to protect and advance their shared interests. (Diamond, 1999, p.3).

As educated persons, students should possess not only communication skills (the abilities to speak, listen, read, write, and view effectively), affective skills (the abilities to acknowledge and understand emotions and their relationship to action, knowledge, and values), but also skills for living in a democracy. These would include tolerance, critical thinking and decision making, thinking together and making meaning, power sharing and empowerment, individual responsibility and civil involvement with others. These elements of democracy will prepare students to lead productive lives consistent with the tenets of a democratic society.  

The future of democracy depends on our ability to deal with complex social problems and this ability can be achieved while thinking together and making meaning to create a shared perception of events that help us all get more of what we want in a situation when what we want is good for all of us. This means sharing the mutual tasks for the orderliness and welfare of the groups as well as for personal interdependence. Since democracy envisions a dynamic society in which the individuals play a deciding role in its governance, critical thinking and decision-making are two important characteristics of the members of a democratic society. 

The future of democracy depends on our success in getting along. Sometimes people draw bold lines between those they consider to be like themselves and those they view as different. People (especially young people) should be helped both to affirm their own individual and group identities and to respect and appreciate the identities of others. If people are brought face-to-face with the negative consequences of prejudice and hate, they will be challenged to examine their own lives. To understand how this might happen, we first need to understand tolerance.

Tolerance is the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1982). Webster defined it as "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own; the act of allowing something" (Webster, 1991).

To become tolerant, one can follow a number of steps:

  • Learn about the background of another individual by asking that individual to tell his/her story

  • Listen without making judgments

  • Ask questions to be sure of an accurate understanding, to compare one's belief system to the other individual's belief system

  • Identify similarities and differences between the two belief systems

  • Evaluate the differences

  • Determine through advocacy and inquiry if one belief or the other is open to change

  • Test the legality and ethics of both positions. If both positions are legal and ethical and neither position is open to change, both persons can decide to be tolerant of one another (Fisher & Brown, 1988).

A tolerant person should display the following behaviors: listening, making eye contact and making comments even if that person disagrees. To indicate understanding and to use a neutral tone to encourage the speaker to continue are also characteristics of a tolerant person. Intolerant individuals make negative comments, make no eye contact, break off the talk or give a negative interpretation of the other’s ideas.

Critical thinking is widely agreed to be an important goal of education. It is closely associated with goals such as rationality, autonomy, and perhaps, creativity and intelligence. People who think critically proceed on the basis of careful evaluation of the premises and evidence and come to conclusions as objectively as possible by considering all pertinent factors and using valid logical procedures (Good, 1973).

Siegel (as cited in Husen & Postlethwaite, 1994, pp. 1206-1207) proposed a justification of critical thinking in education in the following terms: (a) The ideal of respect for others requires respect for a student’s right to question, to seek reasons, explanations, and justification; (b) critical thinking is necessary to develop a student’s independent judgment required for self-sufficiency in adulthood; (c) critical thinking fosters in students these previously stated (a. and b.) dispositions, attitudes, and skills; and (d) critical thinking is central to the kind of intelligent judgment required by citizens in a democracy.

While thinking critically, sometimes we face common problems that get in the way when we try to tell ourselves the truth about the things we are doing and the decisions we are making. Callahan (1998) identified the following topics that we need to avoid in critical thinking: 

  1. Overgeneralization (or going too far) may occur when we go beyond the “truth” of a situation, when we wrongly assume that a small sample is representative of the whole population.

  2. Getting personal describes a situation in which we stop thinking about the issue and attack the person who is presenting the idea. This means that we try to win an argument but instead of focusing on the issue, we ignore it and we attack the other person by saying nasty things to/about him.

  3. “You’re another” is a tactic that it is often used from a defensive position: instead of dealing with the issue, we switch the topic to the other’s weaknesses. As opposed to listening to the criticism and using it to improve our own thinking we attack the person presenting it.

  4. Cause and effect are sometimes confused and people assume that because one thing occurred after another, the first caused the second. 

  5. Making false comparisons, or saying that two things are alike when they are more different then similar is a tactic that occurs for the sake of expediency or because we are thinking of very limited aspects of the objects or situations under consideration. While these false analogies may help in the short run, they may cause a variety of problems if we consistently try to force their application.

  6. Experts can be wrong. This is to say that just because a person is an expert in an area he or she is not an expert in all areas. Additionally, just because they are experts does not mean that they are always correct regarding every statement they make even in the area of their expertise.

  7. Appeal to the crowd, in other words, we say things that a lot of people will agree with and we use their agreement to support our ideas or positions. This is a way to get people to believe one thing by linking it to the way lots of people think.

  8. Arguing in circles occurs when one uses a conclusion to prove itself. Sometimes we use what we are doing as the reason for doing it.

  9. A self-evident truth, or “everybody knows it”, means that sometimes we think something is so true that everyone should just believe it, even if it’s not true. The idea that some information can be considered as self-evident truth creates the illusion that a statement is true simply because we say so, when it may or may not be true.

  10. “It’s either black or white”- people try to find solutions to complex situations using ideas that are too simple, they try to avoid seeing the shades of gray that exist particularly when they are dealing with people who are different from one another. A situation can rarely be either…or, one must look at both sides and positions of an issue and reach an agreement, or a common understanding.

  11. Guilt by association is a situation that occurs when someone makes a link between two unrelated persons or events and thus creates an association between the two that may or may not be valid. 

Decision making in democracies is a process of reaching agreement in group situations through discussion, debate, and analysis. Democracy envisions an open and dynamic society in which individual citizens are privileged to play the deciding role in its governance. Citizens in a democracy make a host of decisions that affect their own welfare as well as the welfare of others. Two levels of decision making are involved.

At the first level, citizens must gather necessary information using inquiry skills (observe, describe, compare, identify, etc.). Then they must decide on the reliability of the information that they use as evidence to support their positions on complex social problems. From the competing claims to truth, citizens must decide what to believe. They must learn to distinguish claims to truth that have validity from those that do not. However, common problems do occur when using critical thinking (for instance, getting personal, making false comparisons, saying things everyone will like, arguing in circles, etc.) (Callahan, 1998). These problems get in the way when we try to tell ourselves the truth about the things we are doing and the decisions we are making. Citizens need to recognize these problems and be prepared to deal with them.

At a second level, citizens must decide how to deal with complex social problems: how to define the problem, what values should be pursued, what public policies should be supported, what candidates should be elected to office, what actions should be taken with respect to social concerns (Engle & Ochoa, 1988, p. 61). To do that, citizens should follow a model that could improve what they think and believe. They can do this by taking the following steps:

  • Describing the situation to others

  • Checking to see if they have the right information and if there is any bias in their thinking

  • Relating the situation to their personal beliefs

  • Using emotions to indicate importance but not as the only basis of behavior

  • Differentiating between the problem and the possible solutions

  • Thinking individually of different ways to proceed and determining what situations would influence the limitations of each possible solution

  • Thinking collaboratively of different ways to proceed

  • Deciding which ways are the best and what should be done next

  • Using third party stories and advocating through disclosure

  • Relying on the others’ support of your thinking

  • Relating the decision to something that is important to the organization, sharing a common cause with it

  • Thinking individually of different ways to reduce one’s uncertainty

  • Testing the solution to see how it turns out and eventually modifying the solution based on the results

  • Preparing a plan for potential negative consequences and/or unintended positive consequences 

Steiner (as cited in Lipset, 1995) dealt with the proper way to make decisions. He argued that in a democratic society as many people as possible should be involved in making decisions. Decision making should be as open to the public as possible so the public at large can become involved. The public discourse can help sharpen the issues and check the soundness of the arguments. Decision making should be more than the aggregation of pre-formed opinions. Opinions must be confronted with each other in the public sphere, and all participants in this public discourse should truly listen to each other’s arguments. For making proper democratic decisions, no groups should be excluded (Lipset, 1995, p. 340).

If we carefully follow the above model for making decisions and avoid the common mistakes listed previously that appear in critical thinking we will improve what we think and believe. Nevertheless, when making decisions we may also be confronted with some common mistakes. What follows is a list of models of mistakes, as they were identified by Callahan (1998):

  1. Cover your back (CYB)- is a strategy in which people consider someone else’s opinion (usually a more powerful person) first and then make the decision or solve the problem based on what they think that person would do or say (usually without checking out the other persons perception of the situation).

  2. Use a previous situation- people use a previous situation and solve the problem the same way they did before. This often gets in the way of using new more powerful strategies. Sometimes people are so reluctant to change, they are unwilling to try a better strategy.

  3. Standard operating procedure (SOP)- people use a procedure that that has been agreed upon and is a standard process within the organization. Even though the standard process is not the best procedure in the new situation.

  4. “The Old Saying”- people think of an “old saying” and solve their problem or make their decision using the “saying” as the basis for their thinking. Even though the old saying is not the best procedure to use in the new situation.

  5. The emotional response- people make decisions and or solve problems based on an emotional response that is not balanced with reason. They do this even if they know they should be applying reason to the emotion.

  6. Using a “WOW! Grab It!” response- people jump at the first solution that sounds good or is “appealing”. Typically the solution is something new or different. Even though the new idea is not the best procedure in this situation.

  7. Using a “GUNG HO, JUST DO IT response- people respond with a gung ho attitude, taking the first solution and forcing it work. Even though this solution may not give them the best results in this situation.

  8. Using a “What’s in it for me” response- people make the decision or solve the problem based on what they perceive as self-interest, usually short-range self-interest. Even though their self-interests are neither the best option for them nor for the group.

Thinking together and making meaning in a democracy means creating a shared perception of events that helps us all get more of what we want in a situation when what we want is good for all of us. In making meaning and thinking together, dialogue plays a main role. The purpose of dialogue is defined as "seeking mutual understanding and harmony" (Webster as cited in Yankelovich, 1999, p.14). The discipline of team learning starts with dialogue, and the capacity of team members to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine "thinking together" (Senge, 1990).

There are four keys to effective group communication: dialogue, inquiry, advocacy and suspending judgment.


    The process of dialogue consists of the following four steps:

    1. Looking for the "Big Picture." We all want to be part of something that is "Good and Big." We need to reason together to make this happen. We need to listen with our ears, our minds, and our hearts, in a "safe" place. We need to be able to suspend our judgment.

    2. Dealing with the inevitable controversy. Some suggested guidelines in this step are to enter into the dialogue process in body, mind, and spirit; to pay attention to what has heart and meaning; and to tell the truth without blame or judgment (Arrien, 1998).

    3. Making serious inquiry. In this stage, you make a statement, present your data, inquire, consult, listen, and resist the temptation to disengage.

    4. Taking time for serious reflection, resolution, and realization. In this step, your thinking might follow this line: We are better than me; we can do anything, but remember, we can’t do everything.

    b.     INQUIRY

      Splitter and Sharp described the community of inquiry as a cooperative attempt by a group to inquire into problematic issues to create deeper meanings and enable informed judgments. Through its emphasis on dialogue, the community of inquiry encourages its members to become more analytical, reflective, critical, articulate; to offer their opinions and reasons with clarity and goodwill; and to progress toward making sound judgments. (Hill, 2000, p. 53)

      c.     ADVOCACY

      According to Callahan (1998), in order to balance inquiry and advocacy we need to take the following steps:

        1. State your assumptions but do not defend them, simply explain them and your thinking behind them.

        2. Inquire into your own and other’s thinking and feelings.

        3. Slow down.

        4. Allow silence for reflection.

        5. Speak from “I”.

        6. Speak to the center, not to a particular person.

      Making meaning is about challenging our own understandings and perhaps changing them. Once our understandings have changed, then our behavior can change. We must be careful not to see only what we expect to see, we need to have others help us see the reality of a situation if we really want to learn together.

      Why do we cling to old meanings when they are not the best ways to help us learn? The following is a list of answers proposed by Callahan:

        1. Sometimes they are the best way to help us learn.

        2. Sometimes they were the best way to help us learn.

        3. Our most trusted friends tell us it is the “best” way to handle the situation. (or they agree with us and reinforce us when we tell them it is the best way; even when they suspect it isn’t).

        4. We tell ourselves it is the “best” way to handle the situation. (even when we suspect it is not).

        5. We don’t know what else to do. (or that is what we tell ourselves).

        6. We don’t have time to think up a “better” way. (we also don’t have time to clean up the mess made by handling things the wrong way).

        7. Sometimes we are tired.

        8. Sometimes we are lazy.

        9. Sometimes we are just too distracted.

      These things, as Callahan points out, are just part of being human. When we find ourselves clinging to old meanings when they may not give us the best solution in the current situation, we need to be willing to challenge our own thinking and perhaps to engage with others in this process.


      The following steps may be helpful for us in order to suspend our judgment:

        1. Stop deciding and start seeking information.

        2. Attempt to understand other points of view by listening to others talk about their point of view.

        3. Seek confirmation of your understanding by asking about feelings and about content.

        4. Prospect for new perspectives in unfamiliar territory.

        5. Expand ideas to create new perspectives.

        6. Nurture relationships with those who have different opinions so you can understand their perspective.

        7. Decide what is the “best” meaning (the one that gives you and the others the most desirable results) by testing your ideas on a small scale before you store them away. (Callahan, 1998)

      Education for power sharing and empowerment aims to provide young people with the understanding, abilities, and commitments with which they can identify and act upon their interests. Freire’s (Wallerstein & Bernstein, 1988, pp. 381-382) central premise is that education is not neutral and takes place in the context of people’s lives. To him, the purpose of education should be human liberation so that learners can be subjects and actors in their own lives and in society. Land and Gilbert (as cited in Husen & Postlethwaite, 1994, p. 1980) claimed that four major variants are evident in the literature of empowerment through (a) individual competence, (b) active citizenship, (c) critical consciousness, and (d) empowering difference.

      Literally, empowerment means to give the ability to, to permit or enable. In the educational field, to empower is to enable the self-affirming expression of experiences mediated by one’s history, language, and traditions. It is to enable those who have been marginalized economically and culturally to claim in both respects a status as fully participating members of a community.

      Empowerment is "the opportunity and means to effectively participate and share authority" (Bastian, Fruchter, Gittell, Greer, & Haskins, as cited in Simon, 1987, p. 374). A pedagogy of empowerment is important in valuing and legitimizing the expression of student voice. "It recognizes that a student voice is a discourse that constitutes a necessary logic of identity – a cultural logic that anchors subjectivity" (Bastian et al., as cited in Simon, 1987, p. 377).

      Finally, empowerment can lead to rapid intellectual growth (Hill, 2000).

      • Intellectual growth in the form of increasing awareness, understanding, and ability to deal with complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity is more likely to occur, and to occur rapidly, in contexts that allow students to experience powerful emotional and intellectual challenges within a supportive context, and to engage in a continuing cycle in which meaningful practice is built upon theory and is reflected upon with peers and university tutors within a critical framework. In such contexts, the combination of support and challenge is more likely to foster the conditions for conceptual change, leading to a valuing of the new ideas and manifested in improved practice. (p. 61)

      In order to work together to build a good community for everyone, individuals should possess the following characteristics:

      1. to be rational

      2. to be accepting

      3. to communicate 

      4. to understand

      5. to be reliable

      6. to be non-coercive in the attempts to influence

      Roger Fisher and Scott Brown discussed all these characteristics in their book, Getting Together (1998). According to them, in order for an individual to be rational, s/he needs to balance reason with emotion. “Rational decision-making requires a balance, as too much emotion can cloud judgment and too little emotion impairs motivation and understanding”.(Fisher & Brown, 1998, p.44). In order for individuals to balance emotion with reason, they should:

      1. Develop an awareness of emotions

      2. Acknowledge emotions

      3. Prepare for emotions before they arise

      4. Take charge of one’s own behavior and do not react emotionally

      An individual that is accepting behaves as if s/he respects the others and could learn from them. Acceptance involves the following behaviors: accept unconditionally, give their interests the weight they deserve, treat them as equals- in basic respect and behave as if we care-and then we will care. The results of acceptance are that people will be better able to resist disengagement and will increase their chance to work out differences and produce good outcomes.

      “To have a working relationship, we have to communicate. What we communicate and how we do it- whether with a friend, a spouse, an employer or a government – affects our ability to deal with differences. Poor communication may lead to misunderstanding, unhelpful emotions, distrust, sloppy thinking, and poor outcomes.” (Fisher & Scott, 1998, p.84). According to them , communication may fail for three reasons: we assume there is no need to talk, we communicate in one direction, we “tell” people and we send mixed messages. What we need to do to strengthen a relationship is to always consult with the others before deciding, to listen actively and to plan the communication process to minimize the mixed messages.

      When people are communicating, “there is an active and open exchange of ideas, there is disagreement without personal attacks and there are requests for justification. 

      As a result, people will reduce the chance of making a mistake and will work with more ideas.” (Callahan, 1998)

      To understand means to learn how the others see things. “The greater the extent to which we comprehend each others’ perceptions, concerns and values-both in general and in particular-the greater our ability to work together. Other things being equal, the better the mutual understanding, the better the working relationship. And we can improve our understanding if at least one of us takes an unconditionally constructive approach to doing so.” (Fisher & Brown, 1998, p.65). As people are curious, they always assume a need to learn more, and this will help them to be able to deal with differences. They know each other’s concerns and therefore they will be more influential and invent better solutions.

      Reliability requires that people demonstrate ability and behave appropriately, that they send clear simple messages and show how their intentions are mutually beneficial. As a result people will gain confidence and trust and what they say will have more impact.

      The last characteristic people should display is to be non-coercive in their attempts to influence. By doing so, people are willing to consider the possibility that their thinking may need to change. Persuasion is based on merit, logic and principle, therefore people will get better implementation and build stronger relationships.

      Responsibility is the state or fact of being responsible for something or somebody/for doing something. It can mean the following:

      • Having the job or duty of doing something or caring for somebody/something so that you may be blamed if something goes wrong

      • Being capable of being trusted, reliable, and sensible (Oxford, 1996)

      • Being liable in a legal sense for the normal legal consequences of the action

      • Being morally responsible for what you do, which could result in praise or blame, whichever is appropriate to the action in question

      • Being responsible for your actions through your ability to control what you do, being held to legal consequences or to moral blame (Hart, 1967, p. 19)

      Individual responsibility and civil involvement with others are traits that grow with the opportunities in a democracy to share the mutual tasks for the orderliness and welfare of the group as well as for personal independence (Good, 1973). Individual, or personal, responsibility implies a sensitivity to group needs and group problems. Someone with personal responsibility calls the group’s attention to the conditions and situations that are detrimental to group welfare. That person may propose changes in group procedures that promote the best interests of the group.

      Individual responsibility is a conscious and voluntary obedience to all procedures the group adopts that represent group attempts to solve group problems. "It is not passive submission to group demands prompted by a desire to escape group displeasure; it is rather active participation prompted by a desire to aid in promoting the best interests of the group" (Hollingshead, 1941, pp. 43-44).

      Groups may also have a collective responsibility where the same responsibility falls to each individual in the group. Alternatively, the collectivization of moral responsibilities might actually lead to the individualization of moral responsibility. This means that if each of us is the best judge and promoter of our own interests, then the best way to meet the shared responsibility for promoting one another’s well-being collectively might be to assign each individual the responsibility for his/her own welfare (Schmidtz & Goodin, 1998, pp. 146-147).

      Hollingshead (1941) noted the importance of the social aspects of democracy.

      • Democracy is not solely a political organization, but rather a social relationship, a conscious striving on the part of each member for the advancement of the common welfare. It is essentially a mode of associated living, for it exists in the lives and the living of its members and not apart or above them in some form of political organization. Democracy is a cooperative society rather than a competitive one. It is a society in which individuals are cooperating with one another rather than competing against one another. It is a society in which individuals are striving to aid rather than to exploit. (pp.17-18)

      To be civilized, meant at the origins “to be a member of the household”. Just as there are certain rules that allow family members to live peacefully within a household, so there are rules of civility that allow us to live peacefully within a society. We have certain moral responsibilities to one another, therefore we should be governed by moral standards that express concern for others and limit our own freedom.

      George Washington’s “Rules of Civility”, as they are cited by William Bennett teach us an important lesson on individual responsibility and civil involvement with others. We tend to think that liberation means breaking the rules, but it is only by respecting time-honored rules of decency that we truly become masters of ourselves and worthy members of civil society. According to these rules: (11 out of the 106 original ones):

      • Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.

      • Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not on anyone.

      • Be no flatterer, neither play with anyone that delights not to be played with.

      • Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.

      • Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

      • Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.

      • When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.

      • In your apparel be modest, and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than procure admiration. Keep to the fashion of your equals, such as are civil and orderly with respect to time and place.

      • Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.

      • Undertake not what you cannot perform, but be careful to keep your promise.

      • Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. (Bennett, 1997,pp.152-155)

      Civility acknowledges the value of another person. Politeness and manners are not merely to make a social life easier. Talking about civility, Stephen Carter said that our actions and sacrifice are a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, making them as full equals, both before the law and before God. Rules of civility are thus also rules of morality, it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility is part of a large crisis of morality. (Carter, 1998,11).

      Civility requires humility, our acknowledgement that sometimes we may be wrong and the other may be right, our duty to be civil with others should not depend on whether we agree with their moral or political perspectives.

      Civic responsibility, social connectedness, individual accountability, associational membership, civic engagement, social trust, and social justice are traits that have an important role in a democratic society (Putnam, 1995).

      Individual accountability means an account of an action or activity concerned with discussing the action, whether it works or not. Individual accountability means an individual would explain the activity to those who are involved in it as something "visible-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical-purposes" (Garfinkel, as cited in Shotter, 1984, p. vii). An account is an aid to perception, functioning to constitute an otherwise indeterminate flow of activity as a sequence of recognizable events, that is, events of a kind already known about within a society’s way of making sense of things (Shotter, 1984, p. 3).

      The individual counterpart of group consciousness is a strong feeling of membership in the group. Viewed from an individual’s point of view, membership indicates an identification of a person’s welfare with that of his/her associates.

      Membership implies that the individual recognizes his interdependence with his associates and his dependency upon their joint efforts for the realization of their common welfare. Membership denotes a willingness to contribute his best to the group activities. Membership means an extension of self to include others, the establishing of a "we" reference point of values to replace a reference point of "I" (Hollingshead, 1941, p. 41).

      Democracy theorizes that membership enriches personality, since it results in an increased feeling of value, through the recognition that the individual has an important part to play in promoting the best interests of the group (Hollingshead, 1941, p. 41). Social trust, as well as other democratic traits, facilitates coordination and cooperation for the mutual benefit of the group.


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