What is citizenship education meant to “fix” and what are the aims of this subject?

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Point of departure

The purpose of this article is to proffer tentative answers to the two key questions with which Kuntz and Petrovic (2014) conclude their discussion of citizenship education (henceforth abbreviated as CE) around the world, namely: “What is citizenship education meant to fix?” and “What does it mean to be an active and productive citizen in our historical context?” The further aim was to go somewhat beyond their analysis by evaluating some of these “answers” based on a number of fundamental and pedagogical considerations.

Methodological considerations

Every approach to CE embodies a particular philosophical frame through which to interpret the role and purpose of the subject in various contexts. Beliefs determine how we approach the theory and practice of CE. Typical of an interpretivist approach, and due to ontological, anthropological, epistemological and axiological considerations, it is unlikely for a researcher to arrive at final, irrefutable answers.

A combination of theories was employed to arrive at tentative answers to the two questions: an ethic of care, shared fate theory, critical theory and critical realism theory. The insights flowing from all these theories were drawn together in the social space and ethical/moral action theory (Van der Walt 2017).

Contentious “answers” to the two questions concerning CE

The purpose of CE is to address particular shortcomings in the learner/student: the deficit approach

CE could be approached as a means of addressing particular shortcomings in the learner/student and, in doing so, inculcate in the young person compliance with the prevailing social mores and context as a social outcome. Being deficient in the realm of citizenship could indicate the lack of skills and dispositions to contribute to, for instance, the international economic market while maintaining a fidelity to the more localized nation-state. The reasoning behind this approach is that youngsters are deficient in proper behaviours and dispositions. Students could be taught to be more punctual, disciplined, docile, compliant and obedient. Education is seen as behaviour modification; hence as the inculcation of “proper” habits.

This deficit approach could lead to an uncritical and thoughtless nationalism and might even be construed as a form of indoctrination.

The purpose of CE is to inculcate in future citizens a neoliberal frame of mind

This view of the purpose of CE ties in with the economic purpose of education, namely the ideal to enhance the economic prosperity of the nation. To see economic prosperity and the enhancement thereof as a purpose of education is in order, but the neoliberal frame of mind associated with economic advancement should be questioned. The key question regarding the neoliberal approach is: What is a productive citizen? The neoliberal answer is that life is economically defined, productivity is defined in pecuniary terms, people are seen as human capital, and citizenship is tied to productivity, innovation, entrepreneurship and compliance. The citizen with a neoliberal frame of mind draws his or her identity from their occupation, and engages in processes of consumption, market logic and competition.

The purpose of CE is to inculcate in students a neoconservative frame of mind

Educators who are not comfortable with the neoliberal frame of mind could opt for offering a form of CE based on a neoconservative orientation. A CE educator with this orientation questions and even actively opposes the econocentrism of neoliberalism.

The purpose of CE is to inform students about how their government works and about their place in this constellation as future citizens

This approach comes down to civics study or social history study which amounts to shaping students to become “good” citizens of their own nation-states and to understand the structure and workings of that state and its government. As such, it seems to represent a form of assimilatory socialisation.

The purpose of CE is to align the future citizen’s interests with those of his or her own nation-state

This approach is typically nation-state centred and tends towards inward-looking patriotism. The nation-state, rather than the global society, represents the “complex society” in which CE needs to be offered. The focus is on the problem of widely diverse people having to live together within the borders of a single nation-state.

The purpose of CE is to align the interests of the student with the values and demands of the global context

Other CE educators tend to over-emphasise the global context. They argue that, since national boundaries have become increasingly blurred through processes of globalisation, the question as to what it means to be a productive citizen should be understood in terms of global contexts.

The purpose of CE is to reify values

One of the offshoots of a neoliberal frame of mind is the tendency to reify values such as efficiency, production and productivity by regarding individuals as discreet entities regardless of local context or history, by ripping them from their actual current and historical context.

A number of arguably more justifiable answers to the questions

The approaches discussed thus far all fall short due to being ontologically, anthropologically, epistemologically and/or axiologically one-sided. The deficit approach, for instance, falls short anthropologically since it seems to concentrate only on what is deemed lacking in the abilities and social make-up of students; the neoliberal frame of mind is ontologically unsatisfactory in that it concentrates mainly on the economic aspect of reality and of social life; the neoconservative mindset concentrates on the economic, social and national aspects of reality and social life but tends to lean towards nation-centrism, unhealthy patriotism and protectionism; the civic studies approach concentrates mainly on guiding students to understand the workings of their own government and state structures to the neglect of understanding the wider world beyond their own nation-state; globalisation, particularly economic globalisation, tends to over-emphasise the place of the individual as a world citizen and to concentrate on interests beyond the own national borders; and reification of values is one-sided in that it tends to ignore the sociohistorical contexts of individuals and events.

On the other hand, the “answers” outlined above also seem to ring true in varying respects and degrees. Students do occasionally show deficits in their preparation for life. Future citizens need to know about economics on a worldwide scale; they do have to be critical of the abuse of power; they do have to be proud of their own (nation, language, country, symbols); they do have to understand how their government is structured and functions; and they do have to understand the challenges of globalisation and how to reify the values of others, but all of these need to be taught in a balanced manner.

The following “answers” are deemed more justifiable in that they seem to be more ontologically, anthropologically, epistemologically and axiologically balanced.

The purpose of CE is to help students understand that all those in a particular sociocultural space possess a shared fate

The shared fate theory encapsulates the idea that people living in a particular sociocultural and historical context, with all the diversity that it entails, are sharing the same fate; hence they are compelled to find ways to accommodate their differences and thereby ensure stability in their community. The theory applies to both the local and the global space.

The purpose of CE is to assist students in understanding the sociocultural and historical contexts or spaces in which they find themselves

The social space and ethical/moral function theory holds that every person or group of people and every act and/or interaction occupy a specific social space. The production of CE depends on time and space, and is therefore a dynamic process. The same applies to our understanding of what is meant by the good life for which the students are being prepared through CE.

The purpose of CE is to assist and guide students in becoming morally responsible and accountable citizens of the future

This purpose of CE points to the second part of social space and ethical/moral function theory in that it touches on the ethical and moral behaviour that can be expected to be displayed by individuals and groups in a particular social space, such as a family, a community, a nation-state or even the world. In principle, every actor or agent in a particular social space is expected to diligently care about the interests of all other people and groups.

The purpose of CE is to inculcate in students an attitude of being critical of the status quo

It is incumbent upon citizenship educators to inculcate in their students a critical frame of mind, an approach that is not necessarily neoconservative but queries the status quo, particularly the neoliberal frame of mind and power structures. CE should include robust interrogation and experience in discussion and debate and the building of capacity to engage reasonably in the public sphere. Education should inform and challenge.

So, what is CE meant to fix and what does it mean to be an active and productive citizen?

The answer to the first question is simply that CE is not intended to “fix” anything. The idea of fixing something implies that the thing is broken, incorrect or deficient, and this is not the case as far as the condition of young people is concerned. What young people require is the guiding, leading, unfolding, nurturing, shaping, forming, developing and training of their innate capabilities in anthropologically justifiable ways.

The answer to the second question is that the student should be educated to become an active, productive, responsible and accountable citizen in our current historical context. In essence, CE is a specialised form of pedagogy aimed at equipping young people for their total existence and functioning as integral future members of their communities, nation-states, political regions and the wider world.

Concluding remark

Citizenship education is not intended to fix anything, because nothing is broken. CE is required to bring young people to mature citizenship and peaceful co-existence through pedagogically justifiable means. However, CE should not stop at asking what a productive citizen is and work towards that goal; it should specifically ask what a responsible, accountable, fate-sharing citizen could and fundamentally should be, and work towards that more inspirational citizenship perspective.

Keywords: citizenship; citizenship education; pedagogy; philosophical approaches; theoretical and pre-theoretical perspectives


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