The good and bad of being nothing… (and why citizenship education challenges that)

I have been using a sticky metaphor for citizenship education recently.

Imagine the timeline of history as a stick of rock…

The beginning of the stick is, say, the dawn of civilisation in Britain, and we can move along it in time and trace the history of the nation. There’s the bronze age, here’s the Norman Conquest… the Tudors, Victorians, World Wars… and at the other end of the stick , the open end, there’s today.

Now if you slice the stick of rock at any point you’ll see the words ‘Great Britain’ written through it. So wherever you slice it you’re arriving at a snapshot of the country’s culture at that moment in time. Good history teaching therefore gives you a grasp of the timeline and insight into the snapshots of certain moments to bring it to life.

But when you get to the end of the stick of rock you arrive at the present. That’s where you live. That’s where you’re an agent in the flow of history. Where you’re a deciding factor in what the next bit of the stick of rock will look like. To play your part as a citizen is to shape history. Your choices, your will, your actions… all contribute.

So citizenship education is a different kind of application of learning. It relates to the state of the present and your role in the future. It shows you not only what you’re inheriting but also the levers that are yours within the social order. What’s expected of you and what’s yours to expect. You need to know how it all works… the great machinery of society, the rules and principles of its operation, and the many ways that you are free and empowered to intervene in what the machine produces next.

That’s why history can only go so far in teaching citizenship…

More than that though, I was considering how many recent global changes have effectively disconnected the current generation from the flow of history.

The world order is more entwined through global interpendencies, mass communication placing us into different cultural alliances (my daughter talks in an American accent whenever she pretends to be someone on TV) and social networks repositioning us from local affiliations to global communities of interest.

Added to that, fewer people have ideological connections to past beliefs. All the research shows that faiths, political parties, unions and values based organisations are in decline in the West.

So when this generation looks back down the timeline of history few feel connected to the patterns of thought and aspiration that shaped the past. Few feel answerable for old trends or shackled to the kind of Biblical reasoning that established UK democracy. Most people are happy to be ‘nothing’ in that sense. Happier to hold loosely to some moral values but to disconnect from them when the pressure is on or other benefits overwhelm the disciplines of their previous position.
(There is political benefit in that, strangely. Floating voters get a lot of attention.)

But more seriously, the benefits of being nothing can only hold good until there’s a crisis. In a consumer society that crisis can only be one of access to goods. Like that felt in Greece and Spain right now, presumably.

‘Nothing’ is definitely good for keeping your options open. Crisis will inevitably close them down. The political parties of the day all sound old fashioned to young people because they have origins and therefore an obligation to maintain continuity. Most of them expend a lot of energy keeping their older members in check… Keeping them on the sidelines so that their more extreme-sounding ideological positions don’t taint the centrist appeal to those who are on the side of nothing (except satiation).

I think history teaches us that being on the side of nothing is a luxury only afforded to the decadent. Those who ride the final days of the wave of empire, just before it crashes on to the sand it never saw coming.

If citizenship education has immediacy and application it is in connecting to the message of history and recognising the risk of wanting for nothing whilst being nothing… It always ends in tears unless you become something or someone. Things are changing so fast that the task needs special attention. Now is the time to help young people recognise the need to shape the next part of the story: before the crisis.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

About Andy Thornton

Andy Thornton has been our Chief Executive since September 2010. He joined us in 2005, after three years at the Giving Campaign where he initiated their youth programme, Giving Nation. Giving Nation and the primary school version Go Givers are now both Citizenship Foundation programmes supporting young people’s informed engagement with charities and community action while at school.

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