Why we need citizenship education – Andy Thornton conference talk Lahore 2014

Let’s start this conference by acknowledging that ‘citizenship’ is a complex topic.

And that’s a bit of a strange thing to say in an educational setting, because ‘citizenship’, as a subject at least, is something of a newcomer. Compared to literacy, maths and science, many see citizenship as an ‘add-on’ subject, an optional extra. But on closer inspection it’s quite the opposite. Most countries relate it to a core purpose of education: helping to develop the next generation of concerned and capable citizens. But how that turns into a subject is another matter.

There are many ways to present citizenship education and in only fifteen minutes I can only take one. I could show you many forms of curriculum from around the world. But that might leave us just picking a new list of topics like governmental systems of rule that sound too much like political science and that turn out dull for most students.

Or I could tell you stories of students whose lives have been changed by opportunities to become activists through citizenship classes. But that can leave you thinking it’s all about exceptional students doing exceptional projects that seem impossible to manage in most schools.

What I’m going to do is tell you the version I most believe in. The one that starts with the questions not the answers. The one that believes in the power of education and the promise of young people to make a better job of the world of the future than the one they’ve received. I hope I can convince you to invest in that. Because, as I said – citizenship is a complex topic.

But citizenship is complex for good and simple reasons: because citizenship is really a discussion of civilisation. And civilisations emanate from the many wonders of the human condition.

But alongside the wonders – certain difficulties will always accompany civilisation: these are the age old problems of human nature. Because societies are simply loads of people trying to live together.

And because humans are dynamic, those same problems need to be solved afresh by every new generation as they seek to thrive and coexist peacefully.

These problems exist because people differ in many ways – and I want to attempt to summarise three types of difference that civilisations manage, and how citizenship first and foremost has to introduce each new generation to the challenges these problems produce. I want to propose why this has to be addressed as a fundamental part of their education. And I want to clarify why they need to understand how to respond the challenges, not just be told the political and legal solutions their state currently offers.

slied showing the uniqueness fo each human

So – to those three challenges:

Firstly and most obviously, each of us enters the world as a unique individual. That means that all people have differing aptitudes, gifts, inclinations, ambitions and inherent capabilities. Some have brains more inclined towards arts than science; we have differing temperaments, different ways we learn the best, differing physical abilities, sportsmen, artists, writers, innovators, engineers, farmers, mechanics etc.

To create a society that can include our diverse abilities, identities, preferences and beliefs and still involve everyone in its activities and prosperity is a huge challenge; even more complicated when we try and judge how much any person’s time and skills are worth. I mean, why is a lawyer usually paid more than a teacher? Or a man more than a woman? Yet with all this great variety, each must still have a stake in democracy – in people rule – somehow. Diverse but united.

A second dilemma relates to aspiration and opportunity. Humans survive across the planet because of our sheer adaptability. We have the capacity to expand into our possibilities, or reconcile ourselves to our limitations…

Compare for example the splendours of Dubai to the simplicity of life for freezing-cold Innuit (Eskimos). One has had the chance to expand into vast possibilities – yes, in Dubai they have even built a ski slope in the desert – whilst the other gets on with life in a limiting environment. Each shows the capabilities of humans and the adaptations they and their civilisations can make. Adaptations of custom, industries, family life and welfare.

Given both options, though, tell me which would you choose? Dubai or Alaska?

I think most would take Dubai, a land of greater possibilities. Most people want enough personal freedom and opportunity to live their dreams, but there are few countries where everyone can. So we have a challenge around the access to opportunity: who will get the chance to fulfil their ambitions and their potential, and who will have to make do with minimal life chances?

The relationship between aspiration and opportunity is dynamic and progressive. It’s natural for parents to want to offer every advantage to their own and to pass on the advantages they have accrued from their life’s endeavour. But this leads most societies to evolve groups who accumulate advantage; who protect opportunities for their people more than others.

But as elites evolve in different cultures, they tip the balance of equality by passing on privilege whilst leaving many helpless and unfulfilled as complete outsiders. That doesn’t serve the needs of a healthy democracy, where, usually, if more people step up to share in its organisation then more get access to opportunity.

So, somehow, together we have to manage opportunity, helping as many as possible to flourish as possible, otherwise the discontent of the excluded destroy our unity. We have to balance access to opportunity with the need for inclusivity.

A third dilemma emanates from our moral agency. Humans can be wonderful and can be terrible… Each one of us is probably capable of extraordinary kindness and goodness at best, or of callous indifference, greed and savagery at worst. People brought up with brutality often perpetuate brutality, those nurtured kindly will usually be kind. Societies have to rein in and prohibit harmful behaviour whilst encouraging fairness and equality. And in turn, when they offer a sense of fairness people usually cause less harm and society is easier to police by consent. So we need justice, law and order that sets free the best in us and to stop the worse. People rule not mob rule.

In fact, this collective negotiation of law and order is at the heart of the word ‘democracy’. It’s a Greek word, which had a distinct understanding to Ancient Greeks. We translate it as ‘people rule’, but they had an alternative word for people: ‘ochlos’, which means the crowd or mob. Democracy was heard as an alternative to Ochlocracy: mob rule.

A democracy needs a people not a mob. A people has a developed understanding: shared concepts, values and a grasp of the rights and responsibilities of each member. And each member in turn submits to the majority preference rather than demanding the mob’s preferences.

That may sound technical, but look at the alternative.

You may have seen this picture of an event this weekend in Syria that shows a young woman being stoned to death for using Facebook. It is gut wrenching and heart-breaking. That is how ugly and cancerous mob rule is and that is why we need to teach our children alternatives: the alternative of collective people rule. And we need to induct them into its norms and disciplines.

So, in practice: although our diversity is one of the rich beauties of human kind, the same beautiful diversity creates complex tensions between us that need to be addressed.

Tensions of diversity, opportunity, brutality or order. And every political system, cultural system, religious system of national organisation has pretty much had to address these three elements of human existence; trying to create order, fairness out of possible chaos; keeping these forces in balance.

This is where every civilisation seeks methods. Ways to bring about stability and prosperity.

Faced with this complexity, it’s common for people to resolve to solve the problem from one of two directions. Some say the problem is one of the human heart – the inner person – and others may polarise to emphasise the need for law and order, enforced on everyone:

Those who prioritise the intrinsic consider shaping the person from within: looking for the heart of everyone to be pure and accommodating, such that their peacefulness, temperance and discipline generates harmony.

Others prioritise the extrinsic: looking to laws, customs and cultural norms that impose expectations and punish, shun, banish or extinguish those who break these rules.

But obviously, it’s not an either/or situation: both the intrinsic and extrinsic need to be put in place.

Most religions actually do both, and Islam is particularly sophisticated in this, aligning the law of the land to the law of the heart. Religions often establish customs and expectations around civil behaviour (person to person) which correlates to civic duties (person to society) through allegiance to God.

But implicit in that formulation is a recognition that both need cultivating. They don’t just happen.

That’s because communities of all types are perpetually in development. As one generation is being born, others are growing, marrying, changing identities, starting afresh, decaying, passing on… Societies are a mass of humans each at different points in the cycle of life and unless we are cultivating hearts, minds and wills we are liable to allow some kind of rot to set in during all the changes. In all this our hearts, minds and wills need elevating beyond self-interest but cannot escape self-interest. In bringing each person to recognise and adjust to the balance of these interests we prepare them for life.

Education is a way of formalising that preparation for life.

More than that, state governed education is a way of identifying a nation’s priorities for the following generations.

In fact – almost by accident – through the fact we are confined in schools with diverse others, ? education can balance off some of my founding propositions about the essential problems of all civilisations…

Through schools we are exposed the diversity of others within our communities as we learn together with those of differing character, capabilities and dispositions. We learn to collaborate and work together to make best advantage of our diversity.

Education also has the potential to help each new generation to have similar life-chances by having the opportunity to be exposed to a similar body of knowledge through the same process of learning… This happens best when regardless of how privileged or successful your parents are you still attend the same schools, overcoming some of the perpetuated advantages of the elite and pooling the costs of schooling through taxation so that we can offer the best education to as many as possible. It’s no coincidence that some of the most equal societies most children are in state education.

And education also creates socialising disciplines, through having to live and learn together in the same enclosed space (the school compound)! School helps us to learn to live in a single community where the rights of others is respected and where brute force and intimidation is resisted by a form of the rule of law (in this case ‘school rules’) so that all can benefit equally. In that sense it’s simply the most formative experience we all have in learning to live together.

This is where education is, and always has been, more than just telling people the kind of things they should know.

The context and the methods of education have always mattered. How people live and learn together develops them intrinsically even though we don’t always formulise that in educational practice.

And education involves not just what we learn about, but how we learn it. That includes what opportunities we get for practicing what we learn.

In some subjects that features practice-based learning, such as experiments in chemistry labs or enacting classic dramas in English. And in citizenship it involves seeing what effect we can have on the world around us: through active citizenship. It involves doing things – not just receiving information.  In fact it involves learning to do, and learning from doing.

So through introducing young people to an understanding of the social issues that they are going to have to solve together and giving them opportunities for a positive first encounter of acting on their citizenship – young people receive an explicit and productive introduction into their roles as citizens.

Now – because citizenship education is about universal societal challenges that need localised solutions I want to clarify that to my mind this means it is definitely a distinctive subject. It’s distinct from Islamiat and Pakistan Studies because it’s a study of the world beyond our faith and country, even though it integrates with those subjects. See, just as you don’t teach Pakistani Physics, or Pakistani Maths, so also you don’t teach Pakistani citizenship – you teach citizenship. And just as you wouldn’t teach PE the way you teach English, or Art the way you teach Biology or a foreign language, so you have to teach citizenship through a distinctive pedagogy – for the purpose of learning to be a citizen.

And doing this brings its dividends. It develops democratic character by giving opportunities for social action… in school and out of school, where possible. It develops leadership skills, cooperation, dialogue and debating skills, negotiation skills, critical thinking, tenacity, aspiration and influencing skills – many of the same assets that young people need for the job market in a fast-changing, technological and globalised world. It is a win-win subject to be integrated into education for the very reasons I started with – because people are people and need people skills of all types.

So this would be my dream for any education system:

By the time citizens leave school they haven’t just had an education that has taught them how to pass exams, or that saw them leaving school when they could no longer pass any more exams.

But they’ve had an education that taught them why learning is important because learning is for life, all aspects of life, and we have to keep learning to solve life’s problems in a changing world.

And because they’ve grasped that, they haven’t just accumulated ‘knowledge’, but they’ve learnt to learn and to apply learning.

And they’ve also had an education that’s shown them what they have accrued that will benefit their own future.

And by that I mean not just what will benefit their own career, but also what they’ve now got to offer to their communities and to their country and to the world; making the world of their future a better place.

Because, as I said at the beginning, the problems of living together are unending – they won’t go away. But if we don’t teach the next generation how to be part of the solution, they might just get worse.

So people like you and me, now, have to rise to that complex and rewarding challenge.

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

2 thoughts on “Why we need citizenship education – Andy Thornton conference talk Lahore 2014

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