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Citizenship and Education

Dec 05, 2008


How is citizenship best defined? Should schools teach children to become good citizens? As with any topic in the study of political science, we must proceed thoughtfully; these are not straightforward questions with simple answers. To find answers we must deconstruct the questions into their component parts, and give consideration to their foundations and assumptions.

Prior to addressing the normative question of citizenship education, it is necessary to discuss the nature and effects of citizenship itself. I will first outline a descriptive definition of the concept 'citizen,' and use this to develop a normative definition. This definition will then be applied to the central question: should schools teach children to become good citizens?

I will argue that the idea of the good citizen, as it is currently aspired towards, places deleterious boundaries on human interactions, and ignores the shared fate of humanity. Schools must teach children to become agents of the public good, but not in a relativistic national sense. The contemporary approach to citizenship education is limiting, and permits -- even produces -- destructive impulses such as materialism and jingoism. Accepting that our epistemic state is dynamic, schools should seek not merely to transmit some maximal amount of state approved information, but should instead aim to develop a capacity for critical thought, and thus a foundation for objectivity. The term 'public' must be updated to connote an international sensibility, and education must be updated to reflect our global circumstance.

Citizenship : A Descriptive Definition

What is the descriptive content of the word 'citizen'? Citizenship theory defines a citizen as a constituent of a particular political body, allotted the basic rights and duties thereof. In contemporary democracies, rights are meant to safeguard the citizen, and are commonly divided into three categories: civil, political, and social. Basic rights include the privileges of free thought, free speech, free association, and inclusion in the process of electing representatives. In an effort to better protect the liberty of minorities, rights are studied and designed from the perspective of both individual and group interests. The distribution of individual and group rights confers duties on the citizen, including the obligation to maintain justice in legal and social dimensions, by obeying laws and tolerating others. As regards rights and duties, a citizen must be familiar with the structure of the political body to which they are attached. This requires political education, the establishment of civic virtue, and thus the construction of a political identity.

What is the basis for civic virtue and the political identity of a citizen? The word 'citizen' is an abstract construct with no natural counterpart. When one refers to a person, they can point to an example in the physical world. When one refers to a citizen they can not simply point to an example in the physical world, but must appeal to additional information about the person in question. A person may only be a citizen with respect to a particular nation. Thus, the conception of a citizen rests on the concept of a nation, and the political identity of a citizen may be considered as the citizen's nationalistic consciousness. Hence, to define the 'citizen,' we must understand the 'nation.'

What is the descriptive content of the concept 'nation'? At the highest level, a nation is a collection of people federated into a political body, bound within a specific physical territory. What is the origin of this definition? History reveals that "the borders of modern nations have not been established through some morally innocent process, but are, to a significant extent, the upshot of war and negotiation among unaccountable elites." A nation then is a morally arbitrary construct.

Because a nation is a morally arbitrary construct, and the concept of the citizen is based on the concept of nation, is it a necessary consequence that the concept of citizen should also be morally arbitrary? Might the concept of citizen act as a corrective for the moral laxity of the foundation of the concept of nation? Should we be concerned by these questions? Because the "arbitrary boundaries of nation states distribute various important goods radically unequally," we must be deeply concerned with these questions. Nationhood and citizenship are not universally beneficent structures. History is replete with examples of nationalistic self-determination motivating the violent subjugation of foreign nations. In addition to fomenting externally facing violence, citizenship does not protect against internally facing violence. For example, citizens in the Darfur region of Sudan find themselves trapped by national borders and subject to one of the most extensive democides in history -- the duty of state sponsored soldiers is to breach the rights of Sudanese citizens. While nationhood and citizenship are not solely responsible for such problems, they are dominant factors.

Descriptively then, citizenship is best defined as a status applied to the constituents of a national political body, conferring a basic set of rights and duties, where the rights and duties need not have been developed democratically, and do not guarantee the humane treatment of citizens (or foreigners). Citizenship, in its current form, is both shield and shackle, protecting the citizens of democratic nations, and binding the citizens of authoritarian nations. The success of citizenship in liberal democratic nations shows only that it is not the worst possible arrangement, while the failure of citizenship in illiberal nations shows that it is certainly not the best possible arrangement. Accepting that the current conception of citizenship is untenable, what is to be done?

Citizenship : A Normative Definition

As I see it, the central problem of politics is coordinating group activity and regulating the effects of the natural world and human nature on humanity, in such a way that every human enjoys sustainable food, shelter, and happiness. Accepting this, the goal of a nation should be to provide an enduring quality of life for all citizens; accordingly, for any idea of citizenship to be defensible, it must work towards this ambition in all situations. A description of the ideal nation is beyond the scope of this paper, however, because one of the highest qualities of life can be found in liberal democracies, for the purposes of this discussion we shall assume that the role of citizenship should be to produce and maintain a political environment based on liberal and democratic values. With this in mind, I will build on the descriptive definition of citizenship, and establish a normative definition. Normatively speaking, citizenship is best defined as a status applied to the constituents of a national political body, conferring a basic set of rights and duties that support and defend liberal and democratic values, where the rights and duties have been developed democratically, and guarantee the humane treatment of citizens.

This definition provides a compelling foundation, but it is incomplete. We are left with a pressing question for all supporters of liberal and democratic values: what position does citizenship take with respect to foreigners? As discussed above, the concept 'citizen' is bound to the concept 'nation,' so what is to be done for citizens not living in liberal democracies? This question has two parts. Firstly, should all non-liberal non-democracies be transformed into liberal democracies? Secondly, what regard should the citizens of one nation have for the citizens of another nation? The answer to the first question is no. While a liberal democracy appears to be one of the best available political configurations, it is unreasonable to presume that a better option will not present itself, or that liberal democracy is the "end of history." The second question requires us to consider the international dependencies brought about as a result of globalization. To highlight the issue, let us consider a contemporary political problem: natural resource consumption. As of 2004, "if everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian or American, we would need at least three such planets to live sustainably." Put plainly, this means that Canadians and Americans are overwhelming the entire planet. Thus, the lifestyle of Canadians and Americans negatively affects all nations. Canada and America consider themselves to be models of inspiration for other nations, but can people who are destroying the planet rightfully consider themselves to be model citizens? Shouldn't all North Americans live with consideration for all residents of the planet, regardless of nationality? What does this mean for the normative definition of citizenship given above ("the purpose of citizenship should be to produce and maintain a political environment based on liberal and democratic values")? Along with other global issues, such as financial crisis and global warming, the issue of resource consumption obviates the fact that nations do not exist in isolation. Consequently, nations must expand their understanding of civic virtue and the public good to consider the welfare of all inhabitants who share the planet.

The purpose of citizenship, at this time, should be to produce and maintain a global political environment based on liberal and democratic values.

The Role of Schools in Citizenship Education

How should liberal and democratic values be established, protected, and enhanced? Should schools teach children to become good citizens? While any "curriculum inculcating the virtues of citizenship should be approached cautiously, because there is a reasonable fear of indoctrination," this should not prevent the use of public education to promote civic virtues. Knowledge of propaganda and indoctrination is precisely the means to reverse it, and it is possible to militate against indoctrination by teaching students and educators to be conscious of it. Schools should teach children to become good citizens, however; not all forms of indoctrination seek overtly illiberal ends, and the modern educational curriculum in liberal democracies does not actively militate against all forms of indoctrination.

Within the United States, for example, much of "the talk is about global competitiveness, and the public discourse ... is on how to improve national educational performance in science and engineering." Students are explicitly taught skills that will enhance the national economy, and implicitly indoctrinated in the ideology of state-capitalism. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle, continually narrowing in its focus. As noted in the discussion of resource consumption, the United States is among the most materialistic nations in the world. The level of material comfort in the United States creates a rich private life, and because the quality of private life is so high, citizens do not perceive a need to participate in public life. The result is passive citizenship, voter apathy, and the impoverishment of public debate. If citizens have little regard for national issues, it is unlikely that they will concern themselves with global issues. Because the lifestyle of Americans is unsustainable, the situation regarding education is unacceptable.

The desire to construct a group identity was one of the motivations in establishing the American schooling system, however the limits of the group that Americans identify with requires extension, and must include the inhabitants of other nations. While students should be educated in the ideals and ambitions of their nation, they must also be empowered with a highly developed aptitude for critical thinking that transcends national limits.


Citizenship as it is currently understood and implemented restricts the spectrum of thought, placing the limits of political awareness and responsibility at the borders of the nation. Global problems however do not respect national boundaries. Normatively, citizenship is best defined as a status aimed at: i) producing and maintaining a global political environment based on liberal and democratic values, ii) granting a basic set of rights and duties that support and defend liberal and democratic values, iii) where these rights and duties have been developed democratically, iv) guaranteeing the humane treatment of national citizens, v) and recognizing the rights and interests of non-nationals. Citizenship must concern itself with the issue of living in a manner that is equitable and sustainable not only with respect to a particular nation, but with respect to everyone on the planet.

Public education plays a key role in developing an understanding and appreciation for civic virtue, and schools must teach children to become good citizens. While it is of exceptional importance that education is broad, including ideas from all disciplines, it is more important that education is expansive, and not limited to -- or by -- any single mode of thought. The goal of education must be to establish a critical faculty of reasoning. It is just as important for citizens to know what they do not think, as it is for them to know what they do think, and to understand the reasons for both. Only then can a globally informed civic virtue develop.

Part of the series: UWO