One of the problems that confronts as at this moment in European unity is our inability to see ourselves as a single continent but as nationals of geopolitically separated states. In our third article on the future of Europe beyond Brexit, Brian Milne argues that educating the citizens in the workings of a state can help better understanding and appreciation of the way Europe is governed.
In some European nations, both within and outside the EU, there are divisions that are ethnic, linguistic, religious or even political. There are permutations of any or all of those. Demands for devolution, autonomy and independence often highlight those differences. There the irony may be that although new countries emerge by becoming independent from the state they were previously part of, they remain part of Europe. Thus, if we examine this within the EU, we must be open to this kind of ‘natural’ increase in the present member states and be able to accommodate them. To do so requires understanding at not only the higher political level but down to the most basic starting place which we frequently refer to as ‘grassroots’. Possibly, the most successful way of helping people understand is by giving them knowledge, which can be achieved as part of a normal school curriculum. This is by introducing what we call citizenship or civic education and where it already exists modifying it to be far more inclusive of international content. Although the emphasis should always be on the political state in which instruction is being delivered, a large part of it should take in the differences within those countries where it is often advisable if not absolutely necessary and look at the international dimensions thoroughly.
What exactly is meant by citizenship education?
Citizenship education, sometimes called civic education, may well be defined as educating people, beginning during early childhood, probably at primary school, then ongoing for the rest of their school career, but then on into lifetime education. The aim would be to carefully train people to become decisive, open-minded citizens who understand their rights and responsibilities in order to participate in actions and decisions that are part of the cohesion of their own and a far wider society. I am using the word ‘society’ very broadly here to be all inclusive of all people who share a part of the world in the sense of being within a circumscribed territory which is recognised as a single nation state, up to at least a body of countries such as the European Union. There is a note of caution that the word nation also describes a body of people united by common descent, culture, language and history who inhabit a particular country or territory within a political state. A example is in the different applications that we can use for the indigenous people of North America who have historically been described as Indians and usually in a homogeneous manner rather than distinct ethnic groups who are considered to be nations and the confederation of the indigenous peoples who have adopted the term ‘Indian Nation’ to distinguish them from an assumed assimilation into the dominant political nation state of people descended from immigrants of other ethnicities. In other words, it is sometimes a loaded word that becomes part of divisions within political states that consider themselves to be nations. It is, thus, an essential part of citizenship education that informs individuals what their actual identity is and the importance of the acknowledgement and acceptance of their status within a very wide, open society in the sense it is used here.
Where do we begin?
The starting point is simple. It begins with acknowledgement of each individual as a subject of moral principles and laws, entitled to all rights inherent in our humanity that we generally describe as human rights and those of the citizen that allow them to enjoy civil and political rights recognised by the constitution and legal code of the country in which that individual lives. Thus the objective is to provide knowledge of that nation’s structure in terms of its foundation, the constitution in whatever form that is, the basic principles of legislation, institutions and a basic knowledge of law and that the rule of law applies to social and human relationships at all levels from the interpersonal to that between the state and individual. The understanding that must be imparted is that all human beings are both individuals and citizens of the society to which they belong. Therefore, both civil and human rights are interdependent.
Since that is not a short and simple process, and sometimes conceptually quite sophisticated, we should begin with simpler parts of that that show that we are equal in rights and dignity to all other human beings whether they are our family, friends, community or, by progressive extension, inhabitants of this entire planet. Citizenship education serves the purpose of educating ‘future citizens’, thus must address children and adults in a manner that is apace experience in the world as an individual whose eventual independence as a person with conscience and reason needs to be informed in order to use their rights and carry out duties as citizens. It is the choice of language and method of delivering this topic that needs to be designed to be age appropriate, starting with words and terminology that match stages of educational development that can be built on, however including reiteration for conceptual development throughout school years.
Why start young?
Citizenship education sets out to train ‘good’ citizens who are aware of the human and political issues at stake in their society that require the application of ethical and moral qualities from each citizen. Thus it must implant the notion of respect for others and acknowledge the equality of all human beings including confronting and eliminating all forms of discrimination, be that on grounds of race, gender, religion or any other ‘difference’ that can be achieved by fostering open-mindedness that encourages tolerance and peace among human beings, but also accepts that where there are differences that lead to discrimination or conflict and that we are capable of objectively examining them. Although the objective needs to be tolerance and peace, concepts easily taught to the youngest ages, we must also remember that for young people to grow into responsible, tolerant and peaceful adult individuals this process should not be made into a doctrine that is effectively a form of brainwashing.
Thus our starting point with the younger ages must choose a means of explaining that civil and human rights include political rights that relate to the rights and obligations of citizens.
When we refer to the purposes of both citizenship education that produces citizens with moral qualities and human rights education that examines the social and political rights of all human beings we inevitably move toward the complementarities between citizenship or civil and human rights. This is where we can begin to move from the immediate into the wider world.
Beyond our little bit of the bigger world
One of the characteristics of the contemporary world is that many schools include children from different cultural backgrounds. There is nearly always variance of some kind. It is becoming increasingly less common for schools to be single gender, of a single nationality, belief group or single social status. Cultural heterogeneity provides excellent opportunity for citizenship education inclusive of differences that can be explained to people who are different without pointing out individual differences. This should never blur the cultural diversity of pupils, but draw out the value of differences while respecting and asserting the universality of human rights principles. The notion of respect for others, which is a universal principle when integrated into the daily life of a school, opens the way to dialogue with others, developing an interest in other family lifestyles, thus seeing and accepting social habits and cultural practices. With an open door to understanding difference, education holds the key to fighting xenophobia that is frequently due to the absence of knowledge about cultures other than the majority culture of their country of which young children are often oblivious until told that X makes others different, thus instilling the fear of difference that breeds ignorance and prejudice. Through gaining knowledge of other cultures and the presence of multicultural life in their classroom and among their friends, children are equipped to live beside and accept the ‘other’ and the hostility encouraged by those whose views are the source of racist behaviour. In Europe we also have the advantage of being able to describe how close our cultures are to each other, the origins of our languages and the influence of others in how we use our language, plus easy access to learning each others’ languages. With language comes culture, thereafter it becomes easier to look across the entire continent in order to begin to understand differences that are born of political differences that come with constitutions and legal systems that often vary considerably.
Democracy and the ‘other’
Comprehensive citizenship education needs to instil knowledge of the institutions that enable a country to function democratically. That entails explaining the machinery of state and how it functions, thus respects government of the people by the people, and makes it accountable to citizens. It should also include objective insights into the failings and flaws in political systems and each country’s own governance, by extension to the group our nation belongs to. To enable this it is necessary to deal with one of the major flaws in civic education in that it frequently fails to introduce democracy to life in schools. An example of doing this is setting up children’s committees including having young school ‘governors’, or their equivalent where necessary, that bring representatives of pupils and staff together with other bodies in which pupils express their views and in which decisions are taken in consultation with the young people and adults who include teachers and other school employees, adult governors and representatives of local education authorities. The selection of pupil representatives are easily selected by open elections that do not differ significantly from the democratic processes they will be entitled to participate in for the rest of their life once they have reached the age of political franchise in their country. Rather than being a token gesture, the role of pupils should always be taken seriously and acted on in a manner that voters would expect from those who they elect to represent them politically. If anything, learning this kind of democratic process young is more likely to mitigate the distance between voters and government that is often the result of ignorance about their society. The wider implications of this is it also open the door to local, regional, national and international settings in which young people can be elected to represent their peers, thus breaking down the barriers that often create the prejudices between people whose aims and intentions are, often unknown to each other, very compatible. There are some towns and cities that have children and youth councils, a number of countries have children’s parliaments. They have no law making role but often shadow part of what is happening within the country’s parliament.
The possibility of using citizenship education as a vehicle for forging international ties is not without problems. It is of little benefit to younger children at present. If we take the example of the European Youth Parliament, it does not stipulate ages for its around 50,000 members, but if one looks at their website or other sources of information that show faces or give ages, the tendency is to see mainly ages 17 into 20s and visual impressions tend to hint in the direction of ‘better off’ participants. In terms of what would be the case if every school had a council that then took part in a wider district level, from which delegates went to national, by elimination to international, it would require hard and fast rules to avert the domination of a valuable experience for younger people from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds having equal access to others. Whilst some people refuse to accept the notion that a six year old could represent their country, others set about it in terms of an age structured and layered concept with a ‘very young’, ‘older’ and ‘oldest’ children and youth delegates in separate meetings. As soon as people have full political franchise they can go into serious political life at 18 or 88 as they choose on an equal basis. If people are to learn citizenship and how not to even unintentionally pick up prejudices, if the principle is to start young to imbue a sense of one’s rights and responsibilities, then somehow we need to be all inclusive.
It is never too early for people to get to know people of other nationalities, cultures, language and beliefs. The earlier the better in fact, before prejudices are learned. If civil society and cross border equality is one of the main purposes of citizenship education, then beginning before prejudices are acquired is certainly the best option.
But not just for the young…
Following an early start during primary school, it is very easy to slowly build on what is taught the way, for instance, a language is progressively built on year by year. The detail and specialised language of politics, international relations and all other pertinent topics that prepare people for participation in their society as a fully franchised citizen would therewith be in place at the time when youth are in the transition to adulthood, thus part of the rights and duties of their citizenship. Participation in democracy would no longer need to be occasional almost random crosses on electoral forms, but considered actions that contribute to the selection and election of those a majority genuinely feels would best represent them.
These qualities, whether described as ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’, are required of all human beings and all citizens. They form part of both civic and individual ‘virtues’. They enable each individual to live as a ‘good’ citizen.
In other words, in citizenship education, respect for the ‘other’, regarded as one’s equal, with his or her individual differences and distinctive physical, intellectual and cultural features, is to be explained and above all experienced in daily life in all schools and beyond. Based on these principles of equal dignity and respect for others, citizenship education has the task of combating all forms of negative discrimination and racism, sexism and religious extremism.
Thus citizenship education can be regarded as an ethical (or moral) education as well as education in the knowledge and skills of citizenship. However, that is not enough. It requires a whole new mindset in education. For instance, the tendency of history to concentrate on and emphasise the importance of national history costs a broader knowledge of international history a high price. To redress that, it would be, for instance, not especially difficult to divide history in national, European and world history equally. The content may also need to be carefully scrutinised in ways that include the downsides such a battles and wars lost as well as won, decline of empires seen objectively, in other words the ‘warts and all’ versions. There is no shame in the truth, which also makes it an ethical education. Similarly, geography should be more diverse. There are peculiarities that have been noticed over time such as the versions of atlases between nations very often make their country proportionately just a bit larger than they are by tweaking the surrounding nations. Bearing in mind that geography has many facets including human geography, the prominence of one nation’s projection to the exclusion of neighbours is absurd. In Europe ending that and showing where ethnic groups, languages, cultures and so much more cross borders brings our commonality into perspective. By the end of formal education the basic principles of national and international law, both civil and human rights aspects especially, should begin to be introduced to prepare for expanding that knowledge in higher and continuing adult education.
Thus as education advances, so too the political facets of the world can be easily introduced into citizenship education on the principle of the importance of differences and how to put them in their place in the general scheme of things. That would have been most useful at present in preventing the catastrophic outcome of the June 2016 referendum in the UK that gave us Brexit and the turbulence that is causing. The nationalism that at present drives populism would also be less likely to succeed. Knowledge is as good a preventive as a cure. To learn what the institutions of the EU; its Parliament, Council, Commission and what the roles of senior politicians are, about the different party blocks and how all of that functions would contribute to ending inventive accusations about what the EU is and is not. Civic education that is described starting at primary level thus needs to continue, to extend into lifelong education, ideally to be a free service to all people who wish or need to learn about what has almost always been a mysterious realm from the most local governance up to the highest international levels for the vast majority of people. There is an irony in social and political ignorance in that most countries consider it both a duty and privilege, but not always a right, that people cast votes to elect other people into institutions they know little about and who governs them with sometimes extreme effect on their lives. In effect, the majority selects the political elite that then steers their lives almost remotely. Citizenship education breaks down the ability of such elites to do as they please on the back of widespread ignorance.
Citizenship education has, therefore, three main objectives:
It is exists to educate people in citizenship, thus civil and human rights through creating accessibility to and understanding of the principles and institutions that govern their state. That leads to acquisition of the sense of individual and community responsibilities; thus learning to exercise one’s judgement and ability to assess their role in governance in critical perspectives that end dominance by a ruling elite and eradicate ignorance of the ‘other’.
Those objectives in turn suggest four major themes for citizenship education, particularly at the later stages of formal education and into higher and lifelong learning:
- the relationship between each individual and society to explain personal and collective freedoms including the means of ending all kinds of discrimination;
- the relationship between citizens and the government that explain clearly what is involved in democracy and the organisation of the state;
- the relations between the citizen and democratic life in their state and beyond; and
- the responsibility of each individual and citizen in the international community.
Could it work or is it an illusion?
Citizenship education needs to be taught in ways that continually link knowledge and practice that move astride constant change. The interaction between concepts and actions stimulates and opens up the ability to think in terms of values and thus to refer to them. There are values that are universal, for instance in human rights, that are often not practiced that way. Therefore, the values of liberty, dignity, solidarity and tolerance need to be imparted in such a way that forbearance of injustices is no longer tolerated as a matter of share principles. All of those values need be made the subject of discussion and reflection that is instilled through citizenship education thus becoming a normal aspect of increasingly shared values across borders, cultures and all other points where differences occur.
In other words, citizenship education must always be based on knowledge, practice and values that constantly interact. One problem posed by citizenship education is how those who design and draw together that which is very specific as it corresponds to nations and the universal, thus the national and the international, of the individual and society that works not only in single countries but as part of a shared curriculum across nations. What appears to be lacking is both the vision and goodwill to make any kind of universal picture beyond the confines of those nations who have any kind of civic or citizenship education looking principally at itself.
The ‘ever closer union’ foreseen in the Treaty of Rome when it was signed 62 years ago morally demands that within what is now the EU, yet six decades have passed without that provision becoming reality. Today, unlike the early days of the EU, we have had 30 years of easily accessible electronic media that give us a vast range of possibilities for citizens’ sites that could inform and educate, as well as social media where we have the possibility of exchange and debate, thus ever expanding intellectual content. That all crosses borders, very often giving us a single topic with language diversity that allows shared content. In fact, this article itself is on Europa United that is precisely one of the many media that enable this proposition. One may surmise that it is lack of vision on the part of those who should promote citizenship education. I am not so sure that that is the case. There are always hidden agendas, however that gives us all the more reason why we need this knowledge to prise them open and let us know and enjoy democracy that we share across our continent today, the world tomorrow.