Monday, March 9, 2009

Re-invigorating Civics and Citizenship Education

 nb:  This article was originally published in Agora, the journal of the History Teachers Association of Victoria (HTAV) - in 2006.  Since them it has been slightly edited.

Civics and Citizenship education has come a long way since Paul Keating instigated the formation of a ‘Civics Expert Group (CEG) in 1994 to build a non-partisan program for citizenship education in Australia in response to a perceived ‘civic deficit’ betraying negligible levels of knowledge concerning Australian political processes and institutions.  
Whereas the original blueprint for civics education espoused by the Howard Conservative government may seem somewhat conservative and ‘uncritically celebratory’, the ‘Discovering Democracy’ initiative, incorporating a wide range of curricular material,  has put civics and citizenship ‘on the map’ in schools nationwide.   

The momentum gathered through the provision of the ‘Discovering Democracy’ material has also opened the necessary space for state Labor governments to customize their own approaches to civics and citizenship education.   

In Victoria, for instance, the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) curriculum framework focuses strongly on civics and citizenship competencies through six ‘levels’ with this field being established as a key ‘domain’ under the new system.  

Under the VELS system the Civics and Citizenship agenda embraces the study of “human rights and social justice issues at local, national and global levels” providing a “vehicle for students to challenge their own and others’ views about Australian society and to formally participate in and practice activities and behaviours which involve democratic decision-making”.  

It would seem proponents of civics and citizenship education agenda have reason to be well pleased, but nevertheless there remains a strong case for further reform.

Civics and citizenship education is one of the most important fields of education available to secondary students.  Concerning ‘civic knowledge’ of institutions and processes, as well as knowledge of contemporary social issues challenging Australian and international citizens, it enables students to understand these and thus better participate as active citizens, enhancing a democracy wracked by apathy and demobilization.

Unfortunately, however, even since the landmark delivery of the ‘Discovering Democracy’ curriculum kit to Australian schools, civics and citizenship education has nevertheless struggled to find space in a ‘crowded curriculum’ – especially in the latter years. (11-12)   Also, the ‘institutions and processes’ model largely incorporated in the ‘Discovering Democracy’ kit is in of itself insufficient to meet a broader and more progressive civics and citizenship agenda.

What is more, the lack of any compulsory civics and citizenship content in the latter years has left in question the seriousness with which civics and citizenship education is regarded by government even despite the significant achievements of the ‘Discovering Democracy’ initiative.

In Victoria, and nationwide, it is time to re-evaluate the importance of the civics and citizenship education agenda.   Civics and citizenship education requires ‘streams’ of subjects (humanities and social sciences)  dedicated to the realization of its aims as well as the establishment of compulsory civics and citizenship studies through Studies of Society and Environment and/or History in years 7-10.  Already, in NSW, Studies and Society and Environment has been mandated as a compulsory subject in year 10.

We need, now, to replicate this move and progress further, allowing for compulsory study of SOSE and/or History in years 7-10 nationwide.  

Additionally, civics and citizenship competencies need to be embedded in compulsory humanities and social sciences ‘streams of subjects’ for years 11 and 12, one of which must be chosen for any given year.   The provision of ‘streams’ of humanities and social science subjects, including politics, a proposed ‘political economy’ subject, history and sociology, what is more, provides a level of choice unavailable in previous ‘experiments’ such as the ill-fated introduction of ‘Australian Studies’ by the short-lived Kirner Victorian Labor government.  It is this element of choice and diversity that ensures the viability of such an amended curriculum.
Unfortunately, as things currently stand, SOSE attempts far too much with too little time available, combining the study of history, geography and society.  This effectively ‘crowds out’ the critical study of society.  Restructuring the SOSE curriculum to provide further political, historical and sociological content is thus also a central component of any programme to revitalize civics and citizenship education, preferably including separation of the broader SOSE agenda from geography.

Ideally, a restructured SOSE curriculum, as well as revitalised humanities and social science curricula in years 11 and 12, ought to give pride of place to the following objectives:

  • critical analysis of how identity and social relations are constructed and contested on the basis of class, ‘race’, ethnicity, nationality, gender and religion, as well as a consideration of whether or not said social relations are just or unjust
  • critical analysis of how citizens organize to pursue their interests and ideals both through conventional political forums and ‘from below’.  (including lobby groups, unions, political parties, social movements and media)   Such an analysis would range from traditional lobbying methods such as rallies, petitions and letter writing to more radical measures such as revolution, civil disobedience, occupations, direct action and general strikes, posing the question of what kind of action is and is not legitimate given various social circumstances, including the prevalent ‘social contract’, social stratification, and the ‘rule of law’.   Specific contemporary examples for study could include the anti-monarchist rebellion in Nepal and the revolt against ‘labour market reform’ in France.   Historic examples could include the French and Russian revolutions – already included in the Victorian Certificate of Education ‘Revolutions’ history unit.
  • critical analysis of Australian and international political institutions and processes including the relativisation of dominant political narratives and incorporating a critical assessment of international political, cultural and economic social relations
  • consideration of political ideologies and national and international social and political movements: their values, history and objectives – with the aim of engendering ‘ideological literacy’ of such traditions as conservatism, liberalism and socialism – and how such traditions can be practiced or even blended in the current day
  • a critical consideration of political economy, including consideration of the values that inform a range of economic theories and perspectives
  • development of an orientation towards active citizenship, including individual and collective social action, as well as independent value formation informed by ideological literacy and understandings of history, processes, identities, social relationships and social movements.  Students would be encouraged to involve themselves in active citizenship, examples of which could include writing articles for a student paper, taking part in student representation, writing a ‘letter to the editor’ of a paper or magazine, engaging in internet forums on social issues, or joining a political party or social movement and involving oneself in its activities.  Additional studies could include, for instance, an evaluation of relatively low levels of party political participation in Australia compared with countries such as Sweden, analyzing the causes of civic demobilization and disenfranchisement, and considering means to revivify democratic collective decision making processes.
  • critical appreciation of ‘civic megatrends’ such as multiculturalism and globalization, including the deconstruction of such trends –  eg: is ‘globalisation’ really a new phenomena, how much does it truly constrain national government, and can any such constraints be overcome through internationalism?  OR – does multiculturalism imply cultural relativism and can cultural relativism be justified?

Obviously the content thus considered would need to be channeled through in a highly simplified form in the early years, but in years 11 and 12, during a period of significant intellectual maturation, there would be great potential for empowerment through the above agenda.

The above model for civics and citizenship education could best be referred to as the ‘active/critical’ model – often referred to by educators as a ‘maximalist’ model.   Rather than simply seeking to ‘hammer home’ selected tid-bits of civic knowledge about political processes and leading historical personalities, such an approach encourages students to engage in political processes and struggles, and to relativise hegemonic processes, movements and ideologies in the process of independently forming their own social and political values and identities.   

Despite the probable conservative charge of ‘bias’ it ought be reinforced here that such a curriculum would seek to encourage critical thinking with regard to all ideologies, allowing students to independently form their own values systems regardless of whether or not this involved ultimately adopting conservative, liberal, socialist or other positions and personas.  

The model thus considered would also expand the definition of the ‘civic deficit’ considered most commonly in civics and citizenship education debates beyond the commonly accepted domain of institutions and processes.  Rather it would seek to critically interrogate dominant social practices, assumptions and relations as well as those practices and relations that would seek to challenge the dominant ideology.  Lack of knowledge of social practices, assumptions and relations would in of itself be considered a kind of ‘deficit’ in dire need of address.  The aim, here, is to create ‘citizens of social vision’ whose broad and critical knowledge of ideologies, processes, institutions, practices, social relations and social assumptions, is sufficient to provide for truly informed and active participation in civic life.

Ideally, the Federal government ought revitalize the ‘Discovering Democracy’ initiative by providing additional material with the aim of supporting the ‘critical/active’ agenda.   What is more, additional curricular material ought also be provided by state governments with the aim of enhancing teacher choice in years 7-10 and deepening civics and citizenship content in years 11-12.   Mandating of the ‘active/critical’ model of civics and citizenship education in years 7-12 needs also to be achieved by state governments nationwide. 

Finally, there is no need to limit civics and citizenship education to the primary and secondary years of education.  Through progressive subsidization of the humanities and social sciences at a tertiary level, powers of critical thought and analysis could be encouraged through optional ‘streams of subjects’ throughout the course of any degree, enabling such content to complement the mainstream content of any given degree.  Such a move could be achieved through government subsidies and HECS discounts and would provide a significant boost for the humanities and social sciences, and thus for the widespread critical understanding of history, literature, culture and society.

Ultimately, it is a question of what value we put upon the values and social engagement that must be present for the success of any robust democracy.  Do we want to educate purely for vocation or do we want to educate for the ‘whole person’, including the rights and responsibilities that underpin citizenship, even including the capacity to interrogate the very category of citizenship itself?   Increasingly, the consensus amongst educators is that civics and citizenship must move to centre stage in the curricula of education systems nationwide.  

Ideally the options in this paper ought be open to cross-partisan consensus as all political parties ought support the endowing of aptitudes necessary for critical thought and informed citizenship.   With Labor governments the country-over - we should be taking advantage of the situation to implement a ‘critical/active’ agenda nationwide.

 by Tristan Ewins

Tristan Ewins is a qualified teacher, freelance writer and grassroots member of the Australian Labor Party


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