“Civics Is a Very Nice Subject”

Another way in which national narratives were reworked was through teacher commentary on the teaching, or rather nonteaching, of civics. Like the instances of the classroom debate above, conditions of disorder are integral to the critique of civics. If we see schooling as part of the process of ritually producing national citizens, then we might see the civics curriculum as the sacred teachings of the nation. As I noted in the last chapter, when I asked administrators in leadership posts in the Ministry of Education, who were often former fighters, how education instilled national identities in students, they often immediately referenced the civics curriculum. However, the actual teaching of civics was befuddled by disorderly conditions, and teacher attitudes toward civics were less than reverent.

When I asked the social science teachers about the civics class, they would invariably say, “Civics is a very nice subject” and then break out into laughter. The answer did not vary much, nor did the laughter. Civics, it appeared, had become a collective joke among teachers. During the two years of my fieldwork, I tried many times to observe a civics class. Civics, after all, was the subject that contained the most explicit messages about nationalism and citizenship, but, somewhat ironically, it was one of the least consistently taught subjects. The civics curriculum defines the attributes of Eritrean national “character,” describes the structure of government that should be in place, and clearly details a role for students in building the nation. Given this, it was striking that civics was a joke among teachers and seldom taught.

Textbooks play an extraordinarily powerful role in defining national narratives and creating a blueprint for national identity; however, to truly understand the production of nationalism, national duty, and national subjects in schools, it is also necessary to go beyond the written text and explore what is done, or not done, with these texts. In Assab, I found not only that it was impossible to observe a civics lesson because the subject was so seldom taught but also that the only available copy of the civics curriculum was a dog-eared photocopy that a teacher agreed to lend to me for a few hours for research purposes. Text can be a powerful tool to shape collective historical memory and a common sense of national belonging and character, but it is important to explore not only what texts say about the nation but also how they are taught or, in this case, why they may not be taught.

In Chapter 1, I discussed parts of the grade 6 civics curriculum in more detail. It outlines the Eritrean national character and orients it around qualities of “fortitude” and willingness to sacrifice and be an obedient and disciplined child, student, and worker. The grade 7 civics curriculum reprises many of the characteristics of being a good, patriotic Eritrean but deem- phasizes elements of character somewhat and, instead, focuses on educating students about government and governance. Among other things, it includes a unit that outlines various civil rights that are “commonly put into constitutions,” such as freedom of assembly, the right to vote and run for election, the right to leave the country, the right to live and work anywhere in the country, the right to due process, and the right to equality (Ministry of Education, CRDI 1995).

The irony of these rights being listed in the Eritrean civics curriculum is not lost on teachers and students, who are, of course, well aware that most of these rights are not guaranteed in Eritrea. Given the content of the civics curriculum and the political realities of Eritrea, it seems obvious why teachers would laugh knowingly and say, with irony, “Civics is a nice subject” every time I asked about the curriculum. But the humor they derived from the question about civics teaching and the statement “Civics is a nice subject” had a number of additional meanings.

The following excerpts from my field notes convey the general sentiments that teachers had about the civics curriculum:

In the staff room, when I ask about the civics curriculum, Beraki says, “Civics is a very nice subject” in a tone that I can’t quite read. Haile passes through and hears what we are talking about and says, “Oh, civics is a nice subject” and exchanges a glance with Beraki. So finally I ask what makes it nice. They laugh and exchange knowing glances again. Beraki says there are some stories that the students like.

He tells me that the things they learn are things they already know, like respecting your elders. Then he says that there are also some political things, “a lot of things about ‘The Struggle,’ but you can just ignore those and teach the other things.” (Field notes, April 2005)

On another occasion, Paolo articulated the political nature of his feelings about teaching civics even more clearly:

When I ask Paolo about teaching civics, he laughs and says, “It’s very nice, but not realistic.” I ask why it is that every time I bring up the civics curriculum, everyone says, genuinely, “Oh, civics is very nice,” and then they start laughing. Paolo tells me that the subjects—democracy, elections, the constitution—are very nice in theory, but everyone knows that it is not realistic now, which is why they laugh. “The theory is nice and it is nice to teach the theory, but it isn’t done in practice, so they laugh.” Then Paolo says that he doesn’t even know what the election and parliament system in this country is supposed to be. (Field notes, April 2005)

The statement “Civics is a nice subject” had several meanings. At one level, teachers actually thought that civics was nice for the students. The idea of teaching about patriotism and how to be a good student and citizen appealed to them. They noted that “students enjoyed” the subject, and that, unlike the other subjects, it was easy, familiar, and fun for the students. It resonated with their identity and felt good. But the statement “Civics is a nice subject” was also deeply ironic. On the one hand, the civics curriculum articulated the official stance that the root of Eritrean national character emerged from The Struggle and its preoccupation with sacrificing for the nation. The fact that reverence for The Struggle was waning and that people were tiring of hearing about sacrifice was reflected in Beraki’s comment. Some parts of the curriculum were “nice”—the ones about values and discipline and student character—but some should be skipped, such as the ones about The Struggle. Meanwhile, the civics curriculum was also a living testament to where the nation should have been on its trajectory toward political development. It outlined an ideal of democracy and civil liberties that everyone had hoped for but saw little evidence of. The curriculum still existed, even though the trajectory toward elections and implementation of the constitution had been abandoned. Teaching these topics only served as a reminder of this abandoned trajectory.

The statement “Civics is a nice subject” also reflected the irony that little priority was given to the actual teaching of civics, despite the fact that its messages were so integral to the party’s understandings of how students would learn to be national. Civics was seldom taught, and, in fact, teachers often refused to teach the subject. In the Senior Secondary School, civics seemed largely forgotten and did not even appear on the course schedule. In the Junior Secondary School, students in grades 6 and 7 were scheduled to take civics, but teachers refused to teach it because it was not their subject and their workloads were already too heavy. Most teachers at one point or another had been compelled to teach civics but later refused. For example, in the Junior Secondary School in 2003, math and history teachers for grades 6 and 7 taught civics for several weeks, but they promptly decided to stop teaching it in protest when a new teacher was assigned to the school and had a lighter course load but was not assigned to teach civics. Thus, when teachers laughed about civics, they were laughing, somewhat defiantly, at the circumstances that surrounded the teaching of civics itself and complaining that no teacher was designated to teach it. No one was willing to take responsibility for teaching civics. Indeed, teachers all believed that it was not their duty to teach the subject, given that many were overloaded with teaching classes in their regular subjects. Laughter was a form of defi?ant distancing from the responsibility to teach a subject that, while important in theory, was thought to be rather worthless in practice.

Given that the civics curriculum was intended to define the national character, culture, and moral bearing; spell out citizenship rights and duties; and articulate the values—sacred teachings—of The Struggle, we might expect more reverence for civics either from teachers themselves or from administrators responsible for ensuring civics was taught. The civics curriculum instead was a place where the disorder of things was clearly revealed. Everyone seemed to have abandoned it. Civics was at once an embodiment of the Struggle-centric nationalism of the party and an ironic joke. It presented “nice stories” about the nation, but these stories were selectively taught within a disorderly context in which there was no textbook, no teacher allocated permanently to the subject, and seldom a teacher who could be convinced to teach. This combination of disorder and irreverence for the narratives of The Struggle became reflective of the overall condition of disorder in Eritrean schools and, indeed, a sense of impotence in the nation overall.

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