Defining Citizens

I turn first to defining citizenship before explicating how best to cultivate citizens within schools and civil society. Citizenship is most basically a legal status based on the rights and responsibilities of a person within a specific location. This is the notion of citizenship we invoke when we say that only US citizens can run for president—the ability to do so (the condition for participation) is tied to our status and location in the United States. This is also the notion of citizenship currently invoked in debates about increasing numbers of undocumented migrants who are labeled “illegals” because they are not in the United States legally and, therefore, arguably, are not entitled to the status or privileges of citizenship that come with doing so. Even though many Americans are quick to distinguish citizens from “illegals,” few people confine their definition of good citizens to a status or geographic location alone. Instead, citizenship is typically thought of as an identity one has relative to others and as a normative way of behaving by using or fulfilling one’s rights and responsibilities in particular ways directed by varying theories of democracy. Civic republicans, for instance, would likely uphold participatory responsibilities of citizenship, while liberal republicans would emphasize individual rights and the pursuit of the good life without limiting that of others.

Regardless of political orientation, and in addition to the shift toward the idea of a citizen as a consumer or holder of entitlements described in previous chapters, the definition of citizenship has also been recently changed by the courts. The Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, for example, has awarded the Constitutional powers of speech typically reserved for individual citizens in their support of candidates to large corporations and associations. In other words, the distinction between citizen and corporate groups has become blurred; citizens’ powers may now be invoked by those groups, and citizens’ voices might be drowned out by the expensive media messages those groups can bankroll. When competing to be heard in the face of such powerful groups, citizens are losing our ability to take a stand and be heard in the polis. This further pushes us toward flexing limited independent economic power as consumers and perhaps magnifying it by joining with other financial contributors, rather than engaging in more significant social and political acts. Given these economic and judicial influences, one may be left to wonder whether the notion of citizenship underlying the calls to teach for citizenship noted above may actually be calling for a different form of citizenship, perhaps one with less political voice and more personal neoliberal responsibility. In other words, our shifts toward individualism, rights talk, and economic competitiveness may be spilling over into the vision of citizenship we see as feasible and which we seek to be taught in our schools.

My notion of citizenship, rooted in the Deweyan participatory view of democracy defined earlier in this book, focuses on putting one’s civic skills to work in one’s community alongside other citizens, not just as a duty to democracy, but also as an identity and as a way of sharing in the effort of working toward the well-being of oneself and one’s community members. This citizen recognizes that democracy is a yet-to-be-fulfilled vision that requires revising and continued effort, especially in the struggle for equality among all its members. My definition of a citizen, then, is focused more on active problem solving and working toward the public good than on just seeing a citizen as a passive rights-bearer or limited consumer. My citizen not only composes publics, but actively creates and shapes them.

My desired citizen does more than just participate in civic and public life; she also critiques established systems to understand them, to identify when they perpetuate injustice, to challenge them when they do so, and to alter them by imagining and implementing alternatives. This vision of good citizenship is aligned with the participatory version outlined for commonwealth countries around the world by Tristan McCowan.5 It grows out of an expanded notion of the “Social-Justice-Oriented Citizen” described by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne6 and is enacted through the account of political living I espouse in Teaching for Dissent.7

Within civil society, citizens can be best developed, and their traits and practices affirmed, through participating in associated life together. Participatory citizens, the sort who get involved in and support public schools, don’t come ready-made; rather, they must be educated. One must learn how to participate, how to work alongside others to effectively communicate, critique political systems, solve problems, and craft solutions. Such an understanding of citizenship formation has a lengthy history in America, tracing its roots to the missions of early schools, such as Boston Latin, which set its students the goals of mastering the skills of citizenship and espousing a commitment to democracy in 1635, and carrying into the plan for public education proposed by Thomas Jefferson. Yet, despite this history, schools more recently have moved away from an overt emphasis on this kind of citizenship education, choosing instead to emphasize other goals, such as job preparation and test score achievement. And, as I detailed earlier, untested social studies courses, the primary home for citizenship education, have been increasingly squeezed from the math- and reading-focused curriculum, and the social studies courses that do remain are increasingly insular and disconnected from larger civil society.

We’ve reached a pivotal moment for addressing the availability and format of good citizenship education in our political culture and in our schools. This is especially the case in light of the growing role of undemocratic forces in our schools and changing notions of citizens, including their roles and powers. Being inducted into democratic culture via our public schools may help keep democracy and its values at the forefront of citizens’ minds and agendas as they face the pressures of consumerism, neoliberal individualism, and globalization. In the next section, I lay out a vision for improved citizenship education focused on developing participatory citizens with the skills and proclivities necessary to not only enact good democracy, but also to procure its future welfare by protecting institutions, such as public schools, and reviving civil society. I aim to arm citizens with the habits they need to face and respond to the shift toward citizen as consumer and to re-center responsibility, public goods, and collective work. These include habits of collaboration, compromise, deliberation, critique, dissent, hope, and living citizenship as shared fate.

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