Citizenship as Shared Fate

Historically, one of the primary aims of civics courses, especially on the heels of major wars, was to promote patriotism as an allegiance to and pride in our nation-state. Following the attacks of 9/11, patriotic expectations of schools and citizens, especially in terms of military support, ran particularly high.1 Some schools placed greater emphasis on the daily Pledge of Allegiance, while others engaged in service projects to support the troops. Citizenship education scholar Joel Westheimer reports that a 2004 video called “Patriotism and You” by the Committee for Citizen Awareness was viewed in thousands of classrooms. This video calls for unwavering commitment to the United States and emphasizes the need for national unity, especially during times of war.2 In a review of popular social studies textbooks of the period, similar messages encouraging nationalistic pride and loyalty were prominent.3 It is therefore unsurprising that of the 2,366 seniors who completed the California Survey of Civic Education in 2005, 22% agreed with the statement “It is un-American to criticize this country,” and 21% had a neutral response to the statement.4 More recently in 2013, some districts, such as Hall County Schools in Georgia, have called for revamped social studies curricula that emphasize American pride and celebration of American exceptionalism.5

While this renewed emphasis on patriotism in schools has generally appeared to decrease in the years since our nation was attacked, its relatively recent resurgence and continued role in the ongoing war on terror remain significant. Additionally, emphasizing patriotism as an unquestioning commitment to one’s nation presents an odd contradiction when juxtaposed with a neoliberal emphasis on the individual and pursuing one’s own self-interests, perhaps leaving an unclear path to good citizenship for students who on one hand are told to subordinate themselves to the nation, while on the other are encouraged to put their own well-being ahead of concerns for the common good. In both cases, a narrow allegiance to a collective nation or to one’s self, as we increasingly see in schools and society today, limits the ability to develop authentic and lively publics. Such allegiance keeps us insular and stagnant rather than open, inclusive, and reflexive as we work across difference and around shared problems.

Patriotism, I contend, can become a bad habit. It can become problematically stagnant, as an unquestioning loyalty to a fixed nation-state. It can become an unthinking and unreflective allegiance that doesn’t change to reflect shifts in the nature of the nation-state, its role in military misadventures abroad, or the changing demographics of the country, and is not brought under scrutiny when it conflicts with other popular ideologies. Instead, I support nurturing a habit of “citizenship as shared fate.”6

Citizenship as shared fate works as a habit in that it frames how we understand and interpret experiences and events, leading us to see how they impact us as members of a community. It entails an inclination to care about all people in our communities, even those who are different from us, or don’t adhere to a single unifying ideology, recognizing the many ways in which we, and our future, are bound together. And that inclination, one aligned with a sense of social responsibility, leads to actions and desires to work in the best interests of the group. Citizenship as shared fate can still provide a sense of “us" and pride in that identity, but it is an affinity that is more readily reconsidered and open to change. It is an inclination to interpret events in terms of their impact on the “us” that comprises a public of authentically connected people rather than a formal collection dictated by citizenship as status or geographical ties. And such an inclination has a bent toward concern for others and responsibility to their well-being. It prioritizes ethical, social, and political relationships over economic ones. And it brings citizens together to interpret and negotiate what it means to be a citizen. At a historical moment when our national identity is changing due to increasing population and greater diversity within that population, alongside changes in political and economic ideologies via neoliberalism, interpretation and negotiation are essential.

Just as Americans are experiencing conflicting pressures toward patriotism and individualism, many are also dealing with the conflicting challenges of globalization. Technology, communication, and the economy have drawn people from around the world together in new ways, changing the meaning of national belonging and perhaps rendering traditional patriotic citizenship to one’s country no longer appropriate. Citizenship as shared fate helps to create bridges of concern between people even if their geographic homes are far apart. It causes citizens to think about and act in the interest of those in their local communities, but also to consider how their actions impact those abroad. At the same time, it recognizes that the shared history, values, struggles, and successes of our country continue to shape our fate today and those of our neighbors elsewhere. It gives rise to a new form of patriotism as relation and connection to one’s countrymen, location, and past.

This habit of citizenship as shared fate can offset some of the negative tendencies of globalization and neoliberalism, for instance by increasing the humanist concern for the well-being of those who may face greater inequality and injustice under less regulated free-market capitalism. It also includes a sense of “us” that can help sustain publics and craft a new political identity in the face of a world reduced to economic terms, market relationships, and individual competition spurred by the neoliberal economics of globalization. Citizenship as shared fate may provide us with a new basis of values and experiences to shape our identity—and therefore our criteria for political legitimacy in our schools—in ways that are more reconcilable with norms of liberal democracy, especially reflected in a commitment to pluralism. Additionally, as a habit that predisposes us to action, citizenship as shared fate may support our efforts to fulfill our role responsibilities to uphold democracy for the sake of our future well-being.

And yet, working within a neoliberal economy of taxpayers concerned with personal returns on their investments in schools, “That our schools are committed not just to educating our children but preparing them to take responsibility for preserving and extending our democracy may make them look like a better bargain"7 Taxpayers, even if primarily self-interested, may recognize a potential payoff to themselves and to society if children uphold citizenship as shared fate and the responsibilities to others that this entails. It is this sort of responsibility, as I laid out in chapter five, that points downward to vulnerable people and sideways to fellow citizens in care for their well-being and for the well-being of democracy.

One way in which a teacher might foster the habit of citizenship as shared fate would be to engage students in analyzing and acting upon an issue of economics or environmentalism that impacts many people in the community, such as whether to buy produce from local farmers or the supermarket that imports them from afar, or whether allowing fracking on private land may provide the income needed to keep a family farm operable. Students would be guided to see how multiple parties are implicated in the causes of the problematic situations, and how the issue impacts different people in different places in various ways. Teachers could highlight particular struggles and injustices that students might not have anticipated so that they develop a proclivity to care about how their economic and environmental decisions impact others. This experience provided in the classroom should help students to envision connections to farmers, grocers, hungry people, energy corporations, and others in their community, thereby building a sense of the “us” impacted by the decision of where to shop or whether to drill for natural gas. Moreover, students could be encouraged to actually engage with related people and associations in civil society (say America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Farm Bureau, or a branch of Community Supported Agriculture) to better understand these decisions and to take action upon them. This teaching through democracy enables them to engage in democracy in action, as they seek to understand social problem and solve them with others.

A second approach to teaching citizenship as shared fate would be to engage students in a special form of experiential learning: service learning. In this approach, students learn how to identify social struggles, respond out of a sense of shared responsibility, act to help those in need, work to transform the situation or its causes to prevent future problems, and engage in guided reflection about those experiences and how the struggles and efforts of fellow citizens impact the well-being of others. In this approach, students learn how it feels to witness struggles and to work against them firsthand; moreover, they see the impact those struggles have on other citizens, which often evokes both a visceral and reflective response that can become an educative experience, especially when facilitated by a skilled teacher. This hands-on approach is aligned with a pedagogy embodied by the group Generation Citizen and lauded by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) for its ability to increase student civic engagement.8 Yet opportunities for service learning are rare in US schools, despite their ability to foster habits like citizenship as shared fate.9 In sum, cultivating the habit of citizenship as shared fate can help prepare children for the deliberative and participatory work of public formation and associated life by providing them with a sense of identity and shared well-being that prompts action to preserve and improve democracy.

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