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Schooling for the Democratic Dream:
Citizenship Education and the English Language Arts Classroom
It will come as no surprise if I claim Canada, indeed all of North America, to be a democracy. A question that might receive more reservation is whether or not Canada has given birth to the kind of democracy we imagine or desire. Have we brought into being a citizenry that is engaged? At the very least, these questions would seem to be valid for debate. Martin Luther King Jr. (1967) set the tone in the following quote for the argument that I will make in this paper, namely, that we must educate to bring about a democracy that is genuinely concerned with actual people and the flourishing of their lives:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. ( p.9)
Agreeing with King and believing that we must shift our focus as democratic citizens, I suggest that we must, as a society, reorganize our aims toward humanistic ends. The question now becomes how we might go about such a seemingly fundamental shift. How might society cultivate a citizenry concerned with human lives, values, hopes and dreams, and become a society genuinely in touch with what it is to be good and beneficent humans who care deeply and genuinely about others and their plights? In this paper I argue the idea of public education generally, and citizenship education more specifically, as a possible answer to fostering a new generation of engaged citizens genuinely concerned with human lives – with a socially just democracy. However, not any public schooling or citizenship education is sufficient. Weisel makes this clear when speaking about the designers and perpetrators of Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Although they were heirs of Kant and Goethe, widely thought to be the best educated people on earth, they were also the architects of the Holocaust (as cited in, Orr, 2004).
Understanding that mere access to education is no guarantee of a benevolent and socially just democracy, we must carefully outline the type of education that is needed in our schools to foster citizenship for this humanistic shift in our society. We must bring about education that will promote and develop respect, awe, wonder and sympathy for the human predicament. To do this I suggest a two-fold approach: a) citizenship education become a cross-curricular objective and not merely an abstract topic for the social studies classroom, and b) English language arts generally, and the reading and writing of literature more specifically, be made central to a new broader more encompassing form of citizenship education. It is with this proposal that I move forward to expand on these claims and examine the works of Maxine Greene and Martha Nussbaum, among others, to establish my argument as not only pedagogically promising but theoretically sound. Although certain literature will prove more useful to citizenship education, on the face of it, I do not limit the possibility of this approach by restricting the teaching model to specific literary works. Regardless, it is to be noted that careful selection and attention to the literature used, and how it is used, is inherent in the process, as it would be in the teaching toward any aim.
Our classrooms are not connecting with the world beyond the school walls. We are shut- up in the dark, occupied with busywork. It is busywork on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale to paraphrase historian and scholar Page Smith (as cited in Orr, 2004). Smith forwards this point specifically in relation to higher education, but it does not stretch the imagination to see how this is so at all levels of modern schooling. If education is successful in achieving anything it is merely the production of efficient workers, a pedagogical aim referred to as social efficiency (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Labaree, 1997). There is evidence that this is effective, namely that our economy is growing at such a rate, if maintained, it will finish its best decade ever. The Economist (2006) claims if it maintains pace “it will beat both the supposedly idyllic 1950s and the 1960s” (p. 13). But what of other aims – those concerned with humanistic ends; those which will work to bring about the shift alluded to by King? Perhaps one of the greatest possibilities for changing this arguably ineffective and disingenuous model of education to something more meaningful – more humane – is to have a total paradigm shift with the focus moving from, to return to the words of author and scholar Elie Weisel, the abstract to the conscious, from the answers to questions, to values instead of theories (as cited in, Orr, 2004). There needs to be a shift in focus. We need to realign contemporary education with the Greek concept of Paideia, moving the goal of education from the mastery of subject matter to mastery of one’s person – the self. Simply put, the concept of Paideia refers to, “the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine human nature” (Jaeger, 1939, p. xxiii).
Students are in need of understanding what is good, beautiful and funny, and why. And, how understanding and embodying these uniquely human experiences adds to our ability to be more humane. Thus, equal importance should be given to understanding such concepts both objectively and subjectively. We have curricula for understanding the economy and promoting it, mathematics and how to assess profit, and why Pluto is no longer a planet, but do we have curricula to teach an understanding of happiness or love; to teach about human desires and dreams and how they might be achieved – about human pain and how to cope and overcome? Do children leave school understanding “the intimate reality of others” (Scott, 1976, p. 49)? We do not need to eliminate abstract and instrumental learning from our schools, but we do need to pay more attention to how abstractions are used in classrooms and ensure that they are invoked to further the higher purpose of making our “world more humanly habitable” (Warren, 1975). We must buttress the abstract, the impersonal with the emotional, the personal. The dominant philosophy in public schooling during the past two centuries has been that of realism, scientific realism more specifically, and the subsequent effects have been deleterious to public educations’ potential (Kincheloe, Slatterly, & Steinberg, 2000). Michelli and Keiser (2005) focus this concern in its more modern manifestation in the introduction to their volume titled Teacher Education for Democracy and Social Justice:
At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, we see education moving away from… being a vehicle for the education of a democratic citizenry that fosters community participation, and prepares students for rich and rewarding personal lives and high levels of understanding, it has become increasingly more technical and instrumental, with a primary focus on the economic outcomes of education, and undergirded by a resolute belief in meritocracy. Unsurprisingly, this narrowing of purpose has expanded an already troubling emphasis on high-stakes testing…(p. xviii)
Defining what education should be, that which would support, promote and foster democracy, is, perhaps, more difficult than identifying why our current models of schooling are insufficient. Narrowing the field to examine citizenship education necessarily also narrows the task of defining the desired model of schooling. In this paper I investigate how both citizenship and citizenship preparation must be broadened and how the concept of citizenship in general needs to be opened up to allow more scope in its aims. I suggest education for fostering democratic dispositions and moral sensibilities as imperative to authentic citizenship preparation for a modern pluralistic democracy. Educating and fostering the self to be more genuinly humane is crucial. Citizenship education must expand throughout the disciplines and become one of education’s chief aims. In fact, as pointed out by Pring (2001), teaching the humanities has as its real purpose “helping the young become more humane” (p. 82). With this in mind, I argue with fervor for the use of the arts and humanities in this journey toward a new citizenship.
There is a great divide emerging between education and the wholeness of self in modern times. By wholeness of self I suggest a self that recognizes humanity in its intimacy and that views the world as a whole with herself as merely a part of this whole. The selves that are being created in modern education are perhaps socially efficient but are detached and removed from human interconnectedness on an intimate level. People may understand themselves as individuals but they do so as detached and separated from others; from the whole. Colleague Adrian McKerracher (2006) gives an eloquent voice to this idea saying “there’s a problem with the way we understand each other, or the way we don’t…we need to figure out what makes us pull a trigger or drop a bomb” (p. 30).
Perhaps both the greatest feat and defeat of democracy is the prominence of the individualism it embodies and inspires. (Warren, 1975; Mack, 2002 & Pinsky, 2002). Alexis de Tocqueville (1955) writes:
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendents and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (p. 27)
de Tocqueville is referring to our democracy as a democracy of selves enjoying freedom and liberty as individuals, but we have developed as selves without regard to others – community. There is little understanding of the concept of selflessness and humanity (Warren, 1975). André Malraux helps to illuminate Tocqueville’s point in his essay titled D’une Jeunesse Européene by stating, as paraphrased by Scott (1976), “the prevalent condition proves to be one of men’s being so jailed into the solipsistic isolation of the individual ego as to be unable to recover any lively sense of their generic nature [Tocqueville might add, or ancestors]” (p. 55). The true self is someone who recognizes the intimate reality of others and it can only develop in a “vital relation[ship] between the unitary person and the group. That is, the self is possible only in a community – a community distinguished from a mere society, a mere functional organization” (Warren, 1975, p. 25). In other words, a self that does not recognize the intimate reality of others is not true or genuine, is not whole, but rather lacking in a fundamental way. A quote from author Pearl S. Buck elucidates this point. “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” (Johnson Lewis, 2007, np.). Aristotle may have made the claim most famously when he declared humans as political animals, zoon politiken, and claimed that we could never realize our nature in isolation from one another (Kingwell, 2000).
Søren Kierkegaard echoed such a belief stating that the individual needs social support for the self: “The real moment in time and the real situation of being simultaneous with real people each of whom is something- that is what helps to sustain the individual.” And that was what he claimed to be lacking in his modern world (as quoted in Warren, 1975, p. 62). One might argue that our world has merely exaggerated the problem. Warren asks “where can we find ‘real people each of whom is something’ and who may, therefore sustain us?” (p. 62). How can we develop or find our true selves in this world where ad hoc personas are merely purchased and consumed, often in utter disregard for others?
Throughout this paper I will illustrate how by way of engagement with the literary arts, students are positioned to strengthen and foster various democratic virtues. These virtues, in turn, will enable students to more effectively engage in their citizenship, its rights and obligations, and also to view social issues in terms of actual human lives rather than through mere abstraction.
With this heightened civic ability students as citizens will be positioned to make decisions in their world compatible with the bringing about of a more humanly sensitive and beneficent world.
I will argue that a broader, more encompassing citizenship, that which I claim is necessary to bring about the democracy we desire – one which embodies, fosters and promotes fundamental and universal human rights, moving beyond the obvious level of nationalistic values and even beyond mere legal rights and duties – must begin with education for the wholeness of selves. That is, we must first educate and train the emotions, sentiments and virtues in people allowing them to truly embody a deep understanding, even sympathy, with other fellow humans. It is individuals with an acute awareness of what it is to be caring, kind and compassionate – humane – with how each of us is someone in relation to others who will ultimately be able to be educated and trained to be fully engaged democratic citizens bringing about a new citizenship; a new citizenship more inclusive and deep, more sympathetic to human needs.
As we make our way into the twenty-first century more and more reasons for an activist, engaged, and critically intelligent citizenry emerge. As our borders disappear in the face of globalization a need to understand, appreciate, and accept difference becomes crucial to making a liberal democracy function. Tupper (2006) writes, “such conceptions of citizenship (old narrow views) prevent the full realization of democracy as they attempt to mask social and political inequalities marked by individual and group differences” (p. 52). There is a need for a new and fresh look at citizenship within the educational milieu. We need to look towards citizenship that will recognize and more importantly appreciate and understand the nuances of its composition; a citizenship that will cut through and rise above what Hyslop-Margison and Sears (2006) referred to as “simplistic slogans and dogma” (p. 14). There is a crucial and urgent need for a citizenship that will bring about a socially just society; a citizenship that will reignite a discourse of the common good.
In this paper, literature, in the context of both reading and writing, is considered in its ability to foster critical thinking, interdisciplinary connections, contextual understanding, self- discovery and meaningful links to community. It is considered as a space that gives students a voice while finding themselves and orienting that self in the sphere of active citizenship – their community and their world. It is appraised for its ability to embody civic virtue in students; the opening up of awareness to and understanding of others and the world around them; to helping students not only find and foster their own growth as whole persons, but to orienting them to a world concerned with the highest hopes and desires of humanity – the common good. As Pinsky (2002) explains in reference to poetry:
Poetry, then, has roots in the moment when a voice makes us alert to the presence of another or others. It has affinities with all the ways a solitary voice, actual or virtual, imitates the presence of others. Yet as a form of art it is deeply embedded in the single human voice, in the solitary state that hears the other and sometimes recreates that other. Poetry is a vocal imagining, ultimately social but essentially individual and inward. (p.39)
This very negotiating between the individual and society, between self and others, is at the very heart of democracy and determining how one is to function within one as a citizen. American poet Walt Whitman is a prime example of this relationship. Through poetry he not only shaped his self, but he also negotiated that self within the sphere of community or society and arrived at an understanding of how he was to interact with and relate to democracy. Poetry for Whitman brought him to understand himself both as a ‘self’ and himself as a ‘citizen’ (Dougherty, 1993).
As one can see, there are many reasons for concern in relation to the current state of our democracy and its seeming lack of attention toward actual human lives. I have argued for a shift in citizenship education as a possible remedy to this state of affairs claiming citizens to be the guardians of our democracy. In the next section, I will examine the present, more traditional, approach to citizenship education before taking you through my vision of a new, broader notion of citizenship education. Following this, I will take an in-depth look at how the imagination, engaged through literature, might assist us in buttressing abstract concepts in this new citizenship education toward the goal of nurturing citizens to be more sympathetic, caring and just – more humane. Although literature will not provide a general panacea to citizenship education concerns, it does emerge as a promising direction for future engaged democratic citizenship education.
Citizenship: The Present and The Future
Pinning down a concrete definition of citizenship is a difficult task at best. In fact, the very idea of citizenship is what philosophers refer to as an ‘essentially contested concept’ (Crick, 2000). This is due to the imperative social, political, economical, and ethical elements contained within the nature of citizenship (Faulks, 2000). These elements are often defined and rearranged by different groups for different purposes and ultimately render any notion of citizenship to be in a state of flux. Additionally, any definition or understanding of citizenship will change as our society matures and changes. Following the globalizing era of the 1990’s, a distinct change in citizenship began to emerge which is crucial to my analysis. Alison Brysk and Gershon Shafir (2000) articulate this change “…to be truly effective in a globalizing era, the ‘rights of man and the citizen’ will need to become the ‘universal rights of [hu] mans as global citizens’” (original emphasis, p. 209). Bearing this in mind, for the purposes of this paper I will work with a fairly open concept of citizenship from the work of Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey (2005).
Citizenship is… associated with democracy and human rights. Citizenship refers to an awareness of oneself as an individual living in relationship with others, participating freely in society and combining with others for political, social, cultural or economic purposes. Active citizenship is facilitated by an awareness of and access to human rights… Individuals can practice citizenship as holders of human rights, working individually, perhaps, but usually with others to change the way things are. It is this awareness of a capacity to influence the world, sometimes referred to as a sense of agency, which leads citizens to exert themselves on behalf of others. (p. 14-15)
In order to properly understand this conception of citizenship we have to understand that it is being situated in a post-modern cosmopolitan context. Cosmopolitanism refers to a situation in which the world at large is brought into an intimate and relevant perspective. The cosmopolitan citizen is not only someone enjoying rights within their state, but someone who acts upon matters within the state and within the world; what Marshal McLuhan called the “global community” (Osler & Starkey, 2005). In a sense, a cosmopolitan citizen is someone who is not provincially tied in attitudes or rights, someone who supports fundamental human rights and their extension to all individuals regardless of citizenship, location or politics. A cosmopolitan citizen does not necessarily believe in world government, but does believe, however, in a global civil society – people of the world acting through transnational pressure and media campaigns to protect the flourishing of life for all. One might call such as citizen a champion of civic virtue and the common good.
Central to an effective democratic citizenship education model is the knowledge, skills and dispositions a citizen requires for living within a liberal democratic society; orientations which will allow the citizen to be a good “maker and shaper” of things and bring about a citizenship like the one defined above. Park Hyo-Chong (2006) explains how we fail to adequately address these orientations and dispositions in traditional citizenship schooling models:
One of the weaknesses and failures of existing civic education has been the overemphasis on the knowledge and information a student has to learn for living in a liberal democratic society, and the neglect of the cultivation of democratic values and civic virtues he has to internalize. As a result, we confront a paradoxical reality that a student, who is enriched by knowledge about a liberal democratic citizen, lacks a capacity to exhibit democratic attitudes and dispositions in daily life. (p. 1)
Civic virtue is important to the concept of democratic citizenship because it promotes the good of the community or society. Burt (2003) defines civic virtue as “the disposition to further public over private good in action, deliberation, or the disposition to act with the common good in mind” (p. 24). Although many specific dispositions and values may be considered part of civic virtue, some are particularly valuable to developing and sustaining a liberal democracy.