While we seem to increasingly find ourselves in polarized debates and camps on nearly every topic of conversation, something I’d wager most people agree on is that education is influenced by ideals and values. In other words, education, in the form of “schooling,” ultimately involves the socialization of young people—by way of particular knowledges, skills, characteristics and values—into society. Given this, schooling in general as well as particular courses such as civics and social studies might broadly be thought of as a form of citizenship education.
What that citizenship looks like in practice has been a longstanding topic of debate, but it has resurged into academic and public discourses as we begin to acknowledge and consider the many pressing social issues (e.g., climate crises, growing inequity, pandemics, science denial) we must address. Most of these considerations focus on curriculum, and all emphasize the need for critical thinking and literacies.
However, in a society that prioritizes profit, to consider citizenship education solely from a curricular perspective is insufficient if we are to meaningfully engage with and address our current and future social issues.
Curricula and policy
It’s simplistic to believe that teaching students ‘xyz’ will de facto beget some grander outcome such as globally-minded or “collectively responsible citizenship”; that teaching a list of predetermined values will solve half a century’s worth of and daily exposure to the hyper-individualism reinforced through our organizing systems and institutions, popular media, and advertising. This lens makes it even easier to blame individuals and groups for their perceived shortcomings, especially when they put themselves or others in danger.
It’s perhaps less easy to consider how these shortcomings are a symptom of our broader social systems, not just education systems and their curricula. To be clear, I’m not condoning protests over COVID-19 mandates nor the vitriolic and violent behaviour of those opposed to mandates toward others. I am, however, suggesting we consider some of the underlying and systemic issues that may have led us to this point.
Curriculum holds immense power and, through its implementation by educators, enjoys a huge audience. But while generally pedagogically and research-informed, curriculum is driven by education policy, which is steered by provincial governments and influenced by a host of stakeholders (e.g., the OECD, big business, etc.), many of whose interests are profit-driven.
These policies often conflate particular skills such as project management and problem solving with entrepreneurial spirit or culture, which has become synonymous with ‘success’. They frame creativity and collaboration as beneficial for economic potential rather than for social or community good. Such skills are crucial for collective and community organizing and rich civic engagement but they’ve been co-opted to extract every last ounce of economic productivity (which has contributed to the burnout epidemic).
Furthermore, these policies (and subsequently curricula) tend to emphasize measurable outcomes—for example, math and literacy scores driven by standardized international testing—which are aggregated as predictive economic potential. These measures do not, of course, consider the realities that influence such outcomes (e.g., poverty, racism, discrimination, dis/ability). In sum, the problem does not lie solely with curriculum and the teaching of skills and values, but within a much broader and more complex systemic phenomenon—capitalism, and more recent iterations including neoliberalism, disaster capitalism, and necrocapitalism.
Changing school curriculum could mean better citizenship education, but it is only one link in the chain. Even with the best intentions, it doesn’t address the broader issue of neoliberal priorities steering the values that are embedded in public policy and public discourse.
Government failure and collective citizenship
In the conflict between public interest and accumulation of profit, the not-so-easily digestible truth is that our governments, at all levels, have increasingly left us to fend for ourselves. Notwithstanding significant cash outlays at the federal level in the first year of the pandemic, for the most part, they have been ineffective and apathetic toward the very real struggles people are facing. (The experiences of vulnerable populations and front-line workers throughout the pandemic is case in point.) Rather than cooperating with one another to adequately fund social programs, they’ve removed eviction and rent increase bans, cut funding to education and healthcare, capped cost-of-living wage increases and instead opted to give handouts to corporations, raise police budgets, and wasted tax dollars brutalizing land-defenders and homeless encampments. They’ve watched as housing costs skyrocketed, the opioid crisis ballooned, environmental crises intensified, and corporations made record profits.
So while yes, curriculum change is one avenue for better citizenship education, it still doesn’t address the broader issue of how we make progress, as a society, together. Without a shift in values held by the governments and the organizations that steer policy and curricula, the issues we collectively face cannot be sufficiently addressed. This shift must involve recognition that education—like people—holds value outside of its profit potential and output.
We cannot just leave the burdens of our current and future crises to the generations of tomorrow and those who teach them. Outside of the classroom, today’s citizens must recognize the ways our social systems and governments have failed to be for the people and act collectively for change through critically-minded social, civic, and political engagement. There are a number of possible ways to do this: getting informed about pressing issues, communities, and organizations; listening to understand and empathize with the experiences of marginalized and vulnerable groups; critical self reflection; looking for connections between or patterns across issues; joining local and grassroots organizing, donating time, resources and/or money to reputable causes and organizations, and so on.
I emphasize critical-mindedness here because the (alt)right have become skillful organizers that often centre or promote subject/issue-specific pundits that spread mis/ dis-information, science/expert skepticism (e.g., climate science denial, antivax), and hyper-individualist rhetoric (e.g., individual autonomy or ‘freedom’ of choice/speech/action over collective/human rights) and fuel fear of progressive change (e.g., inclusivity, socialist policy and practice, climate/eco justice, reparations). It is thus crucially important that we use our senses, brains, and hearts in this process of engagement; that we bring our whole and critical selves to this work.
Changing school curriculum could mean better citizenship education, but it is only one link in the chain. Even with the best intentions, it doesn’t address the broader issue of neoliberal priorities steering the values that are embedded in public policy and public discourse. When considering what it means to educate for citizenship, more holistic and systemic rather than singularly targeted approaches must be taken if meaningful changes are to be made and sustained within and outside education– and we must work together to make them.