EDUCATING FOR CITIZENSHIP
INSIGHTS FROM EUROPE
(text originally delivered at Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virgina, USA).
On both sides of the Atlantic the debate about ‘educating for citizenship’ has become a metaphor for a more fundamental debate about philosophy and theology, relativism and absolutism, values and virtues, the individual and the community. Some see the controversy as an opportunity to replace religious values with secular ones – but this is wholly inadequate when individuals or a nation try in moments of crisis to find spiritual meaning to questions of mortality and immortality.
If all that emerges from this debate over the foundations of civic life is a view of citizenship that encourages another series of miserable little charters, linked to consumerism, choice, entitlements and rights, it will be another wasted opportunity. What we need instead is a modern form of civic acculturation undertaken through the schools and supported indirectly by churches, families and other primary mediating institutions.
The role of education in the formation of citizens became a central political question in Britain following the tragic death in 1995 of a headmaster, Philip Lawrence, outside his London school. In 1993, the killing of two year old James Bulger in Liverpool and the massacre of school children at Dunblane in 1996 led to similar introspection. More recently, the racially motivated killing of Anthony Walker, in 2005, akin to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, caused society to look at itself and ask what kind of world we have fashioned.
The publication of a personal manifesto by Frances Lawrence by the widow of Philip Lawrence; David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty Need; Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community and The Politics of Hope and the 1990 Reith Lectures by Dr. Jonathan (Lord) Sacks – the Chief Rabbi – alle all played a significant part in challenging the previous orthodoxies of individualism and rights. In Faith in the Future Dr. Sacks observed that “it is as if in the 1950s and 1960s we set a time bomb ticking which would eventually explode the moral framework into fragments. The human cost has been colossal.”
In Britain, in higher education, at St. Andrews, Leicester and John Moores Universities, significant work has been undertaken into values education and the development of citizenship. The first Vice Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores, Professor Peter Toyne, argued that “citizenship stems from the process of education”. John Moores become the first University in the United Kingdom to commit itself to develop a strong sense of citizenship among all of its more than 20,000 students.
That formal education should play its part in promoting the virtues of honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility and justice has also been recognised by Parliament and within the school inspection framework. Children spend 20 per cent of their time in schools so the importance of a school’s role is obvious.
Historically, universities and schools recognised their role in preparing men and women for their private and public lives. However, one of the casualties of the pell mell rush towards a more individualistic approach to education has been civic responsibility.
Individualism, when defined as “sharp elbows” and “Looking out for number one”, has a poisonous effect. It encourages people to opt out and to privatise their lives – becoming limited by the narrow confines of their job or their home. Only in Britain would we turn “community service” into a punishment dispensed by magistrates.
Citizenship has also been a casualty of the sheer complexity and overpowering nature of modern life. In Britain we are working longer hours than anywhere else in Europe. Fathers have less and less time with their children. Working women often feel incredibly alone and pressured. The rapid pace of technological change has outstripped our ability and willingness to develop an ethics suited to it. Vast institutions govern our democracy, our workplace and our home-life. So often this has incapacitated citizens. We have come a long way from Athens and on the road we have been robbed of our inheritance. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we no longer educate our citizens to an expectation that each should seek to serve the common weal. Rather we now exaggerate self-importance and individual interests as those most legitimate as against community or communal claims.
Ill-prepared to meet the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by everyday life because robbed of the concepts of duty and service, utility and functionalism have turned us into slaves of everything from a genetically manipulated reproductive system to the servility of consumerism. Less like citizens, more like slaves, we are told we live in a permissive age, but many of the things we were permitted to do as children – such as playing alone in local parks – we are no longer able to do because these activities are no longer safe. The breakdown of civic life has left us trapped like prisoners in our cars and in our homes and, therefore, increasingly at the mercy of the advertising industry, media moguls, and new technologies.
Meanwhile, educators have become what C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man memorably called `the conditioners’. (Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1943). These `conditioners’ have made `men without chests’ from whom we expect `virtue and enterprise’.
Lewis concluded that through modern familial and educational? formation `we castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful. (ibid). Aristotle predicated both his Politics and the Nichomachean Ethics on a concept of education to virtue, for duty and for the common life. Contrast this approach with today’s emphasis in education at al levels on individualism and personal freedom. The conditioners- today’s educators- say that everything is a matter of individual opinion and that individuals are not responsible for their actions.
And what have been the consequences? What is the dowry the conditioners can hand to their daughters? What is the legacy of the men without chests?
In the nineteenth century Thomas Carlyle called these concerns “the condition of England” questions.
In what condition do we find our country today? How a nation treats its children is a pretty good test of its claims to be civilised. Asking this question also sets in a proper context the scale of the challenge in forming tomorrow’s citizens.
750,000 British children now have no contact with their fathers; since 1961 marriage breakdown has followed the American pattern and has increased by 600per cent with the number of divorces doubling since 1971. Many British children today have no experience of whole and healthy family life and therefore no model on which to build loving and caring relationships.
Today’s culture also daily robs children of their innocence. Computer pornography, much involving children, paedophile rings – many operating with the connivance of people in authority at children’s homes and in social services or special hospitals – compete with the standard daily fare of advertising targeted at children. Never ending computer games, films, and TV programmes saturated with violence, complement the pimps and drug pushers who operate like urban cadres on our streets, recruiting children and young people at every opportunity.
Broadcasters, particularly,as crucial developers and mediators of broadly accepted norms and values have colossal power in forming citizens – who spend an average 27 hours a week in front of their TV sets. Bruce Gyngell, when Managing Director of Tyne Tees Television asked: “What are we doing to our sensibilities and moral values and, more important, those of our children, when, day after day, we broadcast an unremitting diet of violence…television is in danger of becoming a mire of salaciousness and violence.” (Address to the Royal Television Society, London, 19 June 1996).
Oliver Stone, who directed the film Natural Born Killers, by contrast boasts: “we poke fun at the idea of justice, at the idea of righteousness, at the concept that there is a right and a wrong way.” These sentiments should be a central concern for all who care about the formation of citizens because they suggest that our principal mediating institutions are no longer capable of assisting individuals to develop a moral or ethical compass beyond their own capacity for (apparently endless) rationalisation of their selfish or self-serving impulses.
In a book by the psychologist, Oliver James (Century: November 1997), Britain on the Couch, the author asks Why are we unhappier than we were in the 1950s despite being richer?
Clinical depression, he suggests, is ten times higher among people born after 1945 than among those born before 1914. Women under the age of 35 are the most vulnerable. The paradox is that we are told that we have never been more materially affluent and yet, says James, modern life seems less and less able to meet our expectations. We feel like losers, even if we are winners because materialism itself is not enough to satisfy human needs.
According to Gallup, in a survey of comparative attitudes of British citizens which examined the behaviour of children in 1997 and 1968:
1968: 62 per cent thought behaviour among children was getting worse; today it is 92 per cent
1968: 28 per cent thought they were themselves happier; today the figure is 7 per cent – with 53 per cent believing that life is becoming unhappier.
Only 1 per cent of respondents believed that standards of honesty in contemporary Britain were improving.
Consumerism, material gain, the high-tech, high-powered information-laden lives of the 1990s are mirrored by collapsed family life, broken communities, the instability and insecurity in employment which accompanies relatively unfettered market institutions, and a widespread sense of isolation, from which flows loneliness. Like the disappointed ancient Greeks who finally climbed Olympus to search out their gods, modern men and women have scaled the peaks of prosperity and found nothing. They realise that instead of truth, they have been peddled a gigantic lie. When they ask for bread, the modern understanding of virtue and of the role of the individual in the community serves them broken glass instead.
Too many of our modern contemporaries find a void on the mountain top and resort to the escapism of the drug scene, the couches of shrinks, the embrace of astrologers, and the clutches of the black arts.
This modern loneliness, which breeds despair, is fed by a diet of nihilism and materialism initiated from outside the home or the community. One German study stated that between the age of 3 and 13 a child watches an average of 107 minutes of TV each day. The German child psychologist, Mrs Christa Meves, found that 44per cent of pre-school children preferred watching their television than to being with their father. 49per cent of videos bought or rented in Germany contain violent material.
The poison is often in the dosage and will only intensify with digital TV – the ultimate amalgamation of the Internet and TV.As they become one and video material and games proliferate, so too will the ethical and conceptual dilemmas these entertainments pose. . This is the new environment Britons confront and it is an ugly vision.
The moral of the modern rush to embrace a media-fed individualism without limit is that virtue must be promoted; vice can make it on its own. Instead of virtuous citizens, we have been forming couch potatoes, rather than discerning men and women with civilised and civilising attitudes we have been creating individuals too often incapable of making moral judgements or of acting in the common good. We have developed in each everything except the ability to become fully human; to know, in a word, what it means to look beyond oneself on the basis of a regard for others as your equal for no other reason than that they are human beings. Clearly, we are no longer Greeks or Romans but we are nothing else either. And who is to blame?
Parents blame teachers and vice versa; both blame the state; politicians blame the broadcasters. Fear induces panic and while latter-day Luddites would happily smash the internet and the TV sets – or string up newspaper editors – liberals are frightened to concede that anything at all is wrong, fearful that an honest admission would bring down their whole edifice. The liberal is rightly deeply suspicious of the state censoring everything they see and do, for instance, but this can become anarchy if we fail to protect vulnerable children, for instance, from pornography. Liberals need to re-evaluate the balance between uninhibited, unimpeded freedom and the need to uphold the communally accepted series of tenets that govern communal behaviour. Rosalind Miles, in The Children We Deserve sums up the problem eloquently:
Part of the experience of growing up is learning to negotiate and to have social skills that come from relating to other people. If a child comes home from school, raids the fridge, and disappears to their room to the TV or computer console, that child is alienated. He or she will become cut off from real life and will come to expect instant gratification attuned to their needs. This is the foundation of yobbishness and violence.”
Academics, as ever, agonise over the empirical evidence. The evidence of our own eyes should be quite enough. However, there are studies that reveal that TV can trigger suppressed fears of children, or neurosis; that the lowest school achievers watch most TV, while the highest achievers watch the least. Some studies suggest that not only can obsessive TV watching lead to retardation in language and mental performance but it is blatantly obvious that programmes promote anti-parent feelings or ridicule institutions, as well as triggering solitude and inability to integrate concepts whether social or intellectual. Even in much day- to -day conversation people talk endlessly about TV figures and characters – not about reality.
The Internet may permit me to kiss my wife good night from New York or Paris, but it isnt and never can be real. The danger is that we use this technology simply to escape from reality. In the Pensees, Blaise Pascal observed that we are always trying to flee reality to near-real worlds e.g. a love of the past can become an attempt to escape the harsh challenges of today. Modern media has encouraged a new ideology of virtual reality to emerge that allows individuals too often to flee or ignore reality rather than to confront it.
Truth is a casualty, as simple slogans, repeated ad nauseam in the media, become true. Why should we care about reality when the virtual will suffice? In addition to nihilism, reflected in political negative campaigning, spin-doctors ensure that the image and virtual-reality-politics counts more than substance or truth. And, what is still more troubling, citizens are increasingly incapable of discerning which is which.
In our homes, the ideology of virtual reality allows us, through computer software, to kill, to maim, to brutalise or to abuse another, without any apparent consequences. We start to feel like gods, as creators of the world with all of life’s chances at our fingertips. God and creation become nothing but human invention. For some this is confirmation of Friedrich Nietzcheís philosophy that man creates the universe and that creation is a new extension of the serpentís promise in the Garden. In the Middle Ages Thomas Kempis well understood this impulse when he wrote (Imitation of Christ, in the 3rd book, the 13th chapter) translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Hamondsworth: Penguin Books, 1952 that because men wanted to become God, God wanted to become man – to sanctify and redeem us from this conceit.
In response to all of these forces, families are patronisingly told to get a grip and to use the off-button. Yet vast numbers of households no longer house families where there are parents to perform this task; others house tired, pressurised and stressed parents who use the TV to replace the hearth or the baby-sitter and simply fail to discern among different categories of programmes. One 16-year-old girl told me I live as a stranger in my own family because conversation and family activities have been replaced by TV viewing or isolated use of computers for hours and hours on end.
The destruction of family life has led inexorably to a dysfunctional society. Melanie Phillips in All Must Have Prizes (Little, Brown & Co., 1996) perceptively analysed the consequences of this collapse for Britain. In the American context, Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind spelled out the most significant implication for citizenship when personal commitments and bonds can be broken or sloughed off, when the concepts of fault and covenant are abolished, and when children’s interests are reduced to the deceit that they would are somehow better off under such conditions:
Of course many families are unhappy. But that is irrelevant. The important lesson that the family teaches is the existence of the only unbreakable bond, for better or for worse, between human beings. (Simon & Schuster, 1987).
The implication for citizenship is perhaps obvious; if there is no bond that cannot be broken with impunity within families, how can such exist among citizens when all that is shared is a symbolic cultural or national referent?
It follows therefore that it is within the family – the basic building block of society – that a love of civic life first must be cultivated. Young women, like the 16-year-old girl mentioned above, must not be strangers to their parents, or in their own homes. Ironically, those TV-resistant families who do shield their children may, in fact, raise emotionally more stable and more mature children, but that fact may create a new elite: children unscathed by the ravages of uninhibited exposure to the electronic media.
There is plenty we can do to address these challenges and to support the family in the three areas of technology, the law, and education, but political will is required. These should be central questions for politicians and the media alike. They are certainly vital to the formation of the character of our citizenry.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, perceived the social challenge clearly when he said in a House of Lords debate in 1996 that the nation was being threatened by a tendency `to view what is good and right as a matter of private taste and individual opinion only’. (House of Lords Hansard Vol 573, 5 July 1996, col. 1691-6 & 1776-8)
What sorts of values have the conditioners, the men without chests bequeathed us? They have replaced the Beatitudes with the Me-attitudes: individualism, relativism, syncretism, libertarianism and false liberalism. In fashioning a who-can-I-blame, who-can-I-sue, what-does-it-matter, why-should-I-care society, they have left us poor beyond belief.
The human ecology is in tatters. Consider again our children:
In 1996, 46,000 children were on child protection registers; 64,000 children are in Local Authority care; while an Independent Communications & Marketing Research poll found that 28per cent of British parents thought their children were running wild.
Crime is largely committed by young people – with 50per cent of all crimes committed by those under 21. Ten times as many crimes were committed in Britain today than in 1955 and the crime rate is forty times that of 1901. In the United States, a baby born in 1990 and raised in a big city has a statistically greater chance of being murdered than an American soldier had of dying in battle in World War Two. I visited Philadelphia and heard about a school where six pupils had been gunned down in the previous year. What goes into the character formation of the young people who commit crime is far more important than any debate about curfews and custodial sentences.
In Britain hardly a family or community is untouched by crime, violence or drugs. More than 160 babies were born addicted to purified cocaine during one recent twelve month period alone; and a study by the University of Manchester found that in the North West, 71 per cent of the region’s adolescents had been offered drugs over a twelve month period.
Before we are born we are now also more likely than ever to meet a violent end. Only four out of every five pregnancies now goes full term. 600 babies are aborted daily in Britain. Since 1990, if you have a disability, you may be aborted up to and even during your normal birth. 100.000 human embryos are now destroyed annually in British laboratories.
Euthanasia and eugenics are regularly practised – not just in Holland and Scandinavia – and the old mistakes – which have led to episodes of genocide, racial theories, corrupt medical ethics – are dressed up in the new guise of genetics.
As these examples attest, everything has been reduced to a matter of personal choice. The word choice itself originates from the same Greek word as the word heresy. My right to choose – and never mind the consequences to others – is the modern heresy. Human life has been reduced to a commodity: bought or bartered, experimented upon, tampered with, destroyed or disposed of at will. `If it’s right for me, it’s right per se.’
In The City of History (Pelican, 1961) Lewis Mumford perceptively and prophetically saw how these trends threatened the balance of civil society :
Before modern man can gain control over the forces that now threaten his very existence, he must resume possession of himself. This sets the chief mission for the city of the future: that of creating a visible regional and civic structure, designed to make man at home with his deeper self and his larger world, attached to images of human nature and love.
Mumford foresaw the need to address the question of human development and personal expression. He appreciated the scale of de-industrialisation that would occur, the social problems which would flow from this and the need to invest heavily in education:
“Not industry, but education will be the centre of their (cities’) activities.”
In practice, over the 35 years which have elapsed since Mumford argued for the centrality of the personal formation of citizens, economic and industrial regeneration have taken priority.
Failure to appreciate the role of education in fostering a civilised society, where personal civic responsibility is cultivated in each person, has threatened the delicate balance that enables society to function.
Among the consequences have been:
* the increasing isolation of the individual within the context of the modern urban environment.
* the fracturing of community bonds and their corresponding effects on the relationship
of individuals to the state.
* the low levels of participation in the institutions and processes of local and national
* the lack of understanding about civic responsibilities and duties in the democratic state * the lack of a co-ordinated approach towards corporate responsibility and involvement
in the community; and
* the failure of citizens to understand what responsible citizenship in modern society
Civil society has become uncivil as modern citizenship has become perceived in terms of rights alone. This in turn breeds unrealisable demands and a cult of selfishness which flourishes in a climate of materialism and consumerism. It is further entrenched in the isolation of individualism and the marginalisation of ethics. Is it any wonder when society becomes chronically disordered as a result?
Rights and choice are the new civic dogma. Rights have replaced duties as propagandists demand the right to a job, the right to an education, the right to a child, the right to drugs, the right to pornography, the right to kill, the right to die. Displaced are the ancient duties to work, to acquire knowledge, to care for family, to cherish and to respect life. Choices are no longer conditioned by consequences. The delicate balance of civil society is thus broken. In his book After Virtue Alisdair MacIntyre poses the central question of whether new communal and civic relationships can be snatched from the poisonous clutches of individualism. (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Duckworth, 1981). His exploration of this terrible dilemma suggests a compelling need for government, civil and religious organizations, market institutions and families alike to respond to the set of beliefs and conditions that together now threaten the very foundations of self governance.
This is the second area that I want to explore: the political and educational response to the crisis of citizenship.
Failure to address at any level of the educational curriculum the role of citizens and the question of citizenship in modern society, the absence of a coherent approach in industry in cultivating corporate responsibility or civic engagement; and the general lack of understanding about what are a citizen’s duties and responsibilities in a democratic state, are the key questions confronting free societies in the twenty-first century. Failure to address them properly will lead to further civic disengagement and community social dysfunction.
If we were to educate for citizenship and to take seriously the civic deficit we would enshrine the duties of each person: to live peaceably; to participate in civic government; to contribute to the resourcing of commonly beneficial institutions; to acquire knowledge and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge in children; to learn respect for the needs of others; to behave ethically; and to appreciate how legitimate rights have been acquired and to cherish them.
We need a greater concern with how civil society is made, how it decays and how it might be preserved. Civic education is a sine qua non to attaining this end.
If a civil society is to withstand the ambitions of those who, wilfully or not, act to usurp it, fundamental shared principles must be widely held and understood in the political community and beyond.A democratic nation or community will not survive for long if its civil structures are corrupted or decaying or if its rulers and citizens do not both pursue and practice civic virtues:a respect for the sanctity of human life, respect for the rule of law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among these civic qualities. Aristotle celebrated justice, wisdom, temperance and courage as the cardinal virtues and associated with these were magnanimity, liberality, munificence, prudence and gentleness. Christ offered the virtues of faith, hope and charity – (the love of God in its original meaning). If such indispensable virtues are not passed from generation to generation, civic fabric crumbles.
These are not new concerns. In The Politics Aristotle’s koinonia, communal existence was not about civic structures or forms of government but about the qualities in humankind that made civic co-existence a possibility. (Aristotle, `Politics’, Book 1, Chapter 2, in The Complete works of Aristotle, Jonathan Barnes (ed), Princeton University Press, 1984, vol 2). Civic virtue was exemplified by a concern for the rights of others, in the civilising of the polis and through a shared sense of justice. Aristotle said we are not like “solitary pieces in chequers” but need to cultivate a common life. Cicero, in his work,On Duty (On Duties Cicero, edited by MT Griffin and E M Atkins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) also saw the need for active participation: “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.” Aristotle believed that civic virtue could and should be taught.
Aristotle also held that there was something innate about a citizen’s desire to participate in the public life. Zoon politikon, political animal, is a phrase that he coined in his Politics and which remains in regular contemporary usage. Today it has pejorative connotations but for Aristotle it was an honourable phrase denoting a citizen who strove for others. For Aristotle, koinonia arose primarily through the qualities in man which made civic co-existence a possibility. Man alone, he argued, had the logos – the ability to speak, but more than that: the ability to use reason and to act as a moral agent. “Man alone has the special distinction from the other animals that he also has perception of good and bad and of the just and the unjust” (Aristotle’s Politics & Athenian Constitution, edited and translated by John Warrington,. London: Dent, 1959 page 7).
Aristotle described the polis as “an association of free men” which governed itself; where the citizen “takes turn to govern and be governed.
For Aristotle, the polis was the school of life. The polis, through its laws, religion, tradition, festivals, culture and participation in its common institutions, shaped each citizen. Its architecture, its theatre (the nearest equivalent in Athenian society to our concept of a free press: particularly plays which dared to satirise and to explore controversial questions), its orators, its laws all were manifestations of the common life and all required the commitment of the citizens. It was a duty to engage in the polis and to share in its glories as well as its burdens. A man who withdrew from the life of the polis was not perceived as simply minding his own business, living a private life, but instead, of being a worthless good for nothing. The city’s business was everyone’s business and participation in the life of the city was crucial to a person’s development. Taking part was not an optional extra.
Rewards and punishments help to mould a person’s attributes and Aristotle held that an individual would endure danger because of a combination of personal commitment to the common good and a fear of the shame and legal penalties, (the social and criminal punishments) that would attach to cowardice or civic indolence.
Aidos – fear of shame, of how you would appear to other citizens ñ is, for Aristotle, the balancing scale in the civic question. It encourages the citizen to want to act nobly and altruistically.
Closer to our own times, Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book, The De-moralisation of Society, from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, (New York: A A Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1995) reminds us that the Victorians also focused on good character and personal responsibility. They spoke not so much about values but of virtues – a more demanding test.
No doubt there was an element of romanticism implicit in the Victorian emphasis, calling up medieval codes of courtly chivalry: the virtues of mercy, religion, compassion and courtesy. But the caricature of Victorian virtue as largely hypocritical and enforced by Dickensian schoolmasters is just that: a caricature. The Victorian pursuit of virtue was as much about encouragement as it was about imposition. It was primarily aimed at creating a civic community of citizens who respected one another and were determined to advance and improve themselves. Perhaps it is best revealed in the civic municipalism of Chamberlain’s Birmingham.
It is a pity that the word `values’ has become interchangeable with the word `virtues’. Leo Strauss was right to muse on the mystery of: “how a word that used to mean the manliness of man has come to mean the chastity of women.” (quoted by Himmelfarb). Friedrich Nietzche was, in the 1880s, the first to stop talking about virtue and to use values in the modern sense of describing collective attitudes and beliefs. “Transvaluation of values,” as he put it, disposed of virtue and vice, classical virtues, Judaeo-Christian virtues, good and evil and conveniently accompanied “the death of God.” (Jenseits Von Gut und Bose (1886, Eng. trans. Beyond Good and Evil, 1907; Beyond Good and Evil, translated by R J Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)
Alongside virtue, value is a weak word. It can mean anything people want it to mean, which is why it works so well against a backdrop of syncretism and relativism. Everything becomes neutral and non-judgemental, nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. A return to the concept of civic virtue would prove to be the best defence against civic disaggregation and provide the basis for a new civic settlement: a settlement about more than a devolved Scottish Parliament or a reformed House of Lords.
Virtue, is a word that is not simply about personal preference or personal views. It is about character and the formation of the citizen at the deepest level. Civic life and politics are conditioned by the culture in which they grow. If the character of the citizen has not been fully formed – and is deficient in virtue – is it any wonder that social anarchy results? Can we avoid this? Can civic virtue be taught? Can we educate for citizenship?
Since the virtual disappearance of civics courses even that narrow preparation for citizenship has not been a priority in British schools. The many other pressures of the National Curriculum mean that provision is patchy at best and non-existent at worst. One survey suggests that nearly a third of primary schools are not addressing the themes of citizenship, while Leicester University’s Centre for Citizenship Studies has published valuable data – including a plea by almost half the primary schools for more staff training, and access to resource material and visiting speakers.
The last thing which teachers or pupils need is another subject for examination. That is not what the White Paper (Citizenship, British Government White Paper, 1997, HMSO) and subsequent curriculum requirements sought to achieve.
We need a sustained, rigorous and properly resourced approach to a subject that cuts to the heart of how a society functions. This should replace the “mission statements” of many educational institutions that simply contain lip-service reference to citizenship. The reality is that most pupils, students, administrators, teachers, and faculty members could not tell you how that objective relates either to the curriculum or to the day-to-day policy of the institution.
When we recognise academic achievements and sporting prowess, we should also recognise instances of good citizenship. In many American universities credits are given for community work; service learning. We need to practice and experience citizenship – as well as analyse it. Service learning, where those with advantages teach literacy or other capacities to others especially to the disadvantaged, especially commends itself to me. At school prize giving and at degree day ceremonies, citizenship awards should be presented and form a recorded part of individual records of achievement.
For most young people civic education is generally acquired as an incidental, through contacts with voluntary projects and contacts with individual teachers or because of an event or political policy which directly impinges upon them. We must be far more systematic and in courses at every level ask the tough questions about the purpose of education, about what is expected of democratic citizens, and about the skills we each require to live peaceably with one another. It is part of the mission of a school or university to educate for democracy, to develop citizenship skills and to form men and women for others.
This should particularly appeal in the context of a Britain that commentators are claiming has been fundamentally changed and which, in an unfocused and often inarticulate way, has learnt afresh of the need for compassion and to care for the disadvantaged from its dead princess.
How a citizen acts as a moral agent affects everything from how they treat their environment and their neighbours to the pursuit of ethical standards in commerce or the embrace of civic duties. It is not a spectator sport or the preserve of a few well-meaning specialists.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union many of us saw first hand the consequences of the destruction of civil society. Loss of freedom is all too obvious when you have been run over by a tank. The corrosive effects of materialism and individualism are less obvious. Here, the devil arrives in carpet-slippers.
Early twentieth century Marxist obsession with production, the division of labour and class structures has been replaced by individualistic indifferentism in our own times. The disfigurement of civic culture and the suppression of civil order have been the principal casualties. At its worst, atrocious power has come to be exercised by a rump over the rest of the human race.
If we are to avoid such disaster each of us must understand our duty to our country and to the community. The complete citizen will be a virtuous citizen: one who has been formed to consider and care for others. We will each still have our individual frailties, weaknesses and vices, but even from the worst of us some good can be extracted. In his “Fable of the Bees” – or “Private Vices, Publick Benefits”- Bernard Manderville recognised how this might happen:
Thus every part was full of Vice
Yet the whole mass a Paradise….
And Vertue, who from Politicks
Had learn’d a Thousand cunning Tricks;
Was, by their happy influence,
Made Friends with Vice: And ever since
The worst of all the Multitude
Did something for the Common Good.
David Alton is Professor of Citizenship and Director of the Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University. He was Member of Parliament for Liverpool Mossley Hill for eighteen years and in 1997 was appointed to the House of Lords where he sits as a cross bench peer.