Are you confronting the tank or driving it?

6th October 2000 at 01:00
When education in citizenship is on the agenda, teachers must first define their terms, argues Henry Maitles

I WAS fortunate to attend a conference on culture and democracy in China recently to give a paper on the effectiveness of political education in schools. One of my great memories of the late 20th century was the movement for democracy in China and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. An inspiring moment.

The famous image of the student in front of the tank raises two potential models of citizenship: those 20-year-olds in the tank and those confronting it.

In Britain there is a near moral panic that young people are apathetic, alienated and uninterested in politics. Yet there is also evidence that they are active in single-issue, environmental, political and animal welfare matters.

Schools are clearly the central component of any education for citizenship and one bonus of the discussion now that the Education for Citizenship consultation document has been launched by Learning and Teaching Scotland is that the focus will have to be on the whole nature of education.

There has been an emphasis on target-setting, particularly concentrating on exam results. Wider educational issues are often kept in the background, despite some welcome rhetoric on the nature of inclusive and lifelong learning, such as Peter Peacock's hope as Deputy Minister that a strong education can build "a compassionate society, an innovative society, one that is considerate, self respecting, healthy, morally strong, that respects other people's cultures . . . We need young people who have a strong desire to participate in society".

Rhetoric or not, the language of previous Conservative administrations that "there is no such thing as society" has been replaced by a language of inclusiveness and community. Also, devolution has fuelled a debate around more open government and the need of a participatory democracy for informed citizens.

However, fostered in our schools by the same department encouraging inclusive education remains an over-concentration on exam targets. The weakness of this as an overarching priority - particularly in the run-up to the first Holocaust Awareness Day next January - is well explained by an American high school principal who said:

"I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

"So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane."

It is this perspective that we have to make cental if education for citizenship is to mean anything. Linked to it are central notions of "society" and "change". Pupils need a perspective on both understanding and changing the world and the skills and knowledge taught should be geared toward these concepts.

This may best be understood by identifying three strands in education for citizenship: political literacy, community involvement and values. Problems begin immediately: there are almost as many definitions as there are those discussing them. But the political literacy strand has perhaps two main themes: knowledge and understanding of our society and its inequalities; and skills needed to evaluate information, weigh up evidence and draw conclusions.

Occasionally the mixture of political literacy and community involvement can have interesting consequences, when pupils involve themselves in protests (as happened in the south side of Glasgow over the M77 development) or "become" vegetarian through examining animal welfare issues. We should not see these as natural developments in understanding society.

We have to tolerate some of the unpredictable consequences of action and participation. Again, there can be disagreement about the attitudes we would want our education system to foster. Even in something as relatively uncontroversial as "positive" political attitudes, my research suggests that the most difficult thing is defining what we mean by it.

And even if we agree on the nature of education for citizenship, its delivery raises more issues: England favours a subject called citizenship, whereas the LTS review group prefers an across-the-curriculum model.

Then there is the thorny issue of whether one only learns about democracy or also lives it. The "living" model has implications for schools and society as a whole. First, there is the difficult issue of whether democratic ideas and values can be effectively developed in the fundamentally undemocratic, indeed authoritarian, structure of the current typical Scottish secondary where many teachers, never mind pupils, feel that they have little real say in either the curriculum or the running of the school. There should at least be proper forums for pupil discussion and decision and the new education act insists on functioning pupil councils. The experience is not yet particularly hopeful: although there are some very positive examples, far too many are tokenistic.

Citizenship education throws up the central questions about the sort of education we want. That is why the six months of debate on the consultation document are so important. Teachers and educators need to ensure their voices are heard and that the debate is both meaningful and realistic.

Henry Maitles is senior lecturer in social studies education at Strathclyde University and a member of the Learning and Teaching Scotland review group on education for citizenship.

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