Bowl alone, or build together;Platform;Opinion

18th June 1999 at 01:00
This country needs to rebuild the social trust lost over the past 20 years and, says Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, citizenshipin schools is a good start

I WELCOME David Blunkett's decision to include citizenship as part of the national curriculum. "We want," he said earlier this year, "a literate, numerate, but also civilised society in which actively contributing to the well-being of others is seen as a natural part of a strong and caring community." Those are important words, said at the right time.

Civic involvement is on the wane. The warning was sounded in the 1995 Demos report, Freedom's Children, which found that today's 20-somethings are the least likely in modern history to vote or join a political party. In May, a Mori survey of 11 to 16-year-olds found they put politics far down the list of subjects about which they wanted more information. Managing money and personal relationships ranked significantly higher. Private, not public, life is what engages today's children.

These facts are part of a pattern brought to public notice by the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Between the 1970s and 1990s there was a marked decline in attendance at public meetings and membership of unions, fraternal organisations, society and other civic and cultural associations.

Putnam spoke of the erosion of the "social capital" such groups create. Networks of civic engagement "encourage the emergence of social trust" and their loss is significant. He gave the new trend a name. Noting that more Americans went bowling than ever, but fewer joined teams, he called it "Bowling alone".

This was precisely what Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted a century and a half earlier in his classic Democracy in America. Impressed by what he saw in the New World, de Tocqueville still foresaw one danger. "Private life in democratic times," he wrote, "is so busy, so excited, so full of wishes and of work, that hardly any energy or leisure remains to each individual for public life."

His fear was that liberal democracies would eventually lose their own liberty through a low attrition of the ties that bind people to one another. Individuals would retreat into the private sphere, leaving all else to the state, that "immense and tutelary power".

For de Tocqueville, the answer lay in education, which enables people "at all times to defend their independence". What he had in mind, though, was an education that would provide people with the skills "to create ... such free associations as may be able to struggle against tyranny without destroying public order". In short he sought education in active civic participation.

Schools are the matrix of freedom, not just by what they teach but also by what they do. They are community-sustaining institutions. They are the means by which one generation hands on its values to the next. They are also the crucial bridge between the family and society, where our horizons of sympathy are enlarged. I think of some examples from personal experience. I attended Christian schools. They might easily have made me and the other Jewish pupils feel excluded, but they did not.

To the contrary, because the teachers took their faith seriously, they respected ours and encouraged us to create our own religious assemblies. That was a lesson in tolerance I never forgot.

Then there was the school I visited which was transformed by a single act of collective kindness. One of the teachers had heard about an Israeli child who needed an operation abroad. For a week the entire school became a fund-raising operation. Staff and students learned and acted together the principle of helping children to help children. That too left lasting memories.

And there was the school I visited in inner-city Liverpool, an area of high unemployment where most of the shops were boarded up. The headteacher had devised a brilliant scheme. She took one of the school buildings and turned it into a community centre where parents and neighbours could come and learn new skills, or get help in dealing with family problems, or simply develop friendships. Recognising that home and neighbourhood support the development of children, she had turned the school into a means of supporting them. It became an oasis of civic values in an urban wilderness.

The question is not whether schools can teach values. They do so all the time, by the way they treat children and encourage them to treat one another, the fairness, consistency and openness of their procedures, the way they deal with difference and vulnerability, the behaviours they celebrate, and the links they forge with families and communities. One of the most powerful things we have done in our own community has been to get heads of public companies to conduct seminars with sixth-formers on business ethics. It is one thing to learn about ethical dilemmas, another to hear from people facing them every day, and the impact has been enormous.

Schools are about more than individual attainment. They are about collective belonging. At their best they teach us that a free society is one we create together, which each of us calls home because we all helped to make it.

Jewish tradition has a lovely way of putting it. On the verse from Isaiah, "All your children shall be students of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children", the rabbis added the comment, "Call them not 'your children' but 'your builders'." When children become the builders of civic life, freedom is in safe hands.

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. This article is based on a speech given at a conference on citizenship and education organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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