To oppose is to take an interest

30th March 2007 at 01:00

"perhaps there is no meaning to `citizenship' when you can't turn out in the agora with your spear?" That observation - looking back to Periclean Athens - summarises the political anxiety over the lost sense of citizenship in society.

Political and social engagement seems to have been replaced by indifference and apathy. Voter turnout is low and young people are more interested in Pop Idol or Big Brother than politics. There is panic among the political class and every public institution is instructed to "engage" people.

Until recently, commentators were worried that "learning for citizenship is almost invisible in post-16 education". My response was: "and a good thing, too." It couldn't continue. Last November, a huge Post-16 Citizenship Support Programme was formally launched. Now there are citizenship projects and websites everywhere.

This plethora of initiatives exposes the political desperation behind them.

This is clear from the headlines: "Active agents not passive consumers"; "It's our future - we'll do something about it". Are young people really going to be taken in by this? I don't think so.

Like many cash-cows funded by government, it will produce the opposite of what was intended. Cynicism will result because what is offered is citizenship training. This comes down to nothing more than patronising talks about safe issues such as recycling and the environment, while allowing some form of therapeutic self-expression called listening to the "learner voice". Young people are thereby "empowered". They will no longer, as Sir Bernard Crick fears, be led to "delinquent rebellion against a social order (they) feel powerless to influence".

I like the idea of delinquent rebellion if the alternative is recycling and verbal therapy. Radical experiments, such as putting students on staff appointment committees, programme validation meetings and quality management bodies, are not empowering either. Students can only express their feelings, as they have no knowledge to offer.

This patronising approach returns in the guidance for "debates" in citizenship classes. Debate is treated as a set of skills to be learned without reference to content. It excludes what can engage by demanding that students know something. "Arrogant" and "offensive" will be the criticism of any judge who tells a debater that they need facts and to read a book or two. The idea is to let them talk to gain confidence or self-esteem.

Champions of "citizenship" keep asking "What is citizenship?" They clearly worry they are training young people in gullibility and servility because, if the concept means anything, it means opposition. Students who walked out of schools and colleges to oppose the invasion of Iraq got into trouble.

Walking out in opposition to citizenship training would be delinquent rebellion, which would land them in more trouble - but they would be better citizens for it.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church university

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