What Kind of Citizen?

Educating our children for the common good

What kind of Citizen? Book Cover

In this short, plain-language book, Joel Westheimer provides an astute critique of recent educational reform, with specific attention to his concern that it “is limiting the kinds of teaching and learning that can develop the attitudes, skills and knowledge necessary for a democratic society to flourish.” (p. 14) Moreover, he asserts that even when programs to foster democratic citizenship do exist, they “usually have more to do with volunteerism, charity, and obedience than with democracy.” (p. 37)

However, he finds that a growing number of educators have recognized this problem and responded with three types of citizenship programs, each based on a different vision of a “good citizen”: the Personally Responsible Citizen, the Participatory Citizen and the Social Justice-Oriented Citizen. The ideal program, says Westheimer, would draw from the strengths of each and he provides inspiring examples of some that do. However, he does not advocate any particular program, but rather models that “give teachers the freedom and flexibility to design curriculum in ways that take advantage of local contexts.” (p. 69) He sees teachers, therefore, as not merely adopting such curriculum but as actively adapting it in situ, drawing on their own and students’ interests. He believes that “educators in a democratic society have a responsibility to create learning environments that teach students how to think, how to critically analyze multiple perspectives, and how to develop the passion for participation in the kind of dialogue on which a healthy democracy relies.” (p. 33)

This book presents a powerful and passionately delivered argument for citizenship education and convincingly demonstrates that recent educational reform tends to be hostile to this goal. For Canadian readers, Westheimer’s argument may seem overstated because it is almost exclusively focused on the American experience, which is more severe in its dependence on high-stakes standardized assessment than anything that we have yet seen in this country. On the other hand, since U.S. policy often influences Canada so strongly, this can read as a warning of what may come if we continue down a path which, says Westheimer, teaches students “how to please authority and pass the tests, not how to develop convictions and stand up for them.” (p. 18)


Photo: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, December 2015

Teachers College Press, 2015 ISBN: 978-0807756355

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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