Curriculum, Opinion, School Community, Teaching

Citizenship Education is More About Process than Content

A piece in The Globe and Mail, April 29, 2011, featured advice from five smart people about how to get more citizens out to vote, thus to improve the health of our democracy. In light of my work on citizenship education since the 1950s, I avidly read their offerings.

One of them suggested adoption of the American system of primary elections as a means of ensuring that candidates for public office are tested in advance for their popularity. Another argued for digital involvement at the grassroots level. That is, leaders at all levels from the Prime Minister down to the Mayor would regularly engage citizens in digital conversation about everything from staying in Afghanistan to building that new bridge. That way, more ordinary folks would become engaged in politics and policy. Still another said that students should be required to pass a civics test as a condition of high school graduation A fourth one thought that giving everyone ten dollars for voting would improve turnout and be a powerful incentive for low income people.

These suggestions all have some merit. They declare in their different ways that citizen participation in the political process is seriously deficient in our democratic country. Only one of them directly involves the schools which came as a surprise to me since civic sensitivity is powerfully affected by the school experience.

Let me explain. Becoming aware of the obligations of citizenship is much more than the cumulative effect of supper table conversation and genetic inheritance. More significant is the atmospheric effect of a dozen years in the schoolhouse, six hours a day. Fixed in a seat most of that time amidst two or three dozen seat mates, all passively ingesting information to be regurgitated later is no way to encourage active citizenship. Indeed, it has a powerful dampening effect.

That is to say: Citizenship education is more about process than content; more about daily life experience than about subjects of the curriculum. One of the five contributors to the Globe article believed that a compulsory course in Canadian history before graduation would help. Maybe. Canadian history poorly taught to passive students would more likely be destructive of the intended aim.

The key to student civic sensitivity is in the community, not the schoolhouse. In 1982, I spent a day at Miami Central High School in the heart of Little Havana. The school had a full-time staffer who coordinated the community work of the students where they helped in hospitals, schools for disabled children, homes for the aged, social service agencies, to name a few. Most of them volunteered for 200 hours or more each year in contrast to the token 40 hours required over four years before graduation in Ontario.

Miami Central was one of scores of schools in North America where community engagement was the forerunner of social responsibility in adulthood. Isn’t that the essence of citizenship education?

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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