21 September 2022

What kind of citizenship should be taught at school?

Author: Jan Bazyli Klakla


Functioning in a relationship with the state should be an important part of the life of each and every one of us. In this relationship, naturally there is an imbalance of the power and the means to execute it, since it is the state that has an administrative apparatus, repressive measures or a significant capital. However, this does not mean that in such a situation we, as individuals, are powerless. A lot depends on our ability to find ourselves in this relationship, as well as its critical assessment and creative changes. No doubt, the school should prepare us also for that.

Being a citizen, which means functioning in the relationship with the state, does not come to us fully naturally, but it is something that, to some extent, is learnt and based on specific skills. Then there comes a very important question: what kind of citizenship should be taught at school?

Civic education, as a school subject or a set of contents taught at school, provokes a heated discussion among politicians and different institutions. This is fully understandable: for the state that is a party to the relationship I have mentioned, it is important to control the other party, i.e. citizens. This seems to sound a bit gloomy, as it could suggest that a preferred type of the society is passive, narrowly understood, focused on building the authority of political institutions and adjusting individuals to an as-is type relationship with the state.

Hence, it could be assumed that political institutions will put pressure on the so-called liberal concept of citizenship which is quite narrow in its scope. This is based on understanding the citizenship as a “a legal status rather than a fact of everyday life” (Walzer, 1989, p. 215). The status of a citizen provides a special protection by the state and the possibility to exercise civil liberties, in particular the ones that can be realized in the private sector. Such an approach to teaching citizenship at school is reflected by concentration on the contents related with knowledge and understanding of formal political institutions (Schulz et al., 2010; Council of Europe, 2016, European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2017; Ten Dam, G. et al., 2011). We teach about the functioning of the state; thanks to that, on the one hand, it will be possible to enhance the agility with which individuals operate, and, on the other hand, justify and legitimize such a relationship between individuals and the state.

Luckily, if we go to the documents regarding citizenship education developed at the level of the European Commission and the Council of Europe, such a narrow understanding of citizenship will not be the first thing to strike us. The European documentation indicates four key areas of civic education (Council of Europe, 2010, 2016; European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2017):

effective and constructive interaction with others, i.e. competences relating to students’ personal development and interpersonal relations: self-confidence, responsibility, autonomy (personal initiative), respect for different opinions or beliefs, cooperation, conflict resolution, empathy, self-awareness, communicating and listening, emotional awareness, flexibility or adaptability, intercultural skills

critical thinking, i.e. practical skills in finding and interpreting information combined with more abstract abilities such as reasoning and exercising judgement: multiperspectivity, reasoning and analysis skills, data interpretation, knowledge discovery and use of sources, media literacy, creativity, exercising judgement, understanding the present world, questioning

social responsibility, i.e. the knowledge and attitudes that enable students to take into account the greater good and the interests of society as a whole: respect for justice, solidarity, respect for other human beings, respect for human rights, sense of belonging, sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural heritage protection, knowing about or respecting other cultures, knowing about or respecting religions, non-discrimination

democratic actions, i.e. the knowledge and understanding required for citizens to participate in the democratic process: respect for democracy, knowledge of political institutions, knowledge of political processes (e.g. elections), knowledge of international organisations, treaties and declarations, interacting with political authorities, knowledge of fundamental political and social concepts, respect for rules, participating, knowledge of or participation in civil society

It is easy to notice that many of the abovementioned skills visibly exceed the liberal perception of citizenship as a status. From the perspective of the Holistic Think Tank, it is what exceeds this liberal concept that proves most important. Civic education, as the subject of our interest, must fit into a wider process of a change in education which we want to initiate with the idea of the interdisciplinary subject.

Paraphrasing Newton, when we work on it, we stand on the shoulders of giants to see more than until now in what the school should teach. Nevertheless, we listen to the voices of those who say that it is important to pass the idea of science and learning, develop the understanding of the world and interconnections between its elements or the skill of argumentation, proving and solving problems. We agree that the school should prepare for functioning in the society, in a relationship with the state, in its diversity and, last but not least, in a relationship with the nature and your own body. The school should teach entrepreneurship, informational skills, but also intra- and interpersonal communication. It should also consider aesthetics and culture. Most importantly, the school should enable not only efficient functioning in these areas, but, above all, creative and critical questioning of the as-is structures and it should equip one with skills of shaping the foregoing.

If this is how we understand the role of the school, what kind of citizenship matches our way of thinking about what the school should teach?

To define it, let us first immerse into the contemporary theoretical reflection on citizenship. Bloemraad et al. (2008) write in this context about the previously mentioned liberal (concentrated on the formal and substantial dimension of citizenship), republican (focused on the activist and participative dimension) and communitarial (where the identity dimension is important) tradition and it is the latter two that should be the richest source for the complex civic education.

Critical civic education focus, in turn, not on the status itself, but on the practices related to its delivery and realization, in other words, routines, rituals, habits and norms both in everyday life and extraordinary situations through which the subjects become citizens (Isin & Turner, 2007). Becoming a citizen is not always easy, even regardless of the legal regulations, which limit some groups from formally accessing citizenship. It is the facilitation of this process during socializing where I would see the key role of the school within the so-called civic education. In other words, a correctly shaped civic education could make becoming of a citizen seem natural and inborn, despite the fact that it is actually not. Becoming a citizen is about a realization of one’s potential and not shaping one to adapt to the needs of a given institution; in a relationship with the state, one needs to be a subject and not the object .

In studies on citizenship, it is clear that the relationship is influenced “by identity, social positioning, cultural assumptions, institutional practices and a sense of belonging” (Werbner & Yuval-Davis, 1999, p. 4). Hence, there are more actors to this relationship than only the individual and the state; first and foremost, there are groups and informal institutions, communities and, last but not least, the society.

In the WSOT list we have prepared, we pay special attention to this aspect of civic education that is related to functioning in the society. In this context, we write about teaching ethics and civic justice, ecology, openness to cultural diversity, empathy, acting together, and cooperation. The European documents cited above tackle these issues, underlining the competences relating to students’ personal development and interpersonal relations and the knowledge and attitudes that enable students to take into account the greater good and the interests of society as a whole.

Citizenship itself tends to be understood as a type of institutionalised form of solidarity (Faist, 2000, p. 202) shaped in relations between the individuals, society and the state. This is of utmost importance in the context of civic education, since, on the one hand, it determines its contents, detaching it from the narrow understanding of citizenship that is associated with the liberal tradition; on the other hand, it underlines the importance of civic education. If citizenship is a type of solidarity, and engagement, activism and creative shaping of relationship between the inidividual, state and society is about sustaining this solidarity, then it is key to adequately prepare people to perform an active role in this relationship.

In literature, citizenship is also linked to the notion of “good neighbourliness” (Bellamy, 2008, p. 6) which, again, is crucial from the perspective of our idea that includes multicultural education, cosmopolitan curiousness, opennes and empathy towards others, understanding your own socializing process, local and global contexts, as well as going out of the ethnocentric perspective.

In this context, it would be worth paying attention to the concept of group-differentiated citizenship (Young, 1989), multicultural citizenship (Kymlicki, 1995) and a citizenship based on the politics of recognition (Tylor & Gutmann, 1994). The common element for all of them is the emphasis put on the real assignment of citizen rights to the excluded groups and abandoning universal approach as the one that expresses the values and interests of the dominant group only.

If we want to achieve a civic education which is inscribed in thinking about education that we propagate within the Holistic Think Tank, we need to, on the one hand, abandon narrow and formalized understanding of citizenship present in the so-called liberal tradition and focus on a wide understanding that considers the informal aspects, which derives from the republican or communitarian tradition. Only then will the civic education allow for shaping active individuals that are creative in developing their relationships with the state, society and other people.

Bellamy, R. (2008). Citizenship: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Bloemraad, I., Korteweg, A., & Yurdakul, G. (2008). Citizenship and immigration: Multiculturalism, assimilation, and challenges to the nation-state. Annual review of sociology, 34, 153-179.

Council of Europe. (2010). Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)7 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education’. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.

Council of Europe. (2016). Competences for democratic culture – Living together as equals in culturally diverse democratic societies. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.

European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice (2017). Citizenship Education at School in Europe – 2017. Eurydice Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Faist, T. (2000). Transnationalization in international migration: implications for the study of citizenship and culture. Ethnic and racial studies, 23(2), 189-222.

Isin, E.F., & Turner, B.S. (2007). Investigating citizenship: An agenda for citizenship studies. Citizenship studies, 11(1), 5-17.

Kymlicka, W. (1995). Multicultural citizenship: A liberal theory of minority rights. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Kerr, D., & Losito, B. (2010). Initial Findings from the IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study. Amsterdam, Netherlands: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Taylor, C., & Gutmann, A. (1994). Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.

ten Dam, G., Geijsel, F., Reumerman, R., & Ledouxejed, G. (2011). Measuring Young People’s Citizenship Competences. European Journal of Education, 46(3), 354-372.

Walzer, M. (1989). Citizenship. In T., Ball, J., Farr & R.L., Hanson (Eds.). Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (pp. 211-220). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Werbner, P., Yuval-Davis, N., (Eds.). (1999). Women, citizenship and difference. London, UK: Zed Books.

Young, I. M. (1989). Polity and group difference: A critique of the ideal of universal citizenship. Ethics, 99(2), 250-274.