Becoming A Good Responsible Citizen In Democratic Society

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In what way can leaners’ ability to become active citizens be enhanced? What knowledge, skills and values do they need to possess and flourish as active democratic citizens? The European Economic and Social Committee (2012) defines active citizenship as: the glue that keeps society together…. True active citizenship is underpinned by a set of fundamental values that includes respect for the rule of law, democracy, justice, tolerance and open-mindedness, and regard for the rights and freedoms of others (p.6-7).

Living in a democratic society, individuals have a voice and they are able to participate within the society they are living in. This participation comes with responsibilities of making informed decisions, which ultimately require the adequate knowledge to do so. One might say that active citizenships means having the right to participate, debate and share your voice, whilst holding a responsibility not only individually but for the welfare of the entire society.

Democracy is a political stance that goes back to 6th century B.C. in Athens which was then a city state known as the Polis. Being a citizen in Athens required being a pure born and bred male Athenian. Athenians practised ‘Direct Democracy’ which had its citizens rule directly. All citizens had a right to attend, speak and vote for laws and treaties during assembly. The assembly was constructed of the ‘Council of 500’, which was made up from 50 individuals from 10 districts that were selected by lot. Then there were the ‘Magistrates’ appointed by the citizens, the ‘Generals’ responsible for the army and the ‘Jury system’ which was also made up of citizens (Cartwright, 2018). Direct democracy had two principles. First, it encouraged participation within Athens because it gave the ability to citizens to speak and learn how to speak in public. Participation was the best way to educate citizens and ultimately encourage active citizenship. Second, direct democracy also encouraged amateurism because citizens were able to carry out multiple roles and responsibilities and could contribute to everything because they had the knowledge to do so. Models of direct democracy have never appeared again since ancient Greece. Today we adopt ‘Representative democracies’, were people govern through representatives chosen by them.

If we look at democracy today, most people assume that being a democratic society means having the right to vote and they only practise democracy when it is election period. Westheimer & Kahne (2004) comment that there are three types of citizens; the ‘Personally responsible citizen’, the ‘Participatory citizen’ and the ‘Justice-oriented citizen’. The ‘Personally responsible citizen does act responsibly within a community, they work and pay taxes, recycles etc. The ‘Participatory citizen’ is more active within the community. They are individuals who know how the government works and the different strategies. They are the citizens that would help organize an activity within a society. The ‘Justice-oriented’ citizen is an individual who does not just help others and help organise activities, they want to find the root of the social problems within the community and they want to address injustices. They are able to assess social, economic and political structures critically. All three types of citizens are important to address within an education context. Whilst it is important to educate students about personal responsibilities that they hold within a democratic society, it is also important to educate and provide students with the necessary skills that help students challenge social injustices and the political systems when necessary, not just for individual welfare, but for the welfare of the community they are living in. It is necessary for schools to foster knowledge, a level of morality and sense of responsibility within their students in order for them to progress as active citizens.

According to John Dewey, a high level of knowledge is necessary for a democratic society. The second correlation of education and democracy, is that school often imitates a culture of democracy as a social institution. This increases awareness about living in a democratic society amongst students. As a social institution, schools bring together different people. Having different people means different backgrounds and different ideologies. This institution should offer students a way to emerge from narrowness which comes from the students’ background and upbringing. John Dewey argues that schools often neglect the fundamental principle of “the school as a form of community life” (Dewey, 1897). Schools as an institution should simplify existing social life, including the involvement of democracy. It should not provide growth for the future, but growth for growths sake, growth for the present. Taking PSCD as an example, a lot of social problems are targeted such as drugs. Teachers want students to make the informed decision of not taking drugs now, not when they are 20. Schools should address problems in the now, not what should be done in the future. Wood et. al (2018) comment that students require affective engagement in the democratic process which includes matters that interest them for them to adequately learn what it means to be an active citizen. Students need the appropriate abilities for deep cognitive understandings of the social issues around them to make increasingly informed decisions and be more active both in their school community and in the society they live in. Having students participate in discussions helps them invest more in their learning, for example, it is different to teach about safe sex, then discussing about safe sex within a society together with students. In this way students have the knowledge to provide their own thoughts in a discussion and making their own informed decision, which is necessary for a democratic society.

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Democracy within a school provides students with a voice within a social context, however, voices need someone that listens. Students’ voices can be expressed in school through student councils, however, their voice within a school council can still be limited and controlled by the institution. Students might be seen as representing the schools, but who is really providing the council with ideas? Is it students to students? Or the management giving ideas to the students? In that way, the voice that is being heard is not really the one of the students. Schools as a community can listen to its students through various ways. Teachers can address individual needs through lesson planning, always keeping in mind that students are not homogenous and do not share the same needs. This might be problematic for teachers to provide individual attention to students in class. In PSCD having students sit in a circle shows that all students are all equal and they do have the right to discuss and put forward their ideas. It is important for teachers to use stories and topics that are relatable and realistic to today’s society, such as immigration and same-sex parents, to help students pave a way out of narrowness and be able to realise that every individual has the right to a different opinion. Students are more motivated when they have higher levels of “affective engagement with a social issue” (Wood et. al, 2018, p. 265). It is also important for a teacher to maintain his or her role. It is not just about teaching, but also providing an element of discipline and informing students that life does have an order, and whilst democracy provides individuals with rights and a voice, they also have their duties both as students, and as citizens and in the wider society.

Foucault argues that all relationships are relations of power, and thus, it is difficult to maintain a democratic environment within a social institution such as a school because of power struggles, especially between teacher and students. Teachers might believe that they have the knowledge and thus suppress the students’ voice. Adding to this, democracy does provide an advantage to the Foucauldian idea of a political sphere that is concerned about the power relationships within the society, not only because it enables the participation and involvement of all individuals, but also it permits debates, modifications and maximum freedom of authority and opposition to abuses of power, were both as students and citizens, individuals can speak up and not give in to the fate imposed on them by those in power (Ollsen, 2003). If this is practised within a school community, it provides students with the necessary skills to flourish their own agency and be able to make informe decisions, without succumbing to the social norms of those around them.

UNESCO also comments about the need for citizenship education to help increase the ability of individuals to challenge violent extremism and moderate the brains behing these phenomena by providing adolescents with the right knowledge and values that would help them foster critical thinking, empathy and the ability to take a stand against violent extremism. UNESCO offers a number of services to do so including; ‘Global Advocacy’ which works with education entities from all around the world to have an increased and human-rights based engagement in education, ‘Development of Guidance’ which helps both policy-makers and educators in managinc classroom discussion regarding radicalization and to create an inclusive, respectful and open discussion, and ‘Capacity-Building’ which helps educators develop the necessary skills to target genocide prevention and violent extremism (UNESCO, 2016).

The National Curriculum Framework (2012) comments that this framework aims to secure that all kinds of learning will lead to a commitment towards personal growth, social justice, employability and active citizenship by focusing on children’s and young people’s development of skills, knowledge and values to maintain personal growth, inclusivity and being a responsible citizen. Citizenship education is one of the main focuses of PSCD lessons in the Maltese curriculum by placing the different learning experiences targeted in different topics that help students “acquire positive attitudes towards the environment, acceptance of others and respect for human rights. The aim is to encourage learners to become active citizens” (Camilleri, et. al, 2015, p. 45). Alongside PSCD, Education for Democracy is also targeted in Social Studies, Environmental education and Home Economics in relation to consumer studies (NCF, 2012

As Dewey (1937) comments, being a democratic active citizen is deeper than a political form. Democracy is a way of life, both individual and social, as it provides individuals with the nexessary values and aids in the mature formation to “regulate the living of men together” (p. 457). Being democratic should not be limited to parliament. Democracy should be implemented in our everyday lives, not just as active citizens of the state, but for the wellbeing of the society in general. Democracy is thus very important to be implemented in schools, to help students grow, be responsible and have the necessary knowledge to exert their own agency. If democracy fails within an educational contexts, it will fail in the bigger picture, effecting not only an individual but an entire society.

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