Elusive Character(s): Alberta Teachers as the Lost Subjects of Citizenship Education

By Couture, Jean-Claude | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Elusive Character(s): Alberta Teachers as the Lost Subjects of Citizenship Education


Couture, Jean-Claude, Our Schools, Our Selves


"If one were to remember everything and deny nothing, assertion, directed movement, politics itself would have no possible shape."

(Fish, 1994, p. 241)

Character and citizenship education has always been about one generation trying to invent the next. Certainly, the efforts to re-engage young people in electoral politics have seen renewed vigour across Canada. A recent publication of the Ontario School Boards' Association invoked Margaret Mead: "the solution to adult problems tomorrow depends in large measure, on the way our children grow up today. There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing that when we save our children we save ourselves."1 The academic community has been prolific in its production of publications reinserting the hope that liberal democracy can be rein\ igorated by a sustained commitment to citizenship education. The Citizen Education Research Network has actively monitored research and policy initiatives focused on citizenship education in Canada.2

While long regarded with suspicion by some scholars who claim that character education simply does not work.3 the project of creating future citizens remains a key goal in the collective imaginary that drives public education. "Shaping Young People into Good Citizens", published by the Alberta School Boards Association (2001 ) exemplifies the modernist project in clarifying "standards of behavior" and the need to create "good citizens" in safe and caring school environments. While avoiding any specific calls for a comprehensive provincial curriculum, the report calls for further work in identifying "mandatory citizenship activities within Alberta schools" (p. 30). Not surprisingly, these included an array of community service activities and mandated voluntarism. Underscoring much of the report is the all too predictable expression of anxiety about aggressive behavior and bullying.4

The search for the holy grail of exemplary character and citizenship education policies and programs remains elusive. Not only are educators and researchers divided on the philosophical principles and assumptions, the field is divided by localized political and parochial differences (Howard. Berkowitz and Schaeffer, 2004). Meanwhile, attempts at systematizing character and citizenship education have succeeded in mapping out somewhat attenuated common principles and standards.5 The tension between a concern for social cohesion and the perceived need for standards of civic conduct rub up against progressive interests in giving voice to marginalized sectors and the disadvantaged.

Despite the challenges, there is a growing genuine interest in moving away from the pedagogy of deferment (i.e. preparing students for their future roles as citizens) to engaging them in the immediate experiences of their everyday lives. In a study commissioned by ClDA, Petrie (2002) reviewed civic and global education programs across the Canada and found a rich array of local, provincial and national curricular initiatives that attempt to engage young people in social issues such as the injustices of sweatshop labour and environmental challenges such as global wanning. Not surprisingly, the study underscores the paradox that while teachers clamor for curricular support and resources in their classrooms, there is significant duplication of research and policy activity across the three levels of government on the topic of engaging young people in the political process (p. 23).6

A Canadian Teachers' Federation (2003) publication opened its exploration of the issues by quoting Neil Postman: "The question is not: Does or doesn't public schooling create a public? The question is: What kind of public does it create (2003)?" The CTF publication, countering traditional notions of citizenship education focused on nationhood and the rule of law, draws on Mark Kingwell's claim that the renewed interest in citizenship education must focus "on the act of participation itself rather than talking about it or studying government in abstraction. …

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