Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict

Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict

Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict

Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict


Citizenship under Fire examines the relationship among civic education, the culture of war, and the quest for peace. Drawing on examples from Israel and the United States, Sigal Ben-Porath seeks to understand how ideas about citizenship change when a country is at war, and what educators can do to prevent some of the most harmful of these changes.

Perhaps the most worrisome one, Ben-Porath contends, is a growing emphasis in schools and elsewhere on social conformity, on tendentious teaching of history, and on drawing stark distinctions between them and us. As she writes, "The varying characteristics of citizenship in times of war and peace add up to a distinction between belligerent citizenship, which is typical of democracies in wartime, and the liberal democratic citizenship that is characteristic of more peaceful democracies."

Ben-Porath examines how various theories of education--principally peace education, feminist education, and multicultural education--speak to the distinctive challenges of wartime. She argues that none of these theories are satisfactory on their own theoretical terms or would translate easily into practice. In the final chapter, she lays out her own alternative theory--"expansive education"--which she believes holds out more promise of widening the circles of participation in schools, extending the scope of permissible debate, and diversifying the questions asked about the opinions voiced.


In the Summer of 2002, Israeli high school students took their final exams for their high school diplomas. At age seventeen or eighteen, just before gaining their voting rights and beginning their mandatory military service, these students were confronted with the following question on their civic studies exam: “Explain why conscientious objection is subversive.”

With a stroke of a pen, the exam writers had abandoned decades of democratic deliberation on the balance between conscience and compliance, between majority rule and minority dissent. The students were presented with the conclusion, veiling a demand to refrain from joining the ranks of soldiers who, in the preceding months, had refused to serve in the occupied territories. At a culminating point of their civic education, the students were expected to be able to explain why opposing the decisions of a democratically elected government is, in the context of war, treacherous.

Civic education, democratic principles, peace and war are entangled in many ways. When a liberal democracy lives peacefully for a long period of time—as the United States did until September 11, 2001—the circumstances of peace become neutral. They move to the background, to be taken for granted, and they fail to draw the attention of citizens or to generate philosophical and political discussion. This failure is based on a misperception; as Susan Sontag pointedly maintains, “[T]hroughout history [w]ar has been the norm and peace the exception.” When such a democracy enters a period of war, many of the basic assumptions upon which its social order is constructed are distorted. Civic freedoms, long held as guaranteed, are suddenly limited. Social practices and personal priorities are revised. The education system cannot evade this fate. As public institutions responsible for preparing future generations to become part of society, schools are inclined to undergo change. This book explores some of these changes and offers a normative direction they should take, herein dubbed “expansive education.”

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