Unsafe Waters, Stolen Sisters, and Social Studies: Troubling Democracy and the Meta-Narrative of Universal Citizenship

Article excerpt

There is a propensity, when considering the meaning(s) of citizenship, to think in terms of universality and equality rather than difference and inequity (Arnot, 2006; Hall, 2000). In a North American context, citizenship often operates as a taken for granted status with the requisite rights and responsibilities associated with membership in a nation. In education, how citizenship is embedded in curricular discourses and how it is taken up by both teachers and students is influenced by a discourse of universality (Miller, 2000). Most often, citizenship is linked to democracy and informed by an overwhelming acceptance that democracy does indeed exist. Social studies, perhaps more than any other subject, is complicit in advancing this commonsense understanding of citizenship and democracy, and it is one that requires disruption to its very core. But where do we situate this disruption given the proclivity for standardization, accountability, and content coverage that is pervasive in social studies education? And where might we situate this disruption given the preoccupation of many educators with technique rather than interrogation?

In this discussion I attempt to do two things. First in questioning what is democratic about our (and here I am referring to Canada and the United States) current state of "democracy," I attempt to dispel (as I have previously--see for example Tupper, 2005; Tupper, 2006; Tupper, 2007 ) the veracity of citizenship as universal (essentialist notions of universal citizenship) that seems to permeate social studies curriculum documents, glossing over or rendering non-existent, historical and contemporary realities of individuals who have not experienced citizenship in equitable and just ways. This is what I refer to as the meta-narrative of universal citizenship contingent upon the 'truth' rather than the falsity of democracy, the 'truth' rather than the falsity of equality. Second, I argue that if we hope to move toward a more genuinely democratic reality in North America, we need to consider the role that teacher education can play, the principles and practices that guide our teacher education programs and how we might work with our students to interrogate their very understandings of citizenship and democracy, the cornerstones of what many believe education to be serving. 'Universal' citizenship must always be used as a category of analysis not only in social studies classrooms, but in teacher education contexts as well, because as Cherryholmes (2006) reminds us, "teachers choose a way of life for themselves and their students when they plan and teach" (p.11).

What's Democratic about Democracy?

I have, for many years, been working in the area of social studies education, both as a teacher and now, as an academic and teacher educator. My relationship with social studies has been a tumultuous one and I often find myself living in tension between what I perceive as social studies' ability to both empower and oppress. Often, these overlap and what might be empowering for some students and teachers, is in fact, oppressive for others. Social studies, more than any other subject, has become the sight for educating about citizenship and the ideals of democracy, and in some cases, educating for citizenship and for democratic practices (Adler, 2004; Avery, 2004). However, I believe that it is the former rather than the latter that dominates social studies education, despite (and perhaps because of) persistent calls for the education of democratic citizens. Where education and social studies fall short is in their entrenched assumptions that democracy is something that has already been achieved, that as educators we are working within a larger context of democracy (particularly in North America) that informs our practices and the curricula we are required to teach.

Yet there are those who argue that for many individuals, democracy does not and has never existed (Pateman, 1989) and those who go further in suggesting that democracy in its truest form continues to elude us, and as such should be treated as an aspiration rather than an accomplishment (Parker, 2001). …


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