Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Striving for Critical Citizenship in a Teacher Education Program: Problems and Possibilities

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Striving for Critical Citizenship in a Teacher Education Program: Problems and Possibilities

Article excerpt

Research in higher education reveals that among 18-22 year olds interest in volunteerism is at an all time high while political engagement is at an all time low (Sax, 2004; Spiezio, 2002). When disaggregated by major, those pursuing degrees in education tend to be some of the least interested in politics, with only 11.9% reporting discussing politics on a regular basis. This percentage falls well below the national average of 20% and significantly behind their peers majoring in political science, 57.6% of whom report discussing politics frequently (Sax). It stands to reason that general education majors may discuss politics even less often than secondary education majors charged with teaching civics, as the latter have likely spent more time in social studies related coursework. This research is alarming when we consider that our least civically engaged college students are in education programs preparing to assume responsibility for the civic education of our youth.

As scholars and educators committed to preparing students to become critically conscious, active citizens aware of socio-political contexts within which they live and work, we believe it is our responsibility to provide ample opportunities for students to experience and develop commitment to more critical understandings of citizenship. We ground this commitment within arguments for democratic citizenship that requires more than good character and loyalty to one's country, but the ability to "exert influence in public affairs" and work toward democratic ideals of justice, equality, and freedom (Griffin, 1996; Newmann, Bertocci, & Landsness, 1977; Westheimer & Kahne, 2004). With this in mind, we designed a longitudinal qualitative study to investigate how pre-service teachers' involvement with a change-oriented service-learning project might impact how they understand citizenship (and themselves as civic actors), and what consequence this may have for their evolving conceptions of civic education. This paper reports on the first two semesters of this ongoing study, in which we followed a group of 22 pre-service elementary teachers during their methods and student teaching semesters. (1) Using Westheimer and Kahne's notions of citizenship as a conceptual lens, we analyzed three data sources: pre-and post-writing about citizenship and culminating reflections (gathered during the methods semester), and follow-up surveys (gathered during the student teaching semester).

Our reading of the data suggests two central findings: (1) students' participation in change-oriented service-learning pushed them to consider the importance of action and knowledge as essential aspects of citizenship in the short term; (2) students' thinking about the purposes and practices of civic education closely reflected their changing thinking about and enactments of citizenship over time. In what follows, we establish a change-oriented theoretical framework, exploring related literature on citizenship and service-learning. We then describe the study itself, delineate central findings, and conclude with a discussion of the implications for research and practice in higher education.

Citizenship and Social Action

Dewey (1916) wrote, "Democracy has to be born anew every generation and education is its midwife." He warns, however, that "education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind" (p. 40). We understand civic education as the concerted effort to prepare students to assume responsibility for moving society forward in a more just direction where individuals are responsive and responsible to the larger whole, or common good. As such, teacher education is an appropriate place to foster commitment to the "society we have in mind" and to education as a means to achieve it.

What is "just," however, is widely debated in public discourse and often hinges upon one's interpretation of the balance between individual and social interest, or as Parker (2002) suggests, unity over diversity. …

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