Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Understanding and Action: Thinking with Arendt about Democratic Education

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Understanding and Action: Thinking with Arendt about Democratic Education

Article excerpt

The question that has to be asked is whether the very ways in which higher education has been extended to a greater percentage of the population, and re-structured to serve the economy, run contrary to earlier democratic and social hopes and aspirations. Do some current developments actually marginalise social understanding and foster only individual means of dealing with problems of society, inhibit connection and collective commitment, encourage despair and a general lack of concern for the fate of others? Such critical questioning may lead to one of two conclusions. Either one can see that other identities are being fostered by the extension of higher education, at the expense of that of 'citizen', or a new form of citizenship is being constructed as an alternative to that which the social democratic state tried to promote. (Ahier, Beck & Moore, 2003:63)

Introduction

Ahier's quote sharply introduces the contradictory context within which tertiary institutions are expected to play a role in the development of citizenship. While processes of democratisation since the end of World War 2 have extended the right of citizenship to many more individuals, this citizenship, far from being conceived and practised as social, has been increasingly characterised by a preoccupation with the needs and aspirations of the individual almost to the exclusion of the social. The pre-eminence of the individual, coupled with the paramount role that market forces have played in determining the skills and competencies required by students in order to succeed in society, are not easily reconcilable with national and international higher education policy injunctions about the role of universities in educating for citizenship. In the UK, the Robbins Report (1963) indicated that "the transmission of a common culture and standards of citizenship" were among the goals of higher education (Ahier et al., 2003:1). More than a decade later, at the height of higher education reform in the UK, the Dearing Report (1997) confirmed higher education's role as a transmitter of citizenship and culture. In a very different context, the first democratic government of South Africa saw one of the fundamental aims of higher education as "to contribute to the socialisation of enlightened, responsible and constructively critical citizens" (Department of Education, 1997:1.3). What does this mean at a time when students are increasingly regarded as clients and when the market influences not only the programmes that universities offer, but also the identities fostered in university graduates? It seems to me that any attempt at giving serious expression in higher education teaching and learning to the notion of 'graduate citizens' has to start by grappling with the meaning of politics and citizenship and how these intersect.

The literature in the field of citizenship and education is vast, encompassing studies on the role of the university as citizen itself and its capacity for, and orientation to community engagement (GUNI, 2009); studies on the contribution that extra-curricular programmes make to the development of civic attitudes in young people (Service Enquiry, 2003); studies on how institutions teach citizenship in specific curriculum (Gross & Dynneson, 1991; CHE, 2006b), and studies on the role that the curricular and the non-curricular can have in educating future citizens and democracy (Ahier et al., 2003; Bender, 2006; Dewey, 2004; Ehrlich, 2001; Giroux, 2008; Guarasci & Cornwell, 1997). In this article, I focus specifically on the conceptual preconditions that need to underpin the notion of 'teaching' citizenship through the university curriculum. I argue that the intellectual and moral habits that inform citizenship can be developed in the context of higher education. In doing this, I take as my point of departure the republican notion of citizenship and Hannah Arendt's contribution to thinking politics, citizenship and education to propose a political pedagogy that can help foster a citizenship identity that counters the individualist identities provided by the insidious influence of the market in higher education. …

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