Teaching Democracy and Human Rights: A Curriculum Perspective

By Dobozy, Eva | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Teaching Democracy and Human Rights: A Curriculum Perspective


Dobozy, Eva, Journal of Australian Studies


Curriculum documents are open to multiple readings and despite attempts by bureaucracies to impose a preferred reading on the curriculum text, teachers, in the privacy of their own classrooms, interpret and implement these documents on the basis of their own experiences, discipline base, beliefs and philosophy of teaching and education. The attempt to control meaning may well be seen to be futile. (1)

Democracy and human rights are among the most significant concepts discussed in established and new democracies in recent times. The discussions are fuelled by conceptual and ideological controversies. The concept of democratic citizenship has developed over a historical and political continuum and is constantly being challenged and reproduced in various spheres of public and private life. There is a definite need for continuous exploration of complex but, nevertheless, essential questions concerning education for democratic citizenship. For example, how is the concept of 'good' and/or 'active' democratic citizenship understood and defined? Have recent citizenship education programs sought to control the construction of citizens in a particular way? In this paper, I will be drawing from and supporting the theory that concepts of democratic citizenship and human rights are social constructs. Thus, they are unstable categories that are subject to change as well as reproduction.

During the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, global support for human rights and constitutional democracy has become prominent. Education in and for democracy and human rights is likely to gain equal prominence and support throughout the world. The teaching and learning of democracy and human rights are part of many subject areas and approaches in formal education, and have wide political and social applications. There exists, however, little agreement about what should be taught and how it should be taught in this regard. Ideological and political positions also influence what theorists, policy designers and educators think should be covered under the topic of education for democratic citizenship.

Foregrounding my analysis of Australia's recent attempts to educate for democracy and human rights through the introduction of a comprehensive and costly civics and citizenship education policy and program, I discuss some current conceptions of education in and for democratic citizenship and human rights in Australia, and explore some of the potential problems and deficiencies of recent government initiatives. The aim of this paper is to make explicit why an integrated, process-oriented, rights-based educational approach to the teaching and learning of democracy and human rights may be preferable.

A Changing Context for Democratic Citizenship

Conceptions of democracy, human rights and democratic citizenship are plagued with definitional difficulties and deep-seated controversies about the nature of democratic institutions and processes. In recent times, since the formation, failure, and consequential disablement of the League of Nations, supranational organisations as well as nation-states have been trying, with increasing success, to advance broad agendas around concepts such as human rights and citizenship. The development of new international treaties and, therewith, the rearrangement of governing instruments on a supranational level to include, for example, children as 'citizens' with rights and responsibilities, may produce definitional challenges to conceptions of democratic citizenship.

In an attempt to reconcile the tensions and contradictions that are reflected in the dualistic relations between the individual and society in its diverse forms (aliens and citizens, private and public identities, rights and responsibilities, etc), I have developed a definitional explanation of democratic citizenship: Democratic citizenship may be characterised as the fluid, multifaceted and necessary glue between two simultaneously abstract and concrete concepts, namely that of an individual person and that of a group of people (community and/or society) to which this individual person belongs through some form of membership. …

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