Citizenship Education for a Democratic Society

By Westheimer, Joel | Teach, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

Citizenship Education for a Democratic Society


Westheimer, Joel, Teach


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Few are likely to need convincing of the importance of democratic citizenship and the role for schools in pursuing it. In both Canada and the United States, there is increasing awareness that voting rates have dropped precipitously and that the biggest declines are among young people. Civic participation, many have argued, is at a decades-long low.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the accompanying dialogues on domestic security and foreign policy have further spurred educators to reexamine the role of schools in educating students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens.

We can get most folks to agree that teaching how to be a good democratic citizen is important. But when we get specific about what democracy requires and about what kind of school curricula will best promote it - much of that consensus falls away. Teachers, administrators, and students in schools that explicitly aim to teach democratic citizenship and values hold an assortment of different and sometimes contradictory beliefs.

It should not be surprising, then, that the growing number of schools that seek to further democratic citizenship by nurturing "good" citizens embody a similarly broad variety of goals and practices. Consider the following three school programs and ask yourself which one, in your mind, is teaching democratic citizenship. The first school, which I will call Capital High School teaches democratic citizenship through lessons on personal responsibility and through a provincial requirement for community service. Since Ontario students must each complete 40 hours of volunteer community service in order to graduate, teachers at Capital help students find volunteer activities in the community, helping out in soup kitchens, cleaning up parks, and assisting in hospitals.

Teachers and administrators in a second school, which I will call The Laura Secord School, engage students in lessons about how government works and emphasize participation in civic affairs. Teachers in this school feel that democratic citizenship requires that students know about laws and about legislative procedures. They also model civic participation by involving students in classroom and school-wide decisions. By enacting democratic principles within the school, these and other like-minded educators hope to develop and sharpen students' democratic citizenship skills, and dispositions.

A third school, "River Valley," has as one of its central curricular missions to teach students about social justice, about how to improve society, and about specific ways to affect change such as community drives, grass-roots campaigns, and protests.

Although I've changed their names, each of these schools is real and each is confident that the school is engaged in citizenship education for a democratic society. What kind of citizens does each of these schools want its students to become? Will students like those in Capital High School, who volunteer in the community become "good" citizens? Do mock trials or studies of the local legislature constitute citizenship education? Is a classroom or school that is governed democratically like the Laura Secord School better suited to impart democratic lessons? Or the last school I mentioned--is an emphasis on social justice the key to democratic ideals?

Not many people agree on what a good democratic citizen does. Some programs are based on the belief that good citizens show up to work on time and pay taxes. Other educators endorse the view that citizenship entails acting decently toward the people around you. A few programs seek to teach students to help shape social policy on behalf of those in need. They want students to become aware of the difficulties involved in changing the circumstances that lead to rivers or parks being dirty or to individuals and families being hungry.

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My colleague, Joe Kahne and I identified three visions of "good" citizens that help capture the lay of the land when it comes to citizenship education in the United States and Canada: the Personally Responsible Citizen; the Participatory Citizen; and the Justice Oriented Citizen. …

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