August 2, 2014 – 12:26 pm

“Digital citizenship” is a phrase I encounter often in my educational travels. Rather than merely teach how to use software and hardware, we should realize that students are citizens in an online world and teach them how to live in such a place. It sounds good on the surface, but there’s a whole contested idea of what “citizenship” is that I hadn’t begun to think about until I read the paper What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. Here are my notes on that paper.

Nat’s Summary
Everyone assumes democracy is a good thing and should be “taught in schools”, but there are some quite different mental models for what democracy is, which change what happens in school, and which then change the mindsets of the children that come out of the school.

The authors identify three conceptions of citizenship: personally responsible (emphasizing the individual’s character and values for participating in the collective acts of citizenship), participatory (understanding structure of democratic systems so as to organise collective acts within them), and justice-oriented (seeking to change outcomes for some in society by changing the structures of the society).

Personal responsibility is inadequate for a responsive citizenry. In particular, the emphasis on the individual serves to de-emphasize the system in which the individual acts.  To focus only on what an individual is and can do is to overlook system-level qualities (institutional racism or sexism, for example). One interesting lens to decide whether a value is related to the special character of a democratic nation is to ask whether a tyrant would want those behaviours in their citizens.  Such a tyrant would value clean, polite, obedient, volunteering servants.

Great phrase from the paper: “A Vision of What to Do and the Knowledge and Skills Needed to Do It”.  This is around participatory projects: organising immunisation drives, or petitioning the county for curbside recycling collection.

The authors believe justice-oriented should have primacy, with participatory skills also taught. The values of caring, kindness, etc. fall out of the other two (though I suspect that “dissatisfaction with the status quo” is rarely thought of as a democratic value.)  Analysis of two programmes (yes, n=2, hello social ‘science’!) supports their claim that you don’t automatically get participatory skills when you teach social justice critiques, nor vice-versa.

Nat’s Thoughts
I read this from the lens of someone interested in “digital citizenship”.  If I map the three citizenship conceptions onto the digital realm, it looks like:
personal responsibility = take care of yourself online (be modest, private, helpful)
participatory = how to create in the digital world (websites, video, docs, etc.)
justice-oriented = who makes websites and why, who’s not online, what aren’t you hearing, how are online behaviours the result of designs, what designs might drive other behaviours.
I’m not sure what a community organiser looks like in this digital world.  I mean, I know companies and open source projects with communities, and there are community managers, but a community organiser is a little different—they start, as much as manage, communities.  That’s an open thought, to be picked up at conferences.

Key quotes
(emphasis mine)
Conceptions of “good citizenship” imply conceptions of the good society.

Our framework aims to order some of these perspectives by grouping three differing kinds of answers to a question that is of central importance for both practitioners and scholars: What kind of citizen do we need to support an effective democratic society?  In mapping the terrain that surrounds answers to this question, we found that three visions of “citizenship” were particularly helpful in making sense of the variation: the personally responsible citizen; the participatory citizen; and the justice oriented citizen.

Each vision of citizenship, therefore, reflects a relatively distinct set of theoretical and curricular goals.  These visions are not cumulative.  Programs that promote justice oriented citizens do not necessarily promote personal responsibility and participatory citizenship.
The personally responsible citizen acts responsibly in his/her community by, for example, picking up litter, giving blood, recycling, obeying laws, and staying out of debt. The personally responsible citizen contributes to food or clothing drives when asked and volunteers to help those less fortunate whether in a soup kitchen or a senior center.  Programs that seek to develop personally responsible citizens hope to build character and personal responsibility by emphasizing honesty, integrity, self-discipline, and hard work (Horace Mann, 1838; and currently proponents such as Lickona, 1993; Wynne, 1986).

Other educators see good citizens as those who actively participate in the civic affairs and the social life of the community at local, state, and national levels.   We call this kind of citizen the participatory citizen.  Proponents of this vision emphasize preparing students to engage in collective, community-based efforts.  Educational programs designed to support the development of participatory citizens focus on teaching students about how government and community based organizations work and about the importance of planning and participating in organized efforts to care for those in need, for example, or in efforts to guide school policies.  Skills associated with such collective endeavorssuch as how to run a meetingare also viewed as important (Newmann, 1975; also see Verba, at al., 1995 for an empirical analysis of the importance of such skills and activities).  While the personally responsible citizen would contribute cans of food for the homeless, the participatory citizen might organize the food drive

Our third image of a good citizen is, perhaps, the perspective that is least commonly pursued.  Justice oriented educators argue that effective democratic citizens need opportunities to analyze and understand the interplay of social, economic, and political forces. We refer to this view as the justice oriented citizen because advocates of these priorities use rhetoric and analysis that calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice.2 The vision of the justice oriented citizen shares with the vision of the participatory citizen an emphasis on collective work related to the life and issues of the community.  Its focus on responding to social problems and to structural critique make it somewhat different, however.  Building on perspectives like those of Freire and Shor noted earlier, educational programs that emphasize social change seek to prepare students to improve society by critically analyzing and addressing social issues and injustices.  These programs are less likely to emphasize the need for charity and volunteerism as ends in themselves and more likely to teach about social movements and how to effect systemic change (See, for example, Ayers, 1998; Bigelow and Diamond, 1988; Issac, 1995)3.  That today’s citizens are “bowling alone” (Putnam, 2000) would worry those focused on civic participation.  Those who emphasize social justice, however, would worry more that when citizens do get together, they often fail to focus on root causes of problems.   In other words, if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.  

Critics note that the emphasis placed on individual character and behavior obscures the need for collective and often public sector initiatives; that this emphasis distracts attention from analysis of the causes of social problems and from systemic solutions; that volunteerism and kindness are put forward as ways of avoiding politics and policy.

A study commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State (1999) found that less than 32 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the 1996 presidential election (in 1972, the comparable number was 50 percent), but that a whopping 94 percent of those aged 15-24 believed that “the most important thing I can do as a citizen is to help others” (also see Sax, et al., 1999).

Do programs that support civic participation necessarily promote students’ capacities for critical analysis and social change? Conversely, does focusing on social justice provide the foundation for effective and committed civic actors? Or might such programs support the development of armchair activists who have articulate conversations over coffee, without ever acting?

A Vision of What to Do and the Knowledge and Skills Needed to Do It

The Youth in Public Service program aimed to promote civic participation consistent with a vision of participatory citizenship, to link service to academic content, and to provide a meaningful research experience. We found the program to be notable for its success in these areas. But the program did not aim to foster the justice-oriented citizen’s understanding of structural or root causes of problems. While students did study controversial topics—requiring prisoners to work for small or no earnings, for example, or evaluating a detention center for juveniles—they did not consider structural issues or questions of systemic injustice . They did not examine data regarding the relationship between race, social class, and prison sentencing or question whether increased incarceration has lowered crime rates. They did not examine whether incarcerating juveniles (as opposed to other possible policies) increases or decreases the likelihood of future criminal activity or investigate which groups lobby for tougher or less strict sentencing laws. Nor did they identify or discuss the diverse ideologies that inform political stances on such issues. Similarly, the group of students who examined their County’s tax structure to identify possible ways to finance needed school construction conducted a survey to find out residents’ preferences. They found out that 108 of 121 residents said “no” to the idea of a local income tax. These students did not discuss the reasons so many residents oppose a local income tax or examine issues of equity when considering alternative options for taxation.

teachers avoided broader, ideologically-based political issues

Bayside Students for Justice aimed to develop community activists. As one of the teachers for this program put it, “My goal is to turn students into activists [who are] empowered to focus on things that they care about in their own lives and to…show them avenues that they can use to achieve real social change, profound social change.” The program advanced a justice oriented vision of citizenship seeking to teach students how to address structural issues of inequity and injustice and bring about social change.

Some students in Bayside Students for Justice studied whether SAT exams are biased and created a pamphlet pointing out the weaknesses of the test in adequately predicting future student success in college. They distributed the pamphlet to the school and surrounding community. Another group examined child labor practices worldwide and the social, political, and economic issues these practices raise. These students held school-wide forums on their findings in an effort to inform students—many of whom wear the designer clothes and shoes manufactured by the corporations that the group investigated—of the child labor practices of these corporations. They also called on school officials to be aware of the labor practices employed by manufacturers from which the school purchased T-shirts and athletic uniforms. Jason’s observation—typical of students interviewed about their experience—reflects the program’s emphasis on justice: “It’s amazing how all this exploitation is all around us and stuff; I mean we are even wearing clothes and we don’t have [any] idea who makes them, how much they’re paid, or where they work.” A third group investigated what they found to be a dearth of adequate education programs in juvenile detention centers, eventually making a video to publicize their findings. In a presentation to the school, this group reported that “Instead of buying books, they used money to put bars on windows [that] don’t even open.” “We wanted to show that not all the kids in there are that bad,” one of the students said, “If our youth is the future of our country, then we’d better take care of [them] even if they’re in trouble.”

The class that best illustrates Bayside Students for Justice’s focus on critical analysis and social critique was the one led by Nadia Franciscono, a veteran social studies teachers and one of the Bayside Students For Justice founders. Ms. Franciscono’s sees an understanding of social justice as an essential component of informed citizenship. Adorning her classroom walls are several posters with quotations from well-known educators, religious leaders, and social critics. Bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Paulo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful not to be neutral.”

These approaches conclude that an individual’s character does matter, but that character can best be understood – and changed – through social analysis and attention to root causes of social injustices. The program seeks to enhance students’ understanding of society rather than simply giving students a list of values they are to embrace and behaviors they are magically to adopt.

If there is a lesson to be learned about personal responsibility for Franciscono, it is that the personal is political, that personal experiences and behavior both result from and are indicators of broader political forces. For Bayside Students For Justice, personal responsibility requires that one study and seek to change these forces. With this recognition, Franciscono is able to structure curriculum that promotes citizens who are both personally responsible and justice oriented.

since ways educators advance these visions may privilege some political perspectives regarding the ways problems are framed and responded to, there is a politics to educating for democracy – a politics that deserves careful attention.

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