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More to schools than jobs

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WHEN Education Minister James Allum announced a two per cent increase in school funding last week, he said the new money should be used to improve students’ basic math, science and reading skills while also boosting high school skills training and career development.

Leaving aside the objection educators these days seem only ever to talk of skills and never of knowledge, this is all to the good. The province needs skilled workers, Manitobans deserve to get good jobs, and our schools must do all they can to make this possible.

At the same time, there has to be more to schooling than job preparation. Notably absent from the minister’s announcement was any mention of education for citizenship, even though preparing the young for democratic citizenship is surely an important function of our schools and has been ever since Manitoba made school attendance compulsory back in 1916.

It is true citizenship can be a two-edged sword and has often been used to silence minorities and dissidents. Educating the young for citizenship was the best insurance against "anarchy and bolshevism" said a 1925 Royal Commission, taking aim against labour militants and assorted radicals.

There were good reasons why feminists, socialists and other reformers rejected the straitjacketed definition of citizenship that was so often thrust upon them.

For First Nations, citizenship was and often still is another word for residential schools, assimilation, racism and denial of treaty rights. For francophones, it once meant denial of language rights. For religious and cultural minorities, it could mean denial of their beliefs and values.

Citizenship in a democracy, however, can and must be more than this. It is about what might and should be, and how we get there, not simply about what is. In the words of American philosopher Richard Rorty, citizens have to be loyal both to their country as it is and to the "dream country" they hope it will become.

Political scientists tell us the health of democracy depends upon the quality of its citizens, their sense of identity, their acceptance of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and not least on their willingness to become engaged with the issues that face them.

Researchers also tell us democracy might be in trouble. Despite the existence of Idle No More, student volunteer projects and other forms of civic activism, a shrinking minority of citizens are engaged in any kind of political activity. Elections attract fewer and fewer voters. Political cynicism is widespread. And the forecast is these trends will get worse not better.

For Canada, facing all the challenges thrown up by an increasingly globalizing world, this can spell trouble, and some researchers are suggesting one of the most important tasks of citizenship education today is to prepare young Canadians to join in the ongoing debate about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy.

If nothing else, standard definitions of citizenship are changing, and we do our students no favours if we do not prepare them for the challenges that are to come.

The noted Canadian political scientist, Alan Cairns, has written "We must hope that a citizen body lacking the bond of a standardized citizenship but nevertheless participating in common civic endeavours is not an oxymoron." Part of the solution is to be found in a renewed and reformed citizenship education.

This is what makes the minister of education’s failure to mention citizenship so regrettable, not least because it seems to be part of a wider pattern. In 2002, the provincial Department of Education was renamed as Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth and created a program of grants to support innovations in citizenship education.

All this has now gone and, with the exception of the social studies curriculum, education for democratic citizenship receives less attention than it once did, replaced by talk of skills and career preparation.

If democracy is to achieve its potential, to be genuinely inclusive, to wrestle with the barriers of class, gender, race, poverty and other forms of inequality, to command the commitment and engagement of all citizens in the never-ending quest to improve the way we live, then we need a vision of citizenship and citizenship education that pervades the whole curriculum regardless of grade level or subject.

Skills training and career preparation are obviously important. But we also need history, geography, literature, the arts and all the other so-called "frills" that are so essential if we are to help students make the most of their lives and make genuinely democratic citizenship a reality.

It might well be that what we used to think of as a liberal education, grounded in knowledge as well as skills, appropriately organized and tied to a vision of what democracy might be, is the best preparation for citizenship after all.

As the 19th-century poet, social critic and school inspector Matthew Arnold once put it, education at its best introduces us to the rich variety of human achievement and aspiration, and in so doing enables us to cast "a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notion and habits." What better way is there to prepare our children for the exercise of democratic citizenship?


A former high school history teacher, Ken Osborne is now professor emeritus in the faculty of education, University of Manitoba

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2014 A7

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