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Civics, Citizenship and Civil Society

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The Constitution Centre is properly concerned about what, if anything, the younger generation is being taught in the area referred to as civics, citizenship and civil society. However, these terms are not necessarily clear and unambiguous. 

Civics has had some continuity in meaning. It refers to the school subject in which students are taught about the structures and functions of government at all levels. The actual content is graded to fit in with the development and experiences of the students. In the early decades of the 20th century, civics was often linked to the teaching of history.  In the 1936 Curriculum for Western Australian State Schools, civics was part of the Social and Moral Education Syllabus, but with the introduction of the Social Studies Syllabus in the 1950s, civics disappeared until the revival of the 1990s.

Citizenship is a much more complex concept. Betts (2002) argues that there are two perspectives on citizenship. The first, held by employer, financial and media elite groups, places an emphasis on processes so that the economic rationalist goal of an international workforce can be more readily achieved. A citizen is someone who has been born within the nation or, if born elsewhere, has been through a naturalisation process. The second perspective, held by the majority according to Betts, places an emphasis on the content of citizenship – the range of behaviours, expectations and values that constitute a person ‘like one of us’ (Dutton, 2002). To some extent such a distinction is similar to that between citizenship in terms of the exercise of certain rights and privileges and ‘active’ citizenship which involves a participation in communal and social activity beyond that of just exercising a franchise, working hard, paying taxes and obeying the laws of the land. 

A civil society embraces a liberal, democratic and constitutional polity but also a complementary network of voluntary associations dealing with all aspects of life, with membership open to all society members. The concept of a civil society is not one that has received a great deal of attention from writers on citizenship. However, lately Cox (1995), Dixson (1999), Hudson and Kane (2000) and Hirst (2002) have all drawn attention to the importance of non-government and voluntary associations which, when open to all, can provide a rich context in which the institution of the State can operate and support, and which provide the real stage for ‘active’ citizenship. 

The problem with the concept of citizenship when it is restricted to its narrow legal and political contexts is that it excludes the social and cultural dimensions studied in sociology and anthropology. The focus of the legal and political contexts reflects the contemporary concern with the inclusion of international workers and consumers. For most citizens, however, society is more comprehensive than the State and provides the context of the link between the individual and the State.

Active citizenship has to be imagined within the whole society comprising both State and non-government and voluntary associations. Schooling for active citizenship and a civil society involved cognitive, affective and conative dimensions. Teachers have to be prepared to teach about active citizenship to ensure that students appreciate the satisfaction of active citizenship and that they are facilitated into a life of social and cultural engagement.

Dixson (1999) argues that the stability and strength of liberal democracies such as Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand can be traced back to the network of voluntary associations that emerged in Britain at the time of the Enlightenment and during the modernisation processes that followed from the Industrial Revolution. While many of these associations were restricted to sectional interests such as religious denominations, class and ethnicity, there were many others with membership open to all citizens and which complemented the integrating role of the State. 

Hirst (2002) also makes the very important point at the beginning of his history of Australia’s democracy that, long before citizens were granted the franchise, they enjoyed the benefits of the rule of law. Britain was the first country in Europe that had a government that respected rights and liberties (2002, 3) and Lord Sydney ensured the rule of law was to apply even to a convict colony. 

For teachers and educationists in general the range of meanings associated with active citizenship and civil society poses a problem. Teaching a course in civics is discrete and can be done and examined within the process of schooling.  However, producing adults who are ‘active’ citizens raises questions of the role of the school in reconstructing society. Schools can prepare students for change but the school is an institution embedded within a wider society and its more general behavioural outcomes are problematic. Much depends upon the students’ family life, peer group, existing community life and the mass media of communication. 

Delarity (2000, 1) and others (see Stokes in Hudson and Kane, 2000, 231-242) envisage a new practice of citizenship that goes beyond the nation-state. He labels it ‘cosmopolitan citizenship’ and regards it as due to new expressions of cultural identity, human rights, technological innovation, ecological sustainability and political mobilisation. He regards economic globalisation as both supporting and threatening cosmopolitan citizenship. We look around in vain for democratically elected supra-national institutions, perhaps with the exception of the European Parliament. 

Phillips (2001, 8) argues that education can help in the pursuance of cosmopolitan citizenship by:

·         recognising citizenship education to be a core domain at all levels of education:

·         promoting the participation ideals of citizenship often labelled ‘active’ citizenship;

·         adjusting educational structures to take advantage of technological and communication revolutions; and

·         utilising the benefits of the internet at all levels of education.

 Globalisation opens up the possibility of something like cosmopolitan citizenship, a new practice that goes beyond the parameters of the nation-state. Perhaps a cosmopolitan civil society is already emerging with world-wide voluntary associations such as those linked to protecting human rights, environmentalism, saving endangered species, artistic and musical societies and the like.

Thus schooling for civics and citizenship within a civil society should be considered a culmination of values and moral education. It should help to answer the age-old question of ‘What is the Good Life?’