Citizenship in the Classroom

Do you often think about what kind of citizen you were when you were in school? I never did until I read the article, What Kind of Citizenship? The Politics of Educating for Democracy, where authors Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne talk about three important types of citizens: The Personally Responsible, the Participatory, and the Justice Oriented Citizen. Really, as mentioned in the article, you can’t be just one, and in order to be a good citizen, you should never strive to be just one. This is a case where the grey area is preferred over black and white. Also, neither is better than the other, so don’t go getting your superiority complexes in a twist.

So what does each citizen mean? Let’s look at the Personally Responsible Citizen first. These are citizens who believe that the best way to build character is through honesty. integrity, self-discipline and hard work. Examples of a Personally Responsible Citizen would be someone donating to a food drive, or volunteering. It’s also very community-based. An example of this in my school would be the SMACK program, which was all about volunteering within our community. Members of SMACK would regularly go to retirement homes and assist those who lived there or would do town-wide cleanups. Another example in my school would be Earth Day–on that day we would plant trees throughout the town, pick up litter, and hold events that promoted environmentalism.

Next, we have the Participatory Citizen. The best way to describe the difference between a Participatory and a Personally Responsible Citizen is that, while the Personally Responsible would donate to a food drive, the Participatory would organize the food drive. However, this type of citizen is also heavily involved in community-based efforts. In my school, we would regularly assist our local Optimist club by working with them during our annual Ski-Doo Rally, as well as working at the local movie theatre weekly. The Participatory Citizen is also involved in civic affairs of the community. Another example of this in my school would be annual votings where the school determined who would be the SRC President, VP, Secretary, and PR. If we were to look deeper at my school’s SRC, a Participatory Citizen would likely be in positions like President or Vice, while Personally Responsible Citizens would be class representatives. Those in higher positions would help organize events and fundraisers with our teachers, while the class representatives would help during those events.

Finally, possibly the least commonly pursued citizen, the Justice Oriented Citizen. I’m not going to deny that, when I first read the article, this is the citizen that seemed the most appealing to me. Why is that? Well, while a Personally Responsible Citizen would donate to causes like food drives, and a Participatory Citizen would organize those events, a Justice Oriented Citizen would critically question why there are people who cannot afford food in the first place. Justice Oriented Citizens want change at a systemic level. It’s all about “prepar[ing] students to improve society by critically analyzing and addressing social issues and injustices.” I immediately thought of a teacher of mine who I was very fond of during middle and high school. He was always talking about political issues in class and was never afraid to talk about a controversial topic. He regularly talked about systemic issues in our society and allowed us to discuss our thoughts on those topics. He gave us students the space to share concerns, which other teachers did not do. Most importantly, he “engage[d] students in informed analysis and discussion regarding social, political, and economic structures.” But if this type of citizen could instill change in our society, why is it the least pursued? Well, for one, change at a systemic level is extremely hard and so many don’t even attempt to try it. For another, many are taught that the society we live in doesn’t need to be critically challenged, so there’s no need for this type of citizen.

At my school, the focus was not on the Justice-Oriented Citizen. Most likely, from what I can remember, it was all about the Personally Responsible. There’s nothing wrong with that, as the authors note. Volunteerism, following the law, being a part of society, etc. is perfectly fine, but “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.” Having this as the main focus leads to students avoiding critical analysis, which really only benefits the democratic system that is in place at the time. It doesn’t lead to improvement of our society.

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