Civic Education Roundup Week of May 18, 2020

This week, an analysis of the shortcomings of identity politics in building a unifying political culture, a study of service learning as a means of translating civic engagement lessons in the classroom into tangible benefits in the community, a case study describing how the classroom helped create a culture of religious tolerance in Indonesia, and finally a new approach to civic education in a turbulent political and socioeconomic environment. 

Identity Politics or Shared Citizenship?

Every Tool is a Weapon if You Hold it Right: Solidarity, Civics Education, and Use Oriented Politics, Daniel Gottlieb and Amy Shuffleton

To Gottlieb and Shuffleton, identity politics, calls to citizenship, and chemical fertilizer have one thing in common: they are all dual-use technologies which can be used for harm just as easily as they are used for good. Just as chemical fertilizer can be used to manufacture bombs as well as increase crop yield, identity politics has been used by actors from the KKK to the NAACP to both promote solidarity and create arbitrary lines of division, and a rhetoric of citizenship has also been used weaponized by politics of both exclusion and inclusion. Gottlieb and Shuffleton analyze the view of “shared citizenship” advocated by Mark Lilla and explore its contradictions with “identity politics.” They recognize the influence of educators in shaping the future of American cultural politics, and advocate for a civic education that combines elements of both. Lilla contends that “identity politics” has failed to build a broad political base, and views its rise as part of a shift in American history from a period he names the “Roosevelt Dispensation” of democracy to the “Reagan dispensation.” Instead of categorizing such a shift as the rise of “neoliberalism,” Lilla chooses instead to separate the history of the United States into discrete periods using language from Christian theology, each of which called upon American citizens to react to national problems with a certain set of ideals.The experience of these problems lends legitimacy to the rhetoric politicians use to respond to them, and Lilla believes that by choosing to subdivide Americans into separate identities instead of uniting a large swatch of Americans around a sense of co-belonging, the Left has failed in their political vision and instead created a hyper-individualistic, dogmatic society. Instead, Lilla argues that the Left should instead turn to a politics of “shared citizenship,” which allows us to distinguish between the privileged and the disadvantaged while building solidarity in a way that transcends markers of identity. Gottlieb and Shuffleton present an adjacent view to Lilla’s by reimagining the “shared” in “shared citizenship” to be a present-continuous verb that indicates that it is still an ongoing project, not a marker that erases differences in identity. They argue that such a reconfiguration addresses the “ontological error” pointed out in earlier work by Marion Young, which noted that “structural group difference” was distinct from “identity,” and treating group differences like separate identities applied a logic of substance to groups which did not have substance because they were, in actuality, only a set of relationships in a given social structure. To  them, works-in-progress are the ones who labor towards the project of national ideals, and a reimagined civic education is necessary to uphold this political culture. Gottlieb and Shuffleton argue that presenting civics information in a way which makes students think certain facts or principles as foundational, in which an educator is mindful about the value systems that their presentation of these facts contribute to, will help cement the link between civics education and developing students who care about their country. 

Civic Education and Religious Diversity

Cultivating Respect for Religious Tolerance: A Case Study for Civic Education, Erica Larson et. al

The very foundation of a civics education– teaching students how to be active, compassionate participants in the political process– is heavily impacted by the different definitions of upstanding citizenship taught by unique religious and cultural backgrounds. To examine the impact of different religious contexts on tolerance in civic education, Larson, Pasandaran, and Katuuk use three schools from the Indonesian city of Manado as case studies, seeking to examine the contribution of civic education courses to the broader context of the socialization of students towards diversity. The schools were selected according to their different religious affiliations in order to add a comparative element to the study: one was a public high school, another a public madrash (an Islamic school), and the third was a private high school with an unofficial Catholic affiliation. At the public high school, they found that though the student body was religiously diverse, with sizeable minority populations of Muslim, Hindu, and Catholic students, the school’s mission to embrace religious diversity was at odds with the majoritarian influence of Protestant students and faculty. Although the school provides religious education in students’ respective religions, and Protestant religious education teachers speak about the importance of inter-religious tolerance and respect, in practice these are more seen as abstract values. Students feel pushed to find friends who can help them grow more deeply in their own faith even though they are readily able to discuss the importance of diversity. At the madrash, though students are ethnically diverse, all of the students are Muslim. Civic education is approached with the mindset that students will develop a strong moral foundation through learning Islamic principles, which will in turn allow them to practice religious tolerance outside of the classroom. At the private Catholic school, civic education is taught in the context of the Catholic perspective, where Catholic values are taught as universal– regardless of religious affiliation, all students are required to attend mass and take Catholic religious classes, resulting in a curricular approach in which students are taught to not differentiate or discriminate based on difference (at the other two schools, differentiation was not discouraged). These varying implementations demonstrate how different environments can both shape and provide conflicting messages on how to be a pious citizen. They demonstrate how schools and civic education classes are where students first learn how to navigate different frameworks for respecting diversity, and then attempt to make sense of these lessons through extracurricular socialization with their families and peers, making the classroom instrumental in building tolerant societies. 

A Deep Breath in a Chaotic Classroom

The Contemplative Pause: Insights for Teaching Politics in Turbulent Times, Karen T Liftin

It is in the nature of civics education to engage contested topics such as citizenship, power, legitimacy, freedom and justice, and in a political era where ideological divisions on such core issues are more fraught than ever, repressed emotions and class discussions can contribute to increased tensions in the classroom. Liftin argues that incorporating contemplative practices, such as a strategic moment of silence or journaling exercise, alleviates such tensions while helping students better retain course material and connect classroom ideas to their own lives. This practice can help teach both controversial topics and subjects which may seem remote or abstract for students. In the first case, incorporating a contemplative pause allows students to gain awareness of emotions they may otherwise experience unconsciously; for example, it allows students to examine the “triggers” that they experienced during the lesson, which allows for content-based learning to be enhanced by emotional and social learning. In the second case, the pause gives students time to personalize course content and connect concepts they may not have direct experience with, such as world food security, to their own lives. Liftin suggests that this approach has positive implications for social learning and civic discourse: instead of seeing disconcerting points of view as “enemies to be defeated,” she says that pausing allows them to instead become “puzzles to be solved.” Liftin proposes an approach known as “Person/Planet Politics” that employs the contemplative pause in civic education. No matter what the subject of her lesson is, her background question for her students is always “who [are you] in relation to this?” She offers 6 guidelines for facilitating the contemplative pause: formulate a clear intention for student learning, leave adequate time (which may mean less time for content), lower anxiety by making clear that the pause will not be graded, darken the room if possible, engage students to share their reflections after the pause, and be open-minded. The contemplative pause is generally well received: 62% of Liftin’s students reported experiencing respite, 30% gained important insights about themselves or the world, and only 8% felt neutral or negative about the exercises. Some may be skeptical about the fact that twice as many students experienced respite than gleaned insight, but Liftin argues that it is important to note that the 30% who glean important insights will change from week to week; some of the insights that students have gained from the exercise have also been life changing. For example, Liftin describes a student who had an “aha” moment during a lesson on international trade who went on to pursue a graduate degree in ecological economics. As to the value of respite, she notes that students who usually space out during contemplative practices who learn that other students are gleaning significant insights from them tend to be more engaged in later lessons and that students exhibit more focus, clarity of thought, and sensitivity to their peers after engaging in a practice; as one student put it, his mind is more “refreshed and in a learning place” post practice. While Liftin acknowledges that her results are far from definitive, she suggests that they are an encouraging sign of the ability to contemplative practice to enhance the classroom environment, and that the emerging trend of contemplative education is worthy of future research.

Connecting Classroom and Community

Service Learning as a Means to Understand Socio-Economic Privilege, Inequality, and Social Mobility, Mikiko Nishimura and Hitomi Yokote

Seen as a way to ground liberal arts higher education by challenging students to use their education to address social inequality, service learning– the practice of participating in civic engagement at the local and global levels and critically reflecting on its connection to course content– is becoming increasingly popular. However, since the late 2000s, studies have increasingly argued against the benefits of traditional “charity-mode” service learning, pointing out that it does not contribute to structural change in society and is distanced from social justice. A notable study by J. Clifford noted that traditional service learning programs were seen as a “product” for career advancement and were overly skewed towards developing professional skills. As a result, critical perspectives argued that service learning could be considered exploitative and failed to provide students with a critical understanding of the issues of power and privilege in marginalized communities which were the purpose of the practice in the first place. To facilitate civic engagement through service learning in a healthy way, they argued for a practice of “critical service learning,” differentiated from its predecessor through an orientation on social change, an active redistribution of power, and the development of authentic relationships with the community. Learning outcomes must actively reflect social justice themes and acknowledge unequal global power dynamics. Nishimura and Yokote use the lens of “critical service learning” to criticize the service learning program run by International Christian University. Outcomes of their study of the program show that the program was lacking in critical perspectives in all three phases of its implementation, with a focus solely on personal development of students based on Christian philosophy and with barely any discussion of citizenship, social justice, social change, or democracy. In an analysis of curricular goals and students’ papers after completing the program, the overall learning outcomes were deep conceptions of the meaning of doing service for others, personal development, and tolerance, but the position of the students in relation to the communities they served remained unchallenged, and the “others” students were taught to do service for was vaguely defined. Nishimura and Yokote argue that the result of the ICU program study demonstrated a missing link between moral awareness and civic engagement. Though students gained knowledge of their self-conceptions and increased intercultural communication skills, the design of the course did not give students a way to acknowledge the structural problems they encountered in a way other than “cultural exchange.” Because the reciprocity of the exchange of service was depoliticized, everything that students saw and felt was presented in a way in which students received it passively in the form of learning instead of reinterpreting, challenging, and changing it with the community. Students perceived social problems as detached from themselves instead of perceiving themselves as a “change agent.” In order for learning outcomes of service learning to sustain and lead to behavioral change, design should focus on student inquiry of social issues and awareness of the social structures which maintain their status quo and those of the disadvantaged. 

A View of Civics Classrooms Around the World

Comparison of Teacher’s Beliefs on the Aims of Civics Education in 12 Countries: A Person-Centered Analysis, Frank Reichert and Judith Torney-Puta

The aim of Reichert and Torney-Puta’s study was to understand teacher’s beliefs on the aim of CCE (civic and citizenship education) in societies with differing democratic histories, and create distinct teacher profiles based on beliefs involving the role of CCE. Samples from countries from four regions were analyzed: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea for Asia; Poland and Slovenia for post-Communist countries; Denmark, Finland, and Sweden for the Nordic Region; and England, Ireland, and Italy for Western Europe. Teachers were given a survey that asked them to rank the 10 objectives of CCE and their responses were correlated with key indicators of economic and political development for each country: GDP, expenditure on education, the Democracy Index, and the Corruption Perception Index. From the analysis of this data, the three main teacher profiles which were identified were labeled “teaching for dutiful school participation and consensus building,” “teaching for knowledge and community relations,” and “teaching for independent thinking and tolerance.” The first group of teachers is likely to believe that CCE should support the development of conflict resolution and participation in school life; however, they were unlikely to believe in many of the values which empower students to be active agents of change in their communities, such as independent critical thinking, the capacity to defend a point of view, or the development of strategies to fight racism and xenophobia. Only 11% of teachers fell in this group, but 25% of the entire group believed that the primary purpose of CCE should be to promote dutiful school participation and consensus building. The second group emphasized knowledge acquisition, and were also likely to believe that CCE should promote community engagement. However, they were unlikely to believe that conflict resolution or defending a point of view were among the three primary goals of CCE. 40% of teachers for civics or civics-related subjects fell in this group. The third group were highly likely to promote critical and independent thinking– an objective found to be typical in previous research on CCE– and were also likely to believe that it is important to develop skills in conflict resolution and to teach students how to defend their points of view. While they were more likely than the other two groups to believe that a main goal of civic education should be to discourage xenophobia and racism, this was not an objective which was prevalent among any of the three main profiles. About half of all teachers fit this profile, and half of teachers at public schools belonged to this group while only a third of those at private schools did. Reichert and Torney-Puta’s study shed light on a topic that is integral to the democratic health of societies. It reveals that teachers rarely prioritize political participation, instead focusing on school and local involvement, and suggests that encouraging behavior contributing to political goals is something teachers believe they should avoid. It provides insight into associations between teacher beliefs and national contexts; the acceptance of democratic rules, for example, is associated with teachers advocating for independent thinking and tolerance, while knowledge acquisition and active membership in the local community are more prevalent in areas where democracy is under pressure or underdeveloped. It also raises concerning questions about the future of CCE around the world: for one, how can what is the cause of the avoidance of teaching to address racism, and how can it be addressed?