Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Civic Education

John Crossan - University of Strathclyde

I have unhappy memories of trying to make “civics” interesting and exciting in a secondary modern school in southeast London in the late 1960s. The boys did what was asked of them, but they were often bored and frustrated. It seems to me that this subject was seen by politicians and head teachers as being in the elementary-school tradition of imbuing working-class youngsters with an appropriate respect for authority and a clear sense of where they fitted into the social hierarchy. (Chitty, 2010: 376).  

Clyde Chitty’s memories of civic education in 1960s England speak to the constructive interpretation of political education theory. For Geraint Parry (1999: 25), constructive civic education is designed to “redirect the goals and activities of future subjects or citizens towards what are perceived to be national priorities”. This approach teaches politics at a distance, emphasizing a descriptive analysis of existing mainstream political technologies “with the implicit acceptance that everything in the political system is as it should be” (Harber, 1984: 118). Teaching politics at a distance reinforces cultural norms that serve to sustain the status quo. It facilitates the myth of a homogenized citizenry whose multiple contestations are reduced to the claims of ‘the people’. More fundamentally, in terms of producing a citizen who is capable of being governed, this educational model entrenches the idea that most of us are intellectually incapable of operating effectively in the formal political arena (see Schumpeter, 1942) – populated as it is by society’s intellectual elites!    

These days, semblances of civic education are often taught via a variety of ‘multidisciplinary’ and collaborative projects involving schools, civic groups and commercial enterprises. For example, there is Tesco’s ‘From Farm to Fork’ programme. Partnering up with Scout groups, youth clubs and schools, the programme is designed to “help our children have a healthier, happier relationship with food” (eathappyproject.com) by uncritically situating the contested position of Tesco and other supermarket giants in the UK food industry and culture. Chitty (2010: 374) calls this form of co-opting of education by capitalist interests “subtle indoctrination” and argues that, due to the prevalence of such practices, “education for political awareness is absolutely vital” (ibid).

However, there also exist other more radical collaborative civic education projects that aim to facilitate the production of an active, democratic citizenship; projects that make explicit the links between the formal learning systems associated with the curriculums of primary, higher and further education, and the informal learning experiences that take place in everyday life. Gandin and Apple (2002) argue that such projects are constructing new epistemological understandings about what counts as legitimate knowledge, using the example of ‘Citizen Schools’ in the Brazilian municipality of Porto Alegre to exemplify their case. 

Citizen Schools construct curricula in line with the interests and concerns of host communities, where the production of a formal educational programme is a collaborative endeavour involving teachers and learners, professionals and non-professionals. It is inextricably connected to community and place, although as Gandin and Apple make clear, anchoring the learning experience in the local by no means precludes the study of social content at other scales or from other locations. On the contrary, echoing Massey’s (1991) formative notion of ‘global sense of place’, where place “is extroverted [and] includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world”, course content invites students to repeatedly reinterpret their experiences of their environment in the light of the global flows – cultural, political and economic – that converge on and, in part, produce that environment. 

The Civic Schools of Porte Alegre are linked to larger dynamics of social transformation, encompassed in the participatory budgeting practices of the municipal government. Participatory budgeting aims to reconfigure the relationship between the state and the citizenry in the formation of municipal policy . Cabannes (2004: 45) contends that reaching the level of empowerment required to ensure the success and permanency of participatory budgeting “implies a clear prioritization of civic and popular awareness and education”. In other words, Civic Schools are about educating for active democratic citizenship.   

The Civic Schools of Porte Alegre constitute a pedagogical process that is socially rooted, participatory and outward looking. They make explicit the interconnections between education, society and politics and in doing so open the learner up to a colourful world of democratic practice that goes well beyond the typically unidirectional, top-down impositions of dominant political systems. The aim of this type of education is to embed within the process of citizenship formation constant reinterpretation of experience, and thereby stimulate conscious social reproduction (Gutmann 1987). This is the ideal of democratic politics.


Cabannes, Y (2004) Participatory budgeting: a significant contribution to participatory democracy, Environment and Urbanization, 16, 1, 27-46

Chitty C (2010) Educating for Political Activity, Educational Review, 64, 2, 371-377

Franklin, A., Ho, A., & Ebdon, C (2009). Participatory Budgeting in Midwestern States: Democratic Connection or Citizen Disconnection? Public Budgeting & Finance, 29, 3, 52-73

Gandin L., & Apple M (2002) Thin versus Thick Democracy in Education: Porto Alegre and alternatives to neoliberalism, International Studies in the Sociology of Education, 12, 2, 99-116

Gutmann, A. (1987) Democratic Education, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Harber, C (1984) Politics and Political Education in 1984, Educational Review, 36, 2, 113-120

Massey, D (1991) A Global Sense of Place, Marxism Today, June, 24-29

Parry, G (1999) Constructive and Reconstructive Political Education, Oxford Review of Education, 25, 1-2, 23-38

Schumpeter, J (1942) Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York: Harper and Brothers

Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C., & Röcke, A (2008) Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32, 1, 164–178

[1] See Sintomer et al 2008, and Franklin et al 2009 for broader discussions on participatory budgeting experiments across the globe.   

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