Monday, 17 September 2007

Dennis Hayes on a special edition of the British Journal of Educational Studies (BJES) on ‘Citizenship and Democracy’

Another collection of academic papers on ‘citizenship’! What is there that is new to say about this so-called ‘subject’? A start could be made by pointing out that the cash cow of ‘citizenship’ is a very well-funded New Labour project to protect them from the bankruptcy of their politics, and their constant worry that, like the 400,000 active young citizens who walked out of their healthy school canteens into the nearest chip shops, we might all walk out of the ‘political [third] way’ and start thinking and acting for ourselves.

That said, this collection does manage to do something new. It expresses the profound problem, if not quite the profound paradox, of citizenship theory.

This is best expressed in Elizabeth Fraser’s contribution ‘Depoliticising Citizenship’. She argues that citizenship is being depoliticised, not least by proponents of ‘citizenship’ themselves, and reminds teachers in particular of the importance of the ‘political way’. She reminds teachers that ‘Conflict…is a necessary condition of the political process’ (p259) and that what goes on in schools is so frustrating, patchy and ineffective that it can be, ‘an object lesson in how awful and petty and useless politics is’ (p260).

She argues that citizenship has lost any sense of the political way because ‘liberal democratic political cultures have lost sight of the foundational political power that underpins them’ (p259). To re-politicise citizenship requires that teachers ‘and the rest of us need to practise facing up to the difficulty of political conflict’ (p261).

Fraser does not go far enough in her analysis. It is not facing up to the difficulty of political conflict that teachers and the rest of us need to practise; we need to practise political conflict. Of course, it would be philistine to argue in any other subject than citizenship that theorists should get their hands dirty. However, by the logic of their own arguments, theorists of citizenship have a special duty to be citizens and to take the political way, otherwise they do not combat cynicism, passivity and indifference to democracy, they add to them. The implication of theoretical analyses of the need for citizenship by pure theorists is that active citizenship is not for the clever but for the great untheoretical masses they lecture from the sidelines.

Theorists could say that arguing for the political way is to take the political way, but that would be playing with words.

Citizenship today is not a real topic as it was, for example, during the French Revolution where there was a discussion of citizenship and the role of citoyens actifs and citoyens passifs. Nothing was said then about citoyens théoriques. The armies of citoyens théoriques that exist today - educationalists, consultants, academics and citizenship teachers - are not part of the solution to social and political passivity but an expression of that problem that has the perverse consequence of increasing passivity.

Do these theorists think they are too clever to need to be citizens and that doing theory is all that matters? Or is it just that it is comfortable and rewarding work? Whatever the answer, taking the moral high ground about citizenship and democracy is not enough. Here the example of Socrates shows us what a model theorist and a model citizen can be; endlessly examining every individual about what is the very best thing that they can do. The result of Socratic practice, real citizenship, is never the ‘free maintenance by the state’ that our current citizenship theorists enjoy.

In citizenship theory, theorising is simply not enough, and the eight contributors to this volume could start on the political way by picking a fight or two in the academic, if not the real world.

James Arthur and Paul Croll (eds.) (2007) ‘Citizenship and Democracy’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Special Issue, Vol. 55, No. 3, September 2007.