Friday, December 2, 2011

The Common Core of Citizenship

Yesterday, I responded to a post on a listserv of AP English teachers in support of a sentiment shared by one teacher, Larry Hoffner, in his latest letter to UFT. In his post, he wrote, “Academic skills are certainly important, but the kind of citizens we produce is the real common core.” Although it is rare that there is something so universal as to solicit unanimous agreement, I thought this was surely such a rarity...but I was wrong. I should clarify that it was nearly unanimous, but one teacher did respond with the following, “I could not disagree with you more. Character is the province of the family, knowledge the province of the school.” 

The debate which ensued was a discussion on the role of schools in teaching values, and the sticking point to those who opposed the focus on values or standards of good citizenship was how to define these standards. Who gets to decide what character values are taught? How is it possible to define such a dynamic set of standards contained within a citizenship domain? What will be the accountability measurements for character, and if teachers are responsible for teaching it, are we similarly responsible if we produce a “bad apple”? These are all valid questions, but even our inability to answer them should not deter us from attempting to build character and citizenship within our schools.

Within this discussion, I still maintained that it is absolutely our responsibility to teach citizenship, that it is the one true interdisciplinary skill thread, and that it should be no more difficult to define and redefine as say, what literature should be taught or the critical skills set for the new century. All these concepts are ambiguous because of their dynamic nature but have certain lasting hallmarks. From this contribution, I was asked to “define this citizenship” which was a fascinating challenge at nine o’clock with only an hour to go until Top Chef Texas, but I decided to give it a whirl in hopes that the group contributions would help form a definition for a strand which does consistently need to be re-examined. Here is the start of the conversation which will hopefully be augmented with comments on the blog and within the listserv:

The constant components of citizenship are its communal nature and the relationship between rights & privileges (what the person receives as a citizen) and duty or responsibility (what he or she gives). If we examine that on the most intimate level, we see a family and a child's role within that social structure. A family provides and a child learns his or her place and how to contribute. We give and we take in our exchanges, sometimes trading in emotional currency in the form of politeness, compassion, or support...and other times in services or other forms of worth. The mores which define the standards for these exchanges (the redefinition of specific rights based on longstanding principles, for example, or the etiquette involved in participating in an online discussion, for example) are ever changing, but teaching a person how to understand the balance of give and take in any community is the everlasting essence of citizenship.

The obstacle to the true understanding of this relationship is ignorance. That is where we come in, for in the moments we share with our students providing them insight on man's story and how we have interacted in times of peace and of war, and providing them with living documentation of each era in the form of literature, we gift them with perspective. I think of the responsibility we have to teach this each time I read
To Kill a Mockingbird and share the scene where Scout stands on the porch and sees her world from Boo's eyes. Perspective allows for a 360 view of the exchange between us and our world.

I'll share the opening of our school creed, penned by our Head of School,
Jackie Westerfield. I find myself frequently referencing it when I wonder how to guide students. I think it is a wonderful, succinct expression of the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities.

“Together we build our future, one thought, one act, one moment at a time. We believe knowledge is freedom, freedom is choice, and choice is responsibility.”

The thread after this highlighted the role of community in shaping standards. Clearly the time period and nature of the community (home, school, city, nation, world) is organic, ever-changing, and inextricably tied to the standards of interaction. Still, the fundamental relationship between all of these and the nature of rights and responsibilities can and should absolutely be taught in a school. I’m looking forward to comments and posts which will add to this working definition.


  1. It's so shocking that citizenship is not necessarily considered the province of schools. Communal provision of education provides knowledge and social adjustment. Liberal democracy (liberal in its classical, not partisan meaning) ensures a plurality of views and public education provides the social mechanism by which individuals can both develop their own views, and learn to live with the differing views of fellow citizens.

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