Tag Archives: social justice

Citizenship education: confronting inequalities (part 1)⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

by Gary Walsh

I recently attended the #NECE2019 conference – a yearly event organised by the NECE network (Networking European Citizenship Education). It took place at University of Strathclyde from 24-27 October. Live streamed recordings and other conference materials are available on the NECE website.

I decided to write a summary of the key points that I took from the presentations seminars I attended. It is not possible to cover everything from such a rich and diverse event here. I have split the summary into three separate blogs covering all three days. My thread of live tweets from the conference might be useful . These posts will hopefully be of interest to anybody who is keen to learn some more about the role of education in relation to citizenship, democracy, social justice and inequalities.

Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari, kicked off the conference. His refreshing style was irreverent, honest, brutal at times, and perhaps a wee bit ‘ranty’. He spoke about his life and the views he has developed as a result of his background and his new-found fame – two massive parts of his life that clearly come into conflict. His background is one that includes poverty, drugs, violence, prison and hip-hop. He contrasted middle-class and working-class lives and attitudes, addressing the oft-contrasted individual and collective approaches to empowerment, saying that both approaches are needed. He spoke about the need for people to cross-pollinate, creating solidarity across social divisions, to walk alongside people without being scared or put off by how they dress or speak. He challenged the myth of social mobility and addressed the role of education in the achievement of social justice.

Next, Professor Anja Neundorf drew on her research looking at citizenship education and levels of democracy across Europe. She said that ‘inequality of voices leads to inequality of policy output’ and that people from socially deprived backgrounds tend not to be heard or represented in politics. This creates a feedback loop, leading to apathy, resentment and ultimately more inequality of voices. She claimed that people become active in politics due to knowledge and motivation, so civic education can compensate for lack of parental socialisation into political engagement. Her key messages were that we need to break the cycle of schools perpetuating inequality; she recommended compulsory civic education and quality teacher training in this area; and challenged attendees to consider how technology can be used to promote civic education and democracy throughout life.

Prof Anja Neundorf at NECE 2019 conference, University of Strathclyde, 24 October 2019

After listening to Darren, Anja and other inputs from day 1 of the event, a key issue in my mind was about the education system itself recreating inequalities in various ways. This contrasted in my mind with the title of the conference, ‘citizenship education confronting inequalities’. In addition to confronting inequalities it seems vital to me that the education system confronts itself. This can be uncomfortable territory. It involves recognising that education for social justice involves being ‘in and against the state’, prepared to recognise the dilemma of being an instrument of state policy while also retaining a critical view of the very system in which we work. Getting its own house in order in relation to social justice and democracy might be the most effective strategy that schools can pursue, despite being asked by policy makers to sort out society’s problems.

With that in mind, below are three ways that the education system can ‘confront itself’, which I offer here by way of conclusion to Part 1 of this blog series:

  • Representation: Working to achieve democratic, inclusive, equitable representation of voices from all sections of society. This means confronting educational myths of social mobility, ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘hard to reach’ parents.
  • Recognition and Respect: Recognising the aspirations, frustrations, struggles, lives, cultures, abilities and strengths of working-class families.
  • Redistribution of rights and resources. Recognising the urgent need to become human rights defenders. Meeting the radical challenge of justice-oriented citizenship (I ran a session on this at the conference – more about this soon)
  • Hope: Remaining hopeful while doggedly pursue the challenges above. To put it another way: seeking to grow roses in concrete.

Character education and social justice⤴

from @ curriculum for equity

by Gary Walsh

As character education continues to gain influence in educational policy in the UK and elsewhere, it becomes more and more important to ensure it receives adequate critique. Having worked in the field of character education and studied the research base for a number of years, I have concluded that the legitimacy of traditional approaches to character education should be critically examined from a social justice perspective. The purpose of this post is to explain why I think this is the case. In doing so I hope this proves a useful point of reflection for any interested practitioners or researchers.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues make the grand and enticing claim that character is “the basis for human and societal flourishing“. This is somewhat alluring because it sounds empowering and inclusive: the implicit promise is that we can all flourish no matter who we are.

However, this claim disregards social, political and economic contexts and the structural forces of inequality. Proponents of character education appear to concede that social context matters, but they conclude that it is more pragmatic to change individuals than it is to change society (Arthur et al, 2017). Far from being empowering and inclusive, this approach risks disempowerment: it obscures the role of democracy and distracts from social justice issues such as tackling poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities, while concealing the pernicious roles of power, privilege and prejudice. These are some of the REAL problems that prevent human flourishing – it is not about deficiencies in the moral character of children.

At the same time, the claim of character education is presented in moral terms, which implicitly suggests that such a forensic focus on the individual can be somehow morally justifiable. The irony is that this risks perpetuating what Bauman called Moral Blindness: the tendency to forget about the causes and impact of everyday suffering. As Nel Noddings points out:

The courage of a warrior may, for example, be so admired that members of the society do not think (or dare) to criticize war itself.” (Noddings 2012: 167)

The question needing asked here is whether it is legitimate to examine the moral character of individuals without also examining that of social arrangements. Unfortunately, any hope that the character education movement treats this question seriously may well be misplaced. Traditional character education offers little critique of the structural inequalities that erode the very values it purports to uphold. Nor does it explicitly recognise critical political analysis, activism or tackling the structural causes of inequality as examples of virtue or citizenship. It is also important to reflect on the fact that character education tends to gain appeal at times of economic crises or social unrest, and to ask why that might be the case. For example, in the UK, character education made a sudden return to educational policy in the wake of the London riots in 2011, where the resulting recommendations concentrated largely on fixing the moral characters of young people.

Character education teaches classical virtues such as honesty, gratitude and humility. This may sound at first like a reasonable endeavour, but a critical social justice perspective quickly reveals the concerning implications of this approach. 1 in 4 children in the UK are currently living in poverty – do they really need lessons in gratitude and humility? What and whose purposes are being served? The work of Nel Noddings raises the possibility that focusing on virtues such as honesty can result in children experiencing less caring relationships in the classroom. For instance, imagine a child lies to their teacher because they feel afraid or they want to hide something. If their teacher’s attention is focused on developing the child’s virtue of honesty, they might fail to pick up on what might be really happening for that child.

Character education seeks to promote compassion by encouraging ‘service’ to others. Digging deeper into this reveals that service is framed as an apolitical, charitable ‘good deed’. To help understand why this is problematic, Westheimer and Kahne (2004) provide a useful framework to help us understand different kinds of citizens that education typically tries to produce. They refer to citizens who are a) personally responsible, b) participatory, and c) justice oriented. The authors illustrate the various kinds of citizen by theorising how each might respond to a humanitarian crisis that involves victims experiencing hunger:

“…if participatory citizens are organizing the food drive and personally responsible citizens are donating food, justice oriented citizens are asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.” (Westheimer and Kahne 2004: 4)

They find that personally responsible citizenship, typified by a character education approach, is the most common approach pursued by schools, while justice-oriented citizenship receives the least attention.

(Incidentally, the issue of using moralistic language with reference to food banks in the UK came into sharp focus recently when Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was severely criticised for saying that charitable donations to food banks “is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are”.)

This analysis provides some possible directions for a ‘socially just’ approach to character development. Such an approach could involve calling out the immorality and social violence of political decisions that leave people destitute. It could seek to support the ways in which people, relationships and communities can be nurtured, cared for and loved. It could draw on resilience research which demonstrates that resilience is not a character trait, but a developmental process that is strengthened by reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. It could recognise the role of positive attachments and the impact of adverse childhood experiences. It could be based on politically hard-edged concepts such as human rights, social justice and participative democracy. It could draw on social theories such as Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach, Bourdieu’s Habitus & Cultural Capital, Fromm’s Social Character, integrative views of identity or ecological understandings of agency.

In other words, ‘character’ could be re-constructed as a dynamic concept that describes the qualities of people while also describing the relationship with our social world. If we are to ask ‘what kind of people’ the world needs, is it not incumbent on us to also ask ‘what kind of world’ people need? Unfortunately, character education has yet to make moves in this direction. These theoretical possibilities are ignored in favour of something altogether more esoteric: Aristotelian virtue ethics. Herein lies the ideological rub. Aristotle endorsed slavery, describing slaves as living tools. While this can be disregarded as a trite objection or simply a ‘sign of the times’ in Ancient Greece, it is important to point out that Aristotle’s theory of a flourishing society depended on oppression, elitism and authoritarianism. Oppression was required at home too: it was the (superior) man’s job to instil character in the (inferior) woman and children. 

Does one person’s flourishing requires another person’s suffering? The award-winning short story by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, is a powerful reflection on that very question and is well worth a read. Working towards social justice, in my view, involves a commitment to the idea that human flourishing is for all of us, not just a few of us. Aristotle seemed to have particular ideas about who should flourish and who should not. 2500 years later, this remains the battleground of what we now refer to as social justice.

It seems fair to ask, therefore, what the character education movement has to say about social justice, and whether character education assumes that injustice, inequality and oppression are inevitable (and therefore acceptable), given its philosophical antecedents. In response to such challenges (see Winton 2012 for a good example), proponents of character education try to deflect such concerns as mere myths. Is this lack of acknowledgement an adequate response to such concerns? Surely, as in all educational efforts, self-critique and a commitment to the principle of ‘do no harm’ should prevail. 

At the very least, we should be guided by the available evidence. Simply put, there is no firm evidence to establish credibility for the claim that the possession of virtues lead to human flourishing. Neither is there firm evidence to say that traditional character education interventions can improve the life outcomes of children and young people. There is good evidence, however, showing not only that character education has ‘no significant impact’ but that it can have detrimental impacts too (Social and Character Development Research Consortium, 2010).

The legitimacy of character education can and should be questioned on the grounds of efficacy and even moreso on the grounds of ideology. Social Justice education offers a narrative that is fundamentally different to that of character education in ways that are important to understand. It suggests that the ways in which we should seek to change ourselves for the better are not to be found by aiming to ‘be’ a certain way (virtuous or otherwise). The challenge of social justice involves deciding what we refuse to become. It suggests that we change ourselves by changing the world around us. Perhaps this provides a starting point that is more worthy of our attention and efforts.