parlance, for youth and adults alike, “being political” is a bad thing. Being political is tantamount to devaluing the public good for personal or party gain. The kinds of controversies, power plays, social upheavals, movements and networks that some youth avidly engage in outside of formal institutions are the same issues, ideas and debates that are systematically stripped from the school curriculum and environment.
The apolitical characteristic of schools became a glaring reality in the Ottawa case study when, during our interview with Teika, she paused, scanned the classroom, started to criticize the Conservative party and then asked, “Am I allowed to say that?” Samantha similarly described her school as a place where certain political actions were deemed inappropriate. She stated, “If it’s kind of controversial, they won’t let you hear it.” Samantha also asserted, “They [the administration] don’t really want to see Crestview girls at Parliament Hill, ya know, holding up signs and stuff so they kind of want the more polite version of activism.” In all the other schools, students regularly expressed that teachers and their peers were afraid to reveal their politics. Jamie believed that the reason his teacher feared letting students know his views on politics was “so simplistic … people are afraid of other people finding out what their opinions are and then using that against them.” He went on to ask, “How tolerant are we if we’re afraid of certain people’s opinions?”
In many ways, Jamie’s teacher, like so many of the other teacher participants, concurred with this assessment. He said that he “stays away from conflict” and believed that “encouraging students to act on a particular political stance, I think that I’m overstepping.” The teachers saw it as imperative for them to take a journalistic approach, namely, objectively covering both sides of an issue without revealing their biases. Interestingly, while most teachers believed that showing their passion for a subject created passion in their students, few made the same connection with politics. Being political in the classroom and getting one’s students politically active did not seem to follow given the climate of our education system.
We thus need to re-politicize our schools, our teaching and our learning. Harry Boyte describes politics as the way people with different values and from different backgrounds can “work together to solve problems and create common things of value.” It is the process by which citizens with varied interests and opinions can negotiate differences and clarify places where values conflict. Schools, he argues, have a role to play in moving youth from a notion of politics as mud-slinging to politics as, what Bernard Crick called in his work In Defense of Politics, “a great and civilizing activity.”xcii
Considering that a social justice, rather than legislative, model of citizenship education necessarily involves ideological diversity, we need to make room for competing and tension-filled interpretations of responsibility and justice regarding civic learning.xciii Most importantly, discussion needs to be opened to a broad cross-section of stakeholders, including government, citizens, parents and, especially, teachers and students. As this report has shown, teachers and students often perceive themselves as unable to make change, despite being critical agents for advancing 21st century citizenship.
We cannot re-politicize our schools within a one-size-fits-all model of citizenship: a model similar to zero tolerance policies that are currently in favour for regulating student behaviour. Civic literacy must oppose standardization, which neglects the diverse social, cultural realities of young Canadians. A uniform model will prove particularly ineffectual for capturing the civic minds of disaffected youth who, as Milner’s work emphasizes, will not be reached unless their particular needs become a