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What Kind of Citizen?ix

The notion of “civic literacy” does not signify purely factual knowledge about the workings of government.  Civic literacy concerns an individual’s competence and willingness to engage in civic affairs in multiple arenas.  A civically literate citizen, then, possesses necessary knowledge but also knows how to employ that knowledge for effective civic participation.  As The Centre for Literacy in Montreal observes, new literacies (such as civic literacy) focus on individuals’ “capacity to use and make critical judgments about the information they encounter on a daily basis.”x  Indeed, the evolving conception of civic literacy signifies an evolving definition of citizenship itself.  Citizenship in a modern democratic society requires more than knowing how a parliament is composed, following laws and paying taxes.  Rather, modern democracies require citizens to participate in governance at multiple levels, to make informed choices about different political perspectives and policies, and to engage with other members of the community in efforts at societal improvement.xi  This robust conception of civic literacy drives our examination of the current state of civic learning for youth in Canada.

Historians, philosophers and political scientists have long debated which conceptions of citizenship would best advance democracy.xii  Indeed, as William Connollyxiii has argued, conceptions of democracy and citizenship have been and will likely always be debated – no single formulation will triumph.  The work of John Dewey, for example, which has probably done the most to shape dialogues on education and democracy, has not led to resolution.  Rather, scholars and practitioners have interpreted his ideas in multiple ways.  In large part, this diversity of perspectives occurs because the stakes are so high.  Conceptions of “good citizenship” imply conceptions of the good society.  Ideas about civic literacy represent a similar variety of interpretations.

The diverse perspectives on citizenship and civic literacy also have significantly different implications for school curriculum.  For example, Walter Parkerxiv describes three very different conceptions of citizen education for a democratic society:  “traditional,” “progressive,” and “advanced.”  He explains that traditionalists emphasize an understanding of how government works (how a bill becomes a law, for example) and traditional subject area content as well as commitments to core democratic values – such as freedom of speech or liberty in general.xv  Progressives share a similar commitment to this knowledge, but they embrace visions like “strong democracy”xvi and place a greater emphasis on civic participation in its numerous forms.xvii  Finally, “advanced” citizenship, according to Parker, is one that builds on the progressive perspective but adds careful attention to inherent tensions between pluralism and assimilation or to, what Charles Taylor labels, the “politics of recognition.”xviii

Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahnexix posit three visions of good citizens that educators and policy-makers can use to consider a variety of goals related to civic literacy and engagement.  The personally responsible citizen acts responsibly in his/her community by, for example, picking up litter, giving blood, recycling, obeying laws and staying out of debt.  The participatory citizen actively participates in the civic affairs and the social life of the community at local, provincial and national levels.  The social justice-oriented citizen emphasizes social change and seeks to prepare students to improve society by critically analyzing and addressing social issues and injustices.  Advocates of social justice-oriented programs argue that effective democratic citizens need opportunities to analyze and understand the interplay of social, economic and political forces.

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