An item on the Today programme this morning piqued my interest. This concerns the launch today of a new ‘citizenship’ initiative, Step Up 2 Serve, by the Prince of Wales. The initiative is being supported by all three main party leaders. According to Prince Charles (writing in the mail of Sunday):

In my opinion, tragedies such as the murder of Barry and Margaret’s son are the extreme result of too many young people no longer guided through a rite of passage; young people who would benefit from the guidance and help of organisations such as the Guides, Scouts, cadets and other youth organisations. (cited at

The report on Today featured a child (clearly an inspirational young person) who has been extremely active in raising money for charity, as well as an eminent speaker (whose name I missed) who suggested that education (I took this to mean schools) could do more. When asked if there is a link between young people’s involvement in community participation (exemplified by charitable fund-raising) and political activity, she suggested that there was, citing the example of Canada. In summary, this was a welcome feel-good story amidst the gloom of political scandal, sectarian violence and financial skulduggery. Nevertheless, I was left feeling uneasy.

Leaving aside the deficit view of modern young people implied in the Prince’s statement (symptomatic of a rose tinted, things were much better in my youth view), I think it is worth commenting on the approach to citizenship education implied in this vignette. For me the question is not that it is wrong to focus on participation  (indeed there is much to laud it in). The issue lies in what is missing from such approaches to fostering citizenship, and in some of the complacent assumptions that underpin this approach.

Foremost amongst my concerns is the assumption that good citizenship lies in personal responsibility and participation. The default assumption is that if young people are taught to behave appropriately, and care for those who are less fortunate than themselves, then they are good citizens. My colleague Gert Biesta has written about this in relation to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (see, for example: Drawing upon the work of US academics Westheimer and Kahne, he makes a powerful case for showing that an overemphasis on personal responsibility and participation might actually militate against the development of democracy and democratic citizenship. In a sense, focusing on charitable work can be seen as a sticking plaster approach that treats the symptoms of societal problems, rather than tackling the underlying social injustice and structural inequality that cause these problems in the first place. Westheimer and Kahne illustrate this by drawing the following distinction: ‘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.’ (2004, p242). According to this thinking, there is thus only a tenuous and serendipitous link between getting involved in fund-raising, and the sorts of political activity that might make such activity less necessary. (I note at this point that the eminent speaker on the Today programme when asked about the link between community participation and political activity answered solely in terms of voting behaviour, rather than the sorts of deeper and more critical engagement to which Biesta and Westheimer and Kahne refer.)

There are implications here in terms of education for citizenship. I would certainly not criticise education that encourages young people to be personally responsible and to participate actively in their communities (and further afield). However, this is an incomplete approach to citizenship and to citizenship education, and should be supplemented by the fostering of critical political literacies. These include the ability to see both the strengths and limitations of state and corporate institutions, and the capability to act to challenge these when they become anti-democratic and/or foster inequity in society. As Biesta, quoting Westheimer and Kahne, states:

No one ‘wants young people to lie, cheat, or steal’ the values implied in the notion of the personally responsible citizen ‘can be at odds with democratic goals’ … ‘(E)ven the widely accepted goals – fostering honesty, good neighborliness, and so on – are not inherently about democracy’. To put it differently: while many of the values and traits enlisted in relation to the personally responsible citizen ‘are desirable traits for people living in a community (…) they are not about democratic citizenship’. And, even more strongly: ‘To the extent that emphasis on these character traits detracts from other important democratic priorities, it may actually hinder rather than make possible democratic participation and change.’ (Biesta, 2008, p49)


One thought on “What kind of citizen, what kind of citizenship?

  1. I concur strongly with Mark’s comments here. I think it goes down to the core meanings of democracry as not having to do with the vote only, (representative democracy), but the important fostering of spaces for strong critical engagement and advocacy (participatory democracy). The philanthropic ‘feel-good do-gooder’ citizenship works against the fundamental principles of a participatory, critical democracy, as noted by Jefferess (2008) in his work on the ‘cultural politics of benevolence’, and which Itake up in my own work on a critical global citizenship ( see

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