Notes From Abroad: Education for Citizenship

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

As an American abroad and working in the field of political-education reform in Central and Eastern Europe, I have been following the conversations about U.S. civics education--or, more precisely, education for democracy--with great interest over the past year. I am struck by the liveliness of the discussions taking place simultaneously in both "the West" (including the United States and Western Europe) and "the East"--even as many of us concerned confess that much of what countries conduct in the area of civics has been ad hoc and of low priority compared with other educational issues.

It seems that the world over, new as well as experienced democracies are reconsidering what should be the content of their political-education curricula. It is a time of excitement as well as concern. As I observe the American impulses toward character education and service learning, as I sense the instinct to affirm basic values and confusion over their content, and as funding cuts threaten future reform efforts, I am struck by both the parallels and the contrasts in the debates that are also taking place in Central and Eastern Europe.

There is quite a bit that we already know about how to educate for democracy. In the West, and particularly in the United States, we recognize the value of contributing to one's community and fostering a service ethic. Classroom-based research, beginning with the 1976 International Educational Assessment Civics Study (about to be repeated), has connected participatory and less authoritarian attitudes of students with participatory classroom cultures. Moreover, studies since the 1970s and the experiments that followed them have provided us with a theoretical basis concerning moral development in children and the impact of fostering just and democratic school and classroom environments.

This is not to say that American schools are always conscientious about educating for democracy in this vein; to the contrary, the current debates suggest the need for renewal and redirection. But, there are a core number of "progressive" educators who remain committed to a form of civics education that focuses less on socialization than on engaging students in critical thinking and imaginative participation in their immediate political and social worlds.

Lessons about how to educate for democracy are being introduced to Centraland EasternEuropean educators for the first time, as they consider how to reform former Marxist-Leninist political-education classes. Dewey, Popper, Kohlberg, Habermas, Friere, and Vygotsky are names newly familiar to curriculum and text developers, and their relevance is palpable. It is, ultimately, a humbling message to an American who may take such "discoveries" for granted.

What can we say about the struggle for political education taking place in the United States and regions of Central and Eastern Europe? Perhaps it is easiest to begin with the contrasts.

1. First, of course, we need to acknowledge the political and historical gaps between the West and East in terms of their experiences with democracy. This is an obvious and sweeping statement, but it has direct implications for the content of the curriculum and approaches to civics-education issues. At a time when Central and Eastern European countries are looking to reassert positive national identities, samples of democratic practice are not so forthcoming from their own histories. This means using examples from abroad. More immediately, democratic structures that have been established in these countries are new, fragile, imperfect, and not well understood. Imagine having to handle a situation in your civics classroom where your country still has no constitution or approved education-reform law? There is a dilemma of "supporting" such democratic developments while encouraging students to be "critical" toward them, all of this complicated by a long-standing alienation from government, which persists throughout the region.

2. The underlying explanations for inertia regarding civic participation have fundamentally different sources in the East and West. In the United States, apathy and self-centeredness are identified most readily as the culprits. In Eastern Europe, it is a deep distrust, the product of many years of abuse and estrangement from political institutions. This distrust filtered down into the communities and into the schools themselves, where teachers were often viewed as "transmission belts" of the state. Distrust and apathy both block the development of empathy, which is the basis of all moral action. Moreover, in Central and Eastern Europe, such distrust undermines the spirit of initiative that is core to the development of civil society. Some Romanian children patiently explained to me that it didn't make sense to volunteer in the community unless you got paid for the work. And in their minds, the only way to influence government was to start a new political party.

3. Another stark contrast between West and East concerns the differing traditions in classroom teaching practice. In the Central and Eastern European countries, there is a strong tradition of teacher-centered classrooms. As one teacher from Timisoara, on the border between Romania and Hungary, said: "I belong to a different generation with many constraints. We were educated for 40 years in a different way." During the Communist period, this was accentuated by strict control over teacher autonomy. Alternative methodologies, such as activity-based learning, and the encouragement of independent, critical thinking--which many consider crucial to democratic education--are foreign to most teachers in the region. Moreover, content-driven curricula continue to work against such forms of "experimentation."

4. Finally, in Central and Eastern Europe we can still witness the legacy of years of a Marxist-Leninist ideology. Terms such as "democracy," "human rights," and even "voluntary service" were heavily polluted in the previous regimes. Voluntary service, for example, was used to describe the required labor of pupils and teachers in the agricultural and industrial sectors for up to several months each school year. Consequently, children there have a difficult time grasping the value of "community service," a topic that has been central to the American debate.

Despite these key differences in the Western and Eastern contexts, there are some commonalities, including the following:

  • A consensus on the need to fight against indoctrination, with indoctrination being defined as socialization to accept uncritically a particular view of the world. There seems to be general agreement that we do not want students to have a monolithic view of the world, but rather to have intellectual tools for incorporating and sorting out contrasting points of view. Also, we want them to have stamina for exploring the complexities of difficult issues. East European civics-curriculum developers feel compelled to take on even the most basic questions about what is a human being and how one can respect human dignity.
  • The recognized need for some kind of character education related to basic ethics. In the United States, this movement comes from an emerging (if controversial) recognition of the need for schools to "fill in the gaps" left in the wake of socializing forces that either neglect such values or offer countervailing ones. The need to reassert values in Central and Eastern Europe relates not only to the positive challenges related to emerging democratic structures and culture, but also to a perceived decline in community values and an increased lawlessness due to economic and social distress.

    But although the need for character and values education remains recognized in both the United States and Central and Eastern Europe, the content remains problematic in both. In Eastern Europe, there is a real tension in seeking the balance between a "new individualism" and a collective outlook that does not smack of the oppression of former days.

  • The challenge to educate children for citizenship in a global society, and not simply their own country. It is challenging, indeed, to reconcile the assertion of national consciousness and self-esteem with the recognition that we are all part of a larger world that is both benevolent and threatening.

The questions for teachers and other educators in both regions remain paramount. What is the proper role of schools as social institutions, and what should education for democracy look like? If the West is giving the East some theoretical foundation and methods for undertaking citizenship for democracy, I hope that, in turn, the West can be reminded of the importance of carrying out such methods through the revitalized experiments of Central and Eastern Europe. I believe that as much as East Europeans have to learn from the West about the content and methodology of citizenship education, the West has an equal amount to learn from the East in terms of fresh struggles with these questions.

I wish that, for example, American social-studies and civics teachers could have conversations with their colleagues in Romania, Russia, Poland, and Lithuania. Here and there, in scattered pockets, devoted educators are trying out new methods of teaching and establishing a personal relevance to notions of freedom, choice, self-expression, and critical analysis. One teacher who attempted activity-based methods in an experimental civics class last year felt that the most important outcome of her work was that she had "become a different human being," more self-confident and closer to her students. "Now I feel like I do something important," she said.

Remarkable experiments are being undertaken in uncharted and even stormy waters. Much uncertainty remains, and will persist, in both regions. But the central lesson remains: to ask the question how best to educate for democracy, and to actively seek the answers.

Vol. 15, Issue 18, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: January 24, 1996, as Notes From Abroad:Education for Citizenship
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories