OPINION: Schools should be custodians of democratic citizenship education

The preparation of learners for a democracy depends on how the school conceives of a democracy, says the writer. (Getty Images)
The preparation of learners for a democracy depends on how the school conceives of a democracy, says the writer. (Getty Images)

Schools cannot exist and stand on the side-lines of a democracy; they cannot lay claim to the privileges and rights of a democracy, if they are not prepared to fulfill their collective responsibilities in sustaining and holding that democracy accountable, writes Nuraan Davids.

The opening of all schools to all learners after the end of Apartheid and the subsequent migratory patterns of learners across historical colour lines have seemingly not yielded the types of integrated spaces that we envisaged.

On the one hand, some schools employ policies of exorbitant fees, language, and feeder zones to keep particular communities of learners at bay, thereby perpetuating inequalities.

Consequently, it is not unusual for learners to experience an entire schooling career in which they encounter learners only like themselves in terms of race, language, religion, culture and ethnicity.

On the other hand, even when schools are desegregated, learners who do not comply with the historic and dominant ethos and look of a particular school are confronted with a dilemma of either exclusion or assimilation.

There are many dimensions and complexities which feed into the particular alienating experiences and encounters of learners who constitute minority groups at certain schools.

In addition to inadequate responses to and management of diversity, learners seldom encounter teachers from diverse identities and backgrounds, even in schools where the learner demographics might have shifted dramatically.

As far as external access is concerned, admission policies are often used as gatekeeping mechanisms to preserve a historically privileged social capital - bringing into disrepute not only notions of school choice, but equal rights to equal education.

That schools continue to be sites of contestation of both access and belonging for the majority of historically disadvantaged learners and their families, holds particular implications for our society.

If learners are not exposed to different ways of being and acting during their critical formative years of schooling, and if they are never afforded the lived experiences of encountering difference, then how prepared and sensitised are they to engage with, and contribute to a pluralist society like ours?

If schools have a role to play in the advancement of the democracy in South Africa, then what kind of schools ought to be cultivated? Presuming that all public schools understand the inextricable link and responsibility between schooling and society, what can schools do to enhance their roles so that conceptions of democratic citizenship are embedded in their purpose?

Generally, democratic citizenship education is espoused as the propagation of a set of rights, which speaks to notions of social justice, geared towards respectful and peaceful co-existence.

While structured in a formal political domain, citizenship and citizenship education manifest in everyday life such as social interactions and schooling.

Citizenship is concerned with how people give meaning to life on the personal, the interpersonal and the socio-political levels. For young people, much of this meaning takes shape in schools.

And, within a context of extended socio-economic disenfranchisement, the quality of state-sponsored schooling takes on a momentous personal importance for parents and children – not only in terms of education, but also social justice and democratic agency.

Because of South Africa’s disparate and dehumanising history, because of the historical baggage of residential clustering along racial lines - which means that learners might learn together, but not live in shared areas - democratic citizenship education should focus on how individuals come together, so that they might learn how to be together.

By so doing, schools could not only cultivate integrated spaces of diverse ways of thinking, being and acting but also question the presumption of hegemonies, of dominant cultures, and normative codes.

In this sense, when all our schools consider their roles in relation to the espousal of democratic citizenship education, they ought to do so with an acute attentiveness not to reproduce social, economic and political inequalities.

This means cultivating and promoting pluralist environments so that learners might learn democracy not by learning about democracy, but by learning through and with others.

The contribution of our schools, therefore, resides, firstly, in the extent to which they are willing to diversify so that they come to mirror the pluralism of their society.

Secondly, the idea is not simply to have a representation of diversity and then to teach about democratic citizenship education.

Rather, the focus at all schools should be to create the spaces and opportunities through which learners might come to learn democracy by engaging and deliberating with those they might not ordinarily encounter.

It is this point which makes any idea of segregation so especially problematic because when learners learn together, they also learn how to be together.

That South Africans are struggling to engage with democratic practices, is evident in the many incidents of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and exclusion.

Of course, it is irrational to expect that schools should assume the full and only responsibility of inculcating democratic citizenship education.

Young people are socialised into particular practices and processes in their homes, or with friends. Sometimes, however, what they are socialised into is not reconcilable with democratic principles.

Schools, therefore, are the only formal spaces, which can provide the discourses and practices, which serve to promote democratic citizenship education.

The purpose and responsibility of ensuring the necessary context and ethos for the cultivation of democratic citizenship has to do with renewed understandings of what best serves the collective of a public good in a democracy.

The preparation of learners for a democracy, therefore, depends on how the school conceives of a democracy.

What schools - principals, teachers, administrators and governors - do, matters to learners.

It matters in terms of what they know, how they come to know, and why they know, and it matters not only in relation to how they view themselves in relation to others and their society, but how they view others in relation to themselves.

Schools cannot afford to look inward; society can only be transformed by looking outward and through collective actions.

As a social, ethical and political space, the function of schools cannot be limited to that of a curriculum; schools ought to be places for the cultivation of self-belief; belonging, and recognition.

Schools, therefore, cannot exist and stand on the side-lines of a democracy; they cannot lay claim to the privileges and rights of a democracy, if they are not prepared to fulfill their collective responsibilities in sustaining and holding that democracy accountable.

In the end, schools are bound to democracy - in terms of cultivating it, defending it, and questioning it, when it neglects to serve a public good. In assuming the roles and function of the custodians of democracy, schools can position themselves as an embodiment of democracy in context and practice.

A school, when understood as rightly serving a public good, is in a position to not only cultivate the conditions for democratic practices, but to be the type of citizenship, in which it hopes to share and live.

*Professor Nuraan Davids is Professor of Philosophy of Education in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University. This is an abridged version of an article published in the Journal of Education recently

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