September 28, 2022
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    Responsible citizens: Where have they gone? As Sri Lankans, we are v

    July 10, 2019

    Very good at claiming rights, but we are not always so ready to recognize our responsibilities. Throughout history, we have been reminded that with rights come corresponding responsibilities. Tragically, it appears as though a great many of the problems facing us today stem from the failure or complete refusal to exercise our rights in a responsible manner.

    Democracy means citizen sovereignty. To be sovereign, each citizen should have a responsibility, among other things, to be informed, at least minimally, of the issues on which he or she is asked to make a decision - whether for candidates, ballot propositions, or national and local civic questions. The responsible citizens should have a right to be informed, but also a responsibility to become informed.

    Being a responsible citizen covers many areas – some of them legal obligations, some social and some moral. In fact, to be a truly responsible citizen, we sometimes must go out of our way to do things which help our society – give a little bit of our time and effort for the greater good.

    All of us are fully aware what legal obligations are. Social responsibility is an ethical framework and suggests that an entity, be it an organisation or individual, has an obligation to act for the benefit of society at large. It can be in the form of active member of a voluntary organisation or helping an elderly lady who lives alone to do her marketing. Moral obligations are harder to pin down because different people have different moral codes. It is a duty which one owes, and which he ought to perform, but which he is not legally or socially bound to fulfill.

    Being a responsible citizen is, at its core, about being a less selfish person, and putting the needs of society before their own needs.

    UK experience

    If we agree that Sri Lanka as a democratic country needs active, informed and responsible citizens, the million-dollar question is - how do we “create” such citizens?

    This writer believes that it should start from the school. For example, in early 2000s, some European countries began to face increasing threats from extremist elements. Those “threats” varied from widely spreading radical extremism, trivialization of hate speech to violence and discrimination against women. In order to face these threats the Governments experimented with the introduction and promotion of citizenship education in their schools.

    They believed that a clear knowledge of a nation’s institutions, and also an awareness that the rule of law applies to social and human relationships would make the future generation would become clear-thinking and enlightened citizens. To a large extent, those countries have succeeded in creating enlightened citizenships in their own countries.

    What is really meant by citizenship education? Before we seek to find an answer, let us briefly check what is meant by the term “citizenship.” The original notion of “citizenship” can be traced back to ancient Greece where citizenship meant sharing in the duties and privileges of membership in the polis, or city-state. Citizens were required to fight in defense of the polis and expected to participate in the political life of the city by voting.

    Today, concept of citizenship is difficult to pin down as it is many things to many people. But at its core it is a set of agreed conventions that are used to indicate who is allowed to become a member of the socio-political community. These social practices may be laws and “rights” granted and also civic norms, political identities, and expected behavioural practices etc. These rules and conventions are not universal or set in stone. Instead, they may change over time, across countries, and sometimes even within countries.

    But the beauty of citizenship is that all laws and rights are learned and not inherited, and schools can play an important role in educating children and young people about the formal and informal rules of citizenship, and in preparing them for their role as citizens.

    Current curriculum

    In Sri Lanka, instead of citizenship education, we have civics education which is taught as an individual course, separated from other subjects. The curriculum of citizenship education in most countries is much broader than our civics course.

    Introducing the local course, the National Institute of Education (NIE) says, “The principal aim of introducing Civic Education to the school system is to achieve sustainable peace in Sri Lanka.”

    However, the purpose of citizenship education is much broader. For example, in 2001, Citizenship was introduced as a statutory subject in the National Curriculum of England, following the recommendations of the Crick Report in 1998. The Citizenship curriculum is based on key concepts (democracy, justice, rights and responsibilities, identities and diversity) that children need to understand and key processes and skills (critical thinking and enquiry, advocacy and representation, taking informed and responsible action) they need to develop.

    The UK National Curriculum for citizenship sets out teaching requirements that address a wide range of content including politics, parliament and government, the operation of the legal system, how the economy functions, the role of the media, human rights etc.

    The Citizenship curriculum aims to develop student’s ability to participate in communities and wider society as informed, critical and responsible citizens. The purpose of “active citizenship” is to teach students to work together and take practical action, using their Citizenship knowledge and understanding to contribute to a better society.

    It’s time we seriously rethink about our civics education course in schools: rethink whether the outcome meets with our aspirations for 21st century. For example, will the final outcome of the course deliver clear-thinking and enlightened citizens who participate in decisions concerning society: whether they have been trained to understand that human rights and citizen rights are interdependent; whether they will understand that human rights include civil and political rights, the latter obviously relating to the rights and obligations of citizens.

    These are the questions our educationists should ask themselves and find answers. And, we decide whether we should move on to a wider curriculum based on England experience.

    Hierarchical structure

    To successfully handle this issue, we need to take hard look at our educational system also. Currently, it is a system closer to hierarchical structure that places students at the bottom. It relies on conventional information-transfer approaches to learning. It places the teacher at the front of the class as the administrator of a set of knowledge that is to be transferred into the students through formal lessons.

    By the time students leave the school or university, they have learned that their role as a citizen is to follow the instructions of others on top of them. The system develops inaccurate perspectives on citizenship and democracy. When common citizens believe that their concerns or suggestions will be disregarded by political or bureaucratic systems, engagement is considered futile and participation decreases. This is exactly what has happened in Sri Lanka today.

    We must understand that the skills and dispositions necessary for democracy are learned through practice. When students are not being engaged in a democratic education, they miss out on developing the skills for action and participation. They also do not gain the confidence and knowledge that they can make a difference.

    Most of our youths are not able to address an injustice because they lack the “actionable skills” and would require someone “smarter” or “with more power” to speak for them.

    Creating a learning environment free from hierarchical power structures is known as “liberating education.” The introduction of such an environment will make students realize their own potential and become active agents of change. Involving the whole school community in decision-making processes can make schools a democratic space, allowing students to learn through action and experience.

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