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The citizenship education course must teach the essentials: democracy and the rule of law

In a context where many observers see a decline in democracy across the world, a citizenship education course is an initiative that must be welcomed. Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, explains why in this text.

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By Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM)

In a context where several observers observe a decline of democracy around the world, a citizenship education course is an initiative that must be welcomed. Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, explains why in a text published on La Conversation. We reproduce an extract with his permission.

The importance of citizenship as a social bond

Quebec society, like any other, is crossed by complex issues. There is no shortage of themes that young people can think about in connection with citizenship. If they can do it in an appropriate educational setting, it is difficult to find reasons to oppose it.

But citizenship and the lived feelings that flow from the national fact are two different things. Citizenship is guaranteed by the rule of law and vice versa. The feelings experienced which arise from the national fact, however strong and real they are, remain subjective. A course on citizenship should focus on what surrounds the institution and practice of citizenship, not foster the subjective feelings surrounding experienced nationalism.

Citizenship is at the same time the most important, the most abstract and the most fragile social bond for a democratic regime. Brittle, because it requires that one adhere to the rules of law, not necessarily because one likes them, but because one considers the process by which they are established as more legitimate than the recourse to the arbitrary or violent. Abstract, because like health, citizenship is what we take for granted when it accompanies us, but which we regret when we are deprived of it. Important, because she is the link in the social bond that holds others in place.

It is through citizenship that we can make and break other social links in democratic debate and not in resorting to violence.

Transmit knowledge on complex issues

Basically, such a course should address the classic and current themes of the sociology of citizenship: the institutions, movements and processes through which democracy has developed and is practiced in Quebec and Canada. We are thinking of the development of the rule of law, but also of rights and freedoms and the division of powers and fields of jurisdiction. It is essential to remember through science that the context in which these institutions developed in Quebec is not the same as in France or the United States.

It will have to address the civic, political and social components through which we study citizenship from the work of the British sociologist. TH Marshall. These dimensions developed at a pace specific to Quebec and in different ways for men, women, owners, workers, French Canadians, English, First Nations, Innu, Jews, etc. Once again, there is concrete empirical knowledge that can be transmitted on these questions.

We also have every right to expect that such a course will address some burning issues of the day: eco-citizenship, citizenship in the digital age, sexualities and consent, pluralism, deconfessionalisation, secularism and radicalization phenomena. Parents know the importance of these issues and cutting-edge research is being done on them in the social sciences in Quebec.

This course will require that teachers receive significant training, particularly in sociology, political science and history. Teachers will be asked here to supervise and transmit knowledge on issues on which even adults have great difficulty debating. It will be necessary to give them time, access to training and recognize the complexity of the task they have to accomplish.

What about the cultural component announced in the course?

At first glance, one might wonder why a cultural dimension is built into one citizenship education course, rather than another.

However, it must be remembered that it is not yesterday that sociologists of all tendencies, Jean ‑ Charles Falardeau at Gerard Bouchard, have used literary works to revive contexts of transformation of civic practices in Quebec. While sociologists reconstructed the political and economic structures of Quebec in the 1950s, a novel like "Occasion Happiness" is extraordinary for reconstructing the life of French Canadians within them. It should also be remembered that the democratization of access to public education and to culture were fundamental matrices brought about by the Quiet Revolution.

Here, once again, we will have to trust the teachers, respect their academic freedom, mark out and not impose, and make room for less well-known works as well as canonized works. Gabrielle Roy, Louis Hémon or Jacques Ferron, of course, but also An Antane Kapesh or Naomi Fontaine have their place in this reflection.

Neither pride nor shame: a bias for democracy

In short, should this course seek to exalt national pride or, on the contrary, to make shame and penance the fabric of the social bond? Neither.

While citizenship can generate pride, its exaltation is not what its teaching should seek. The objective of such a course should be sober: to convey an explanation and an understanding of the origin and functioning of the institutions guaranteeing citizenship in Quebec and Canada.

If such a course should not aim to arouse pride, should it seek to arouse pride? shame or cultural intimacy ? No more. The shame shared by a group of historically and culturally bound individuals can strengthen social bonds between them, but it also creates boundaries for people outside the group.

Understanding through empathy can lead us to understand feelings and values, but it is not the same as feeling them. The teacher must seek to make opposing points of view understood, but he must leave to the manipulators and propagandists the objective of making them felt. Mutual understanding, which does not exclude disagreement, is essential for democracy. The pooling of shame or feelings should not constitute the basis of citizenship.

If pride and shame are not good counselors, what feelings should such a course elicit? None, except a bias for democracy. The course should aim to transmit knowledge, methods and skills. This transmission will inevitably generate feelings, misunderstandings, questions and new social and civic practices. But it is not for the legislator to give a political direction to these feelings. This role will fall to civil society, as it should, in a democracy.

By Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, Professor in political sociology, University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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