Civic education is fundamentally about preparing young people to be informed about societal issues and to take action to improve local, national and global communities and create more just, inclusive and sustainable futures. As such, civic education is well-positioned to give young people a greater sense of agency and to create communities and futures in which well-being becomes a collective enterprise – where every person’s dignity, worth, health and contributions are valued, where both individual and societal well-being are given greater priority.
We are living during new global-civic realities with easy access to the spread of global technologies and media, diverse cultural influences and a multitude of products and ideas from other places, while also beset with complex transnational problems, such as global climate crisis, pandemic, inequality and the spread of potentially destabilising misinformation and ideologies. At the same time, civic education, for the most part, remains nationalistic, focused on developing dominant national identities and skills necessary for work and economic growth in a competitive global economy. To ensure national order and the ability to compete globally in these challenging contexts, many education systems have resorted to highly prescribed curricula, high-stake examinations and accountability schemes emphasising academic performance to ensure students are adequately prepared to meet these new globalised national imperatives.
Unfortunately, this confluence of conditions may be adversely affecting the potential of education to help individuals and societies fully develop civic capacities and give greater attention to well-being in educational practice. This is something the educational philosopher, John Dewey noted over a century ago when he asked if it was possible for an education system to be conducted by a nation-state and yet the full social ends of the educative process not be restricted, constrained, and corrupted. In other words, to what extent are certain potentialities and capacities (both individual and societal) lost, constricted or marginalised by these narrow conceptions of education?
One way to think more broadly about the purposes of civic education might be to consider the relationship between civic education and well-being. Civic education in Singapore is typically construed as building national identity and social cohesion and to prepare students for the global economy. Civic education is a core element of the examinable Upper Secondary Social Studies curriculum, so a great deal of focus is on preparing students to demonstrate a range of skills on exams. Instead, if we think about the relationship between civic education and well- being we might notice an overlap between several key concepts central to both. For example, if we refer to Seligman’s PERMA theory of well-being – Positive Emotion-Engagement-Positive Relationships-Meaning-Accomplishment – we might recognise that, in many ways, these are core to civic life and a healthy society.
Positive emotions for civic life include hope for the future, feeling care and concern for others, affective identification or affinity with others and the joy of working collectively toward common aspirations. Even anger has been identified as a powerful political emotion that can be drawn upon positively to create a more just society. Engagement is also core to civic life. A 2019 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has identified transformative forms of civic engagement that can help students contribute to more just, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies. These include duty-based and participatory engagements, such as voting and participating in political parties, civil society groups and public institutions, as well as justice-oriented engagements focused on activism to address injustice and collaborations with others to imagine and create more just alternatives in society. Building positive relationships and solidarity around common goals is core to civic life and foregrounds our obligations to others. Responsible relationships are based on tolerance for different perspectives, dialogue, deliberation and action that can help others flourish in society. Meaning in life often arises from positive engagement and relationships, especially when grounded in purposes larger than one’s self or being able to contribute to society in meaningful ways. Similarly, a sense of accomplishment can also have a civic component when derived from meaningful contribution to others, society and social causes that aim to improve society.
Research that Tracey Alviar-Martin and I have done on global civic education points to the need for broader, more inclusive approaches to civic education that integrates political, relational, environmental, aesthetic, ethical and spiritual aspects of human experience in ways that can empower students to actively participate in and contribute to society. This more inclusive approach to civic education would recognise a broader spectrum of contributions young people can make to society and would focus on both individual and societal well-being. Such opportunities would enable students to develop positive emotions and relationships, feel a sense of belonging and agency, and help them develop and draw upon their own particular talents and interests to contribute to society or others in more diverse and meaningful ways. Young people and societies are more likely to flourish when people can more fully develop their potential and engage in an active and meaningful civic life, and where the full ends of educative processes are realised.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: Macmillan.
UNESCO (2019). Teaching and learning transformative engagement. Paris, Fr: UNESCO
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