The Trouble with “Vocational” Citizenship

At the end of last week and again yesterday, I wrote about grim news from a new study regarding what teachers think students are learning when it comes to citizenship, and how distant our focus on education as the “new civil right” is from traditional concerns about preparing students for the rigors of citizenship.

I think this challenge is evident even in many of the schools and districts regarded today as exemplary, and especially in those often lauded precisely for their emphasis on achievement-oriented “citizenship.” Even in schools that make forthright efforts to teach students good social skills, there is a premium on what can be thought of as “vocational citizenship”–with its emphasis on learning socially desirable behaviors not as part of an attachment to community or nation but for the practical benefits they will provide to the individual student.

Thus, high-performing district or charter schools use chants, ceremonies, signs, and strong discipline to forge a culture defined by college-going and career success; at the same time, unlike schools of a half-century ago, they rarely seek to use those same exercises to help invest students in the American nation as a civic enterprise. Indeed, these schools aggressively define success almost solely in terms of math and reading achievement and college matriculation.

I’m not, by any means, suggesting that this is a bad thing. It’s enormously tough for schools to engage disaffected youth, especially those from poor and dysfunctional families. Emphasizing the practical and personal is both sensible and effective. And one can certainly make the case that teaching students habits of respect, self-discipline, perseverance, and delayed gratification–whatever the justification–will make them better citizens.

Raising questions about vocational citizenship, then, is not intended as an indictment. But it presumes that we need to push ourselves to ask what we should expect from schools when it comes to teaching civic values and shaping young citizens.

While vocational citizenship fosters some essential social values, it ignores others crucial to civic health. Learning to shake hands firmly and be courteous is not the same thing as learning to question authority, understand the Bill of Rights, engage in public debates, or develop an emotional attachment to one’s nation. It’s fine to reject one or another of these missions, but, to the extent we buy them, schools need to teach and cultivate these skills.

The challenges on this score fall uniquely on schools and educators because schools are the only institutions with the capacity and mandate to reach virtually every young person in the country. Schools are also, by design, the institutions best equipped to teach civic and political knowledge and skills such as critical thinking and deliberation. As a matter of course, schools are communities in which young people learn to interact, argue, work together, and begin to learn the norms of social interaction within the larger society. This is doubly so, given that many non-school institutions which once provided venues for young people to participate in civic and political affairs have weakened in recent decades, for reasons ranging from personalized technologies to concentrated poverty to changing family norms.

Schools focused intensely on reading and math assessments have deemphasized traditional sources of knowledge related to citizenship, including foundational documents and bodies of thought. While many fourth-graders today are tasked with writing a letter to the president, rare is the classroom where those students will spend much time discussing what it means to be a good American citizen.

I’m not certain how we tackle this, and I sure prefer vocational citizenship to no citizenship at all. But I think the issue deserves our attention, and at least a little bit of angst. This is doubly true in an era rife with debates over citizenship, religious tolerance, the size of government, and the role of our nation in the world. And I’m pretty confident the first step in addressing it is acknowledging it; discussing it; and arguing about how severe the challenge is, what’s causing it, and how to address it.

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