Citizenship and media education: lost connections?

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The first of two posts revisiting the idea of citizenship education, and its relationship with media education.

The neo-conservative ‘revolution’ has all but swept away many of the key themes of education policy from the New Labour period. Citizenship education is just one example – a term that rarely passes the lips of educational policy-makers today, yet which is surely even more relevant in the wake of the political upheavals and conflicts of the past few years. In the first of two posts, I revisit the idea of citizenship education, and consider its relationship with media education. In the second, I interview Professor Shakuntala Banaji, one of the most interesting thinkers and researchers in this field today.

Media educators have frequently invoked arguments about citizenship; and conversely, citizenship education has always included elements of media analysis and (in some instances) media production. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. In modern societies, the political process is inevitably and intensively mediated or ‘mediatized’. As such, the ability to critically evaluate media, and to understand the broader social, political and economic dimensions of communication, is surely a basic prerequisite for informed citizenship. Meanwhile, the media also increasingly enable people to create and convey their own messages – albeit in quite limited genres and platforms, media provide opportunities for voice and participation, and hence for more active citizenship.

While there is a longer history here, citizenship moved towards the top of the policy-making agenda in Britain with the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government in 1997. Blair’s Education Minister, David Blunkett, took the opportunity to commission a report on the topic, led by Sir Bernard Crick, who had been Blunkett’s tutor in his undergraduate studies at the University of Sheffield. As Crick’s report recommended, Citizenship went on to become a new compulsory subject in the National Curriculum for England and Wales: it was to be taught at all levels in both primary and secondary schools, and new courses leading to public examinations for 16-year-olds began in 2002.

Citizenship education arose primarily in response to what the political philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls a legitimation crisis. As in many other countries, young people in particular were seen to be losing interest in politics: they were less likely to vote at elections, to join political parties, or to participate in ‘civic’ organisations and activities. In fact, the evidence on these points is quite uneven; and (as we’ll see) there are significant questions to be asked about what counts as ‘political’ or ‘civic’ engagement or activity in the first place. Nevertheless, this argument about the ‘democratic deficit’ and the wider demise of civil society became a kind of common-sense of the time; and education was seen by many to be the key solution to the problem.

The idea of citizenship (or at least the versions of it that circulated in the world of educational policy) reflected a fundamental tension or ambivalence that was at the heart of New Labour politics more broadly. On the one hand, New Labour was a social democratic project, albeit not a socialist one: it was about equality of opportunity, and overcoming what was then called the ‘social exclusion’ of disadvantaged groups. Yet on the other hand, it was also a neoliberal project: it was about accommodating to the demands of a modern globalised economy, and creating the ‘flexible’, self-regulating workforce that such an economy was believed to require. 

These tensions were quite apparent in the original reports and policy documents about citizenship education, but especially as the new curriculum came to be implemented. For example, among the overarching themes was a recurring emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’. This seemed to suggest a kind of trade-off: citizens might claim rights, but only if they accepted responsibilities and did their proper duty. There was a kind of moralistic tone here that was arguably characteristic of New Labour much more broadly. While Crick’s report emphasised active citizenship, some of those who led the implementation seemed to fall back on a much more old-fashioned, conformist idea of ‘civics’ – a matter of inculcating facts about the mechanics of the democratic parliamentary system, for example, rather than offering students opportunities to participate in their own right.

While the theme of ‘community and diversity’ (and associated ideas about ‘social cohesion’) came on to the citizenship agenda a little later – not least in response to some high-profile instances of urban unrest – there were conflicting views here as well: for some, this theme provided opportunities to teach about issues of inequality and social justice, although for others it was aligned with the vague, conflict-free ‘communitarianism’ of New Labour ideology. National identity, and the notion of ‘Britishness’, was a particularly contested area here, and continues to be so.

Kate Brown and Stephen Fairbrass, in a handbook for Citizenship teachers published towards the end of the New Labour period, usefully differentiate between two distinct conceptions of the citizen that were in circulation here. For them, citizenship education is a means of producing critical citizens – young people who might be ‘intellectually angry’ about injustice, intolerance and inequality, and prepared to act to challenge authority. Yet they note that others are more interested in creating model citizens – law-abiding, respectful and obedient young people, whose civic action might entail picking up litter or helping the elderly. As they suggest, these two conceptions came into sharp conflict at the time of the mass protests around the government’s involvement in the Iraq war: while some teachers encouraged (or at least had to allow) their students to join the demonstrations, both Blair and Blunkett castigated young people for ‘truanting’ in order to attend.

Ultimately, the version of citizenship education that has been implemented tends towards the latter view. Young people might be encouraged to act and to participate, but in quite limited ways that largely align with official adult definitions of ‘politics’. Meanwhile, a good deal of young people’s behaviour is stigmatised, not least in the right-wing media: they are seen as threatening, irresponsible, and disobedient. More everyday forms of political or civic engagement – and particularly more playful, and more dissenting behaviour – are typically denigrated or ignored.

For example, young people are often passionately invested in their own youth cultures, not least as they are manifested through clothing, music and other media preferences. Far from being a merely personal matter, it could be argued that youth cultures entail expressions or acts of citizenship that arise directly from the life-worlds of young people. They almost always take a communal, public form (and indeed often entail struggles over public space); and they reflect fundamental claims about social identity (for example, in terms of class, ‘race’, gender and sexuality). Yet for many adult commentators, youth culture is merely a shallow manifestation of consumerism, or indeed a form of ‘anti-social’ behaviour. A broader and more relevant view of citizenship – and of citizenship education – would need to engage much more directly with such phenomena; and in the process, there could be a good deal of common ground with media education.

The implementation of citizenship education during the New Labour period (1997-2010) was uneven, and was particularly hampered by a lack of effective training. Many schools struggled with the requirement to generate ‘active’, community-based activities. While citizenship education did to some extent align with the ‘Big Society’ rhetoric of the incoming Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, it was also seen by his Education Minister Michael Gove as being ‘politically motivated’ (that is, by the wrong kind of politics). While it remains part of the National Curriculum, its role has been much reduced: the ‘active’ element has been reduced to a more limited emphasis on volunteering, and much of the subject content now comes down to what Bernard Crick condemned as ‘dead safe, old rote-learning civics’.

Meanwhile, citizenship education has also been drawn into other agendas, especially those that seek to combat ‘radicalization’; and it has become a kind of catch-all repository for a whole range of issues that do not fit easily elsewhere in the curriculum. A 2018 report by a select committee of the House of Lords (not exactly a democratic institution itself) suggested that it had fallen into serious decline, largely as a result of shifts towards a more ‘traditional’ curriculum, and was now in a ‘parlous state’: the report argued that the political elements of citizenship education were being subsumed into a more individualistic conception based around the notion of ‘character’.

The post-millennial rise (and eventual demise) of citizenship education in the UK coincided with a global wave of academic interest and activity focusing on the ‘civic’ potential of networked, digital media. Advocates of technology looked to the internet as a means of revitalising, and perhaps even saving, democracy. This ‘cyber-utopian’ thinking can be traced back to the counter-cultural origins of the internet, but it enjoyed a resurgence following the corporate rebranding of ‘Web 2.0’, the so-called participatory internet. The use of social media during the Arab Spring and by other emergent social movements, as well as during the 2008 Obama campaign, appeared to offer support to the general enthusiasm.

Retrospectively, however, much of this enthusiasm appears rather naïve. A good deal of the academic commentary during the early 2000s reflected a kind of liberal wish-fulfilment, which ignored the broader political forces in play, and the growing power of digital capitalism. The examples of activism and civic participation that were discussed were almost always drawn from progressive left/liberal social movements. From the perspective of the early 2020s, it’s curious to find so little recognition of how social media were already being weaponised by the extreme right – arguably, much more effectively than by the left; and indeed of the growing corporate control of digital networks, and how they were taken up for the purpose of surveillance. Amid the enthusiasm for ‘participation’ as a good in itself, little attention was paid to continuing inequalities in access, and indeed to the reality of who was participating, and why. The assumption that networked technology would automatically lead to decentralised, more democratic politics was ultimately deterministic: many of the hopes of the 2000s were dashed by the experiences of the 2010s, to the point where many critics now regard social media not as the solution to the decline of democracy, but the cause of it.

The concept of ‘civic’ that’s often used here is especially slippery: there is a kind of circular rhetoric, where scholars appeal to notions like ‘the common good’ or ‘positive social impact’, which are equally ill-defined. It’s entirely possible that the white nationalists who believe that their neighbourhood is being negatively impacted by the presence of migrants, or those who believe that the world is being run by a network of celebrity child-traffickers working out of the basement of a pizza restaurant, would see themselves as acting for ‘the common good’. These normative ideas of citizenship and civic participation were arguably already outdated by the early 2000s; but in light of the rise of right-wing populism, they seem little more than fantasy. 

Many would argue that the problem today needs to be framed in rather different terms. The issue is not so much about how we engage young people with politics, but how we enable them to see through the mis- and dis-information that have become central to the political process. Yet – as in the case of arguments about so-called ‘fake news’ – there is a tendency to underestimate the scale of the broader political and economic issues that are at stake here. As in other areas (hate speech, cyberbullying, online addiction, and so forth), there is a danger of reducing the complexities of media education to a simplified form of training in online hygiene.

Rather than merely seeking to immunize young people against ‘fake news’, media educators are very well placed to take account of the broader cultural dimensions of citizenship. Self-evidently, media education is about much more than ‘information’ media, or indeed about politics narrowly defined. The reason why it can be so generative, and so engaging, for young people is precisely because it connects with their lived cultural experience. It addresses questions, not just about information, but also about aesthetics and symbolism, and about the emotional and personal dimensions of culture, that are profoundly political.

Nevertheless, one of the most striking tensions here is between the educational aim of promoting active citizenship and the fact that schools, by and large, are profoundly undemocratic institutions (some would say anti-democratic ones). Despite some useful efforts – for example in the form of school councils and projects designed to promote ‘student voice’ – students are very rarely able to become ‘active citizens’ in the context of schools themselves. Some would argue that there is a fundamental contradiction in terms here, and that we need to look beyond the institution of the school. Perhaps the school

is not the best or most appropriate location for cultivating young people’s activism. Yet if we look beyond the school, we are almost bound to work with a self-selecting group; and we may find it harder to reach the disadvantaged young people who are most in need – although some informal ‘youth media’ projects have been able to achieve this very effectively.

The discussion of citizenship almost inevitably reflects the gap between rhetoric and reality. Governments may say they want active, participating citizens, but do they really? Do the authorities really want young people to ‘have a voice’ – and do they themselves actually want to listen to those voices? Active citizenship may seem like a desirable ideal, but how far is it adequate to the many challenges of digital capitalism? And how far is any more far-reaching conception of ‘digital citizenship education’ likely to be implemented?

Right now, the actions of the UK government seem to be pointing in a very different direction. In the last couple of years, it has instituted far-reaching programmes in education to counter what it calls ‘radicalization’. Schools are now required to teach what are dubiously defined as ‘fundamental British values’. Over the past few months, new guidance has been issued that explicitly prevents teachers from using material that promotes ‘anti-capitalist’ ideas; and new legislation is being introduced to ban many mainstream forms of political protest. We might well ask what version of citizenship is likely to emerge from these developments – and what we might possibly do to resist it.

A longer version of this piece will appear in Belinha de Abreu’s edited collection, Media Literacy and Social Justice in Action, to be published by Routledge in 2022.

1 thought on “Citizenship and media education: lost connections?

  1. Pingback: Citizenship and media education in contested times: an interview with Shakuntala Banaji | David Buckingham

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