<< The Body Politic

Learning citizenship lessons from abroad

Friday, November 4th, 2011

[This blog post was written by Timothy Maller, the Program’s fall intern. Interested in interning for the Program on American Citizenship? Click here.]

“An educated citizenry is vital to the survival of democracy”—Thomas Jefferson

Democracy does not perpetuate itself automatically. It requires citizens who are educated in its principles and understand its importance.

A recent paper released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World: Key to the Future,” highlights the importance of civic education to the future of democratic reforms in the Arab world. Another study, released by AEI’s Russian Studies Department, “Following One’s Conscience: Civic Organization and Russia’s Future, Part 1,” argues that civic participation may be the only way for Russia to reverse its current slide back into authoritarianism. These foreign examples should serve as a reminder to Americans of the importance of civic education in our own republic.

As the writers of “Education for Citizenship in the Arab World”—Muhammed Faour and Marwan Muasher—acknowledge, the Arab Spring was an inspiring moment to people around the world, and many people equated the toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt with the advent of democracy in these countries. As time has progressed, however, it has become starkly apparent that the transition to democracy is far from certain, and will require a lot of hard work if it is to be successful.

Faour and Muasher believe that education is essential to democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring. What’s fascinating is how similar the arguments made in favor of civic education in these fledgling democracies are to the ones being made in America today. Take this excerpt, for instance:

The current education reform efforts in the region heavily focus on such “technical” aspects as building more schools, introducing computers to schools, improving test scores in mathematics and sciences, and bridging the gender gap in education. While necessary and important, the reform’s current emphasis misses a basic human component: Students need to learn at a very early age what it means to be citizens who learn how to think, seek and produce knowledge, question, and innovate rather than be subjects of the state who are taught what to think and how to behave. These attributes are essential if the region is to move […] toward the kind of system that empowers its citizens with the requisite skills to build self-generating, prosperous economies and achieve a quality of life that can come through respect for diversity, critical thinking, creativity, and exercising one’s duties and rights as an active citizen.

AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has made similar arguments: that increased instructional time in reading and math, at the expense of civics and government, goes against the very purpose of public schools—to develop responsible and informed citizens.

By contrast, the Russia of today paints a different picture—that of a country whose democratic reforms have slowly eroded. In “Following One’s Conscience,” Leon Aron tells the story of his encounters with six grassroots organizations that are combating various political and social issues through civic activism. Though their respective issues differ, each group and its members have faced harassment from the state. Indeed, according to Aron, “nearly all of them have been arrested and held in overcrowded cells,” and “most of our subjects have been roughed up by the police.” Despite this hardship, the activists have remained convinced of the importance of their goals and are, as Aron puts it, “determined to persist in the crusade for a mature, organized, enlightened, strong, and self-aware civil society.” Indeed, Aron believes that they are Russia’s best hope for a democratic future, stating that “What the activists perceive as the moral imperative of their struggle ensures that their grass-roots efforts to enlarge the sphere of self-government will endure and makes them Russia’s best hope for a path away from Putinism.”

These two papers serve as stirring reminders of the importance of civic education and civic activism. Unlike the participants of the Arab Spring or the Russian activists profiled, though, Americans today often do take the longevity of our democratic tradition for granted. We as a people would do well to remember the wisdom of Jefferson and learn from these examples.