Conseil supérieur de l'éducation
Catholic Committee: CITIZENSHIP

by Guy Côté,
President of the Catholic Committee


With a view to preparing its annual report, the Conseil supérieur de l'éducation is currently debating the concept of citizenship, a fascinating but perilous exercise! The "Globalization, citizenship, and multiculturalism" symposium organized by UQAM and INRS - Culture et Société in late March provided a forum for the main schools of thought on this issue. Here, I have used INRS' Denise Helly's excellent summary presentation to show what a multiform, changing, not to say elusive, topic citizenship is.

Any discussion of citizenship is necessarily based on the participants' particular philosophies on living in society and on the common good. Whether one is liberal, communitarian, postmodernist, or none of the above, will determine one's stance on democratic ideals, cultural identity, common values, the place and role of the State, etc.


Three philosophies

Liberals believe in the autonomy of the individual, man's intellectual capacity and freedom of choice as imperatives to be respected, and see the act of living within a society as a social contract, thereby making any attempt by the State to create common values self-defeating. Consequently, politics is instrumental, championing individuals' freedom of choice based on principles endorsed by the group and likely to preserve and promote that very freedom of choice. Given that individuals must critically assess the values and standards arising from these axioms, genuine consensus on moral or cultural values is highly improbable. However, a moral of freedom (W. Norman) that enables individual demands to be reconciled with the requirements of living within a society can be envisioned.

While advocating individual freedom, communitarians feel that the basis for living within a society entails being emotionally and symbolically rooted in a community of culture where freedom is concretely expressed. They denounce the inconsolable coldness of modernity, to paraphrase B. Barber, the ineffectiveness of a purely rational or voluntary appeal to an abstract universality of the principles of freedom and equality. They feel that liberal individualism compromises democratic institutions and the very essence of citizenship, which consists in participating in decision-making and sharing responsibility for living as a community. Michael Walzer's position is that the failure to recognize experience, attachments, and the values linked to family, race, culture, and religion make any sense of living within a society, other than the sharing of abstract values such as rights and freedoms, meaningless (cf. D. Helly, Pourquoi lier mondalisation, citoyenneté et multiculturalisme?, photocopied text, p. 7).

For postmodernists, modern society's belief in democracy and social equality ensured by man's rationality has been disproved in the perpetuation of inequality, war, and all manner of barbarity. They reject the rational project for establishing a common reference point as the foundation for a political community. From this standpoint, any affirmation of a common culture or morality would lead to one social group dominating the others. It is imperative to reckon with the pattern of domination so central to modern society if it is to be broken. Democratic citizenship is not the will to live together on the basis of consensus, but rather the act of dissenting from the imposed order, or in the words of J. Rancière, "rupturing the logic of domination under which some govern while others obey".


Three points of consensus

The three groups do, however, appear to share certain views, including the following identified by Denise Helly :

  1. The irreversible differentiation marking modern societies sounds the death knell for cultural homogeneity in any given society.

  2. Modern society has not kept its promise of progress based on instrumental, scientific, and technological thought.

  3. The need for a non-rational, non-exclusively instrumental way of instilling meaning in public and private life must be recognized, as well as the extreme variation of this meaning (op. cit, p. 3).

Clearly, while the task of defining citizenship education objectives and means is daunting, it remains one of the most pressing issues of our times.

Panorama • Volume 3, Number 2 • May 1998


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