When the Prime Minister says classrooms shouldn’t be political and students should stay in school, that’s an implicit argument about what kinds of citizen he thinks we should have.

It’s not unreasonable. The type of citizen who has not gone out to protest will have certain habits and dispositions that are desirable. Hard-working, diligent, focused. However, the question about what it means to be a citizen and how to become one is complicated and not one that any one person has the truth about.  

Let’s go back to basics though. What’s the point of education? It’s to prepare children for life. Many would claim it’s to get children ready for work, but if that was the case we would put them in training facilities rather than schools. Our education systems have many tasks – to make children work ready to be sure, but also to develop their personhood, to allow them to engage in society, to help them flourish. Every part of the curriculum, from its General Capabilities of critical and creative thinking to the discipline specific like technologies, is designed to provide young people with the skills, knowledge and dispositions necessary for being 21st century citizens. 

What many don’t realise is that learning what it means to be a citizen isn’t localised to the curriculum. Interactions with parents, teachers, with each other, with news and social media – all of these contribute to the definition of a citizen.

Every time a politician says that children should be seen and not heard, that’s an indication of the type of citizen they want.

Most politicians don’t want kids out protesting after all – not only is it disruptive to whatever is in school that day, it looks really bad on the news for them. Protests are bad news for politicians in general and if children are involved, there’s no good way to spin it. 

But we do want children to learn how to protest. We want them to be able to see corruption and have discussions and heated debates and embrace complexity. Everyone should have the ability to say their piece and be heard in a democracy. This is something that we’ve already recognised as persuasion is a major part of education and has been for years 

However, when we talk about this, we need to recognise that we aren’t just talking about skills or knowledge. This isn’t putting together a pithy response or clever tweet. It’s about being capable of contributing to public discourse, and for that, we need children to hold certain intellectual virtues and values. 

An intellectual virtue refers to the way we approach inquiry. An intellectually virtuous citizen is someone who approaches problems and perspectives with open-mindedness, curiosity, honesty and resilience; they wish to know more about it and are truth seeking, unafraid of what terrors lie in it. 

If virtues are about the willingness to engage in inquiry, intellectual values are the cognitive tools needed to do so effectively. It’s essential in conversation to be able to speak with coherence; an argument that doesn’t meaningfully connect ideas is one that is confusing at best, and manipulative at worst. If we’re not able to share our thoughts and display them clearly, we’re just shouting at each other. 

Values and virtues are difficult to teach though. You can’t hold up flash cards and point to “fallibility” and say “okay, now remember that you can always be wrong”. We have cognitive biases that stand between us and accepting a virtue like “resilience to our own fallibility” – it feels bad to be wrong.  The way we learn these habits of mind is through practice, through acceptance and agreement. Teachers, parents and adults can all develop these habits explicitly through classroom activities, and implicitly by modelling these behaviours themselves. 

If a student can share their ideas without fear of being shut down by authority, they’ll develop greater clarity and coherence. They’ll be more open-minded about the ideas of others knowing they don’t have to defensively guard their beliefs.

To the original question of what it means to be a good citizen in a global context: we want our children to develop into conscientious adults. A good citizen is able to communicate their ideas and perspectives, and listen to the same from others. A good citizen can discern policy from platitude, and dilemmas from demagoguery. 

But it takes practice and time. It takes new challenges and new contexts and new ideas to train these habits. We don’t have to teach students the logistics of organising a revolution or how to get elected.  

And if we’re not teaching them when or why they should protest, we’re not teaching them to be good citizens at all.

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