History Teachers' Association of Australia

Western Australia

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Me, Them, Us: Inflaming the Democratic Imagination

Aidan Davison

My thoughts – being a little jumbled - seem to me not nearly as organised as the other presenters. For I do not consider myself an expert on the subject of democracy and citizenship. I found the specific perspectives, many of which I knew little about, presented by others tonight very stimulating. The diversity of speakers itself implicitly attests to one of the central meanings of democracy: that of diversity harnessed to the task of dialogue. And, within this diversity I think that non-experts such as myself do have something to offer as, in the end, democracy is not about highly sophisticated, specific knowledge, it is about broad civic participation in the building, guiding and sustaining of social life. Democracy is what academics call an "essentially contested concept". That is, it has no universally applicable definition. It’s meanings are multiple and context-dependent. The task is not definition, then, but clarification, communication and conflict resolution: a task that, by definition, never ends. It is the essence of the role of the citizen to keep the conversation alive and vibrant.

Australian citizenship is our birthright in this country, as well as a right being extended to many others each year, but it is not simply a right we gain in some boring calculation that reflects the responsibilities we are expected to shoulder. Citizenship names the possibility of developing a genuinely shared vision about what is marvellous in each other and in this land, and what must be done to protect and nurture, to sustain, these marvels.

We thus need to find ways of talking in which all of can participate and contribute and express our deepest visions of what our society should value above all else. More basic than this still, we need to find ways of talking about democracy and citizenship that the majority of our community will find interesting and relevant, because cynicism, boredom and apathy are widespread, although I think the latter is much less pervasive than is often suggested. Young people, in particular, are more likely to express an utter disinterest in political debate, unable to see its relevance for their lives, and thus I’m especially pleased to be able to talk to teachers about the importance of civics education being more than a dead, fact-fat, history of the constitution, parliament, legislation, and the judiciary.

I must confess: the idea of citizenship been puzzling me. Thinking about it for a few days now, I still have a great deal of trouble putting into words, although I have a lived sense of how much I value the fact that I feel I belong in and to this society. I have a sense of the practice of it and I can point to people who are good citizens but to actually come up with a form of words as to what it is leaves me wanting. I’m told this may not be uniquely my problem and that Australia’s history of nation-building has treated the idea of citizenship with great uncertainty and ambivalence. Participants at the first constitutional convention talked a great deal about the importance of citizenship, but the 1901 constitution left this word aside altogether, referring instead of British subjects for the first 50 years of our independent nationhood. This vacuum has been brought to the fore by the recent debates about reconciliation, border-protection and One-Nation rhetoric that raise the issue of who really belongs in this land. Equally, the deep unease raised by S11 and the Bali bombing relate to citizenship via the question of how citizens are to be best protected in their homelands.

I want to respond to the core issues raised by these debates, but will do so somewhat obliquely, for I have a philosophical turn of mind (it sometimes gets me into trouble) and want to strip back tonight’s topic – citizenship in education – back to its simplest outline. I am currently teaching first year university students and this week about social capital and citizenship and believe that we need to be clear about articulating the essence of things and encouraging our students to articulate the essence of things before we actually give them too much information. Citizenship is not just about facts.

So my definition for what it is worth " In its essence it is an deep awareness of the beauty of just acts and of the ugliness of unjust acts." This will no doubt sound a little poetic or flowery, but what I want to get across is something I feel is practically tangible. I am suggesting that citizenship is a reaction in the gut to things that appall us and things that inspire us. It is something the majority of us in this country share and that our students no matter their age, or the amount of information they have can have some access to.

So how to connect the sometimes boring issues of democracy, governance and civics with this kind of active/empowering/rich sense of what citizenship is all about?

This question brings me to the role of imagination, and particularly to the idea of inflaming the imagination. When it comes to politics and democracy we often talk about inflaming passions, with passion understood as a destructive force. We talk about fears we have of the unknown, particularly of people who are clearly different from us. This is all true. I think fears are running rampant. The fires of fear are aflame in the land. But there are different kinds of political passions and it is possible to inflame our sense of justice and our sense of shared good also.

There is no purely logical or rationalist framework in the end that is going to make people committed to the idea of justice or to be committed to the idea for instance of reconciliation of the first people of this land or any important democratic idea. It comes from a deeper source of our passions and that can actually fire our rationality. It is one of the things that we do not understand very well – that reason and emotion stand like this – basically at war with each other. We have the irony that our politicians when they get into parliament draw on their passion and then squabble like children in a playground. Children are usually appalled by their behavior and I think this is something to value.

We need to be really careful when we teach about democracy to not just drive it back down to a matter of logic or rationality – let’s be reasonable here…let’s step back from our beliefs, our religion, from our feelings - what we need is a rational system where everyone gets the freedoms they need, and we get some good public realm, some common good we can decide upon, some pre-agreed structure. We need to see it is not always rational to adopt an arms-length, objectivity of a disembodied mind. Rationality is a rich, multifaceted resource not exhausted by the idea of toting up numbers on a balance sheet. Citizenship is a deeply rational enterprise, but not only because it allows the imposition of social order and social protection, also because communal values and purposes add genuine richness and meaning to social life.

Of course, political debate demands careful unpacking of ‘the facts’–and yet actually feelings can shape facts, can form facts, can give us the interest to find out about things and be receptive to the insights that arise. In particular, intense and embodied emotional responses can opening our minds so we can explore the process of reasoned argument/debate rather than just rehearsing fixed, rigid ‘truths’ about which we have never really thought with courage or originality.

But to have democracy you have to want to do it, for it is a practice, not a thing. Everyone in this room has had to make some kind of judgement, including me, that democracy is a subject important enough to give up our evening. So even by being here is some kind of commitment, a starting point of solidarity in the midst of all our divergences.

Which brings me to my last point ….Democracy is about dialogue not monologue. Tonight we have half a dozen different and interesting monologues. I am thus extremely pleased that the next section of the evening is all about discussion: questions, clarification, digression and anecdote. I also think that in terms of our teaching about democracy it has to be ultimately about discussion and about inculcating the values of discussion and especially of open-mindedness and receptivity. Those values will be (off the top of my head) about tolerance, about sense of equality, capacity to listen and about respect. Those conditions are harder and harder to maintain in the public arena today, especially hard to maintain in the media. Students are not attracted to the discourse because it seems to be based on conflict or absolute rights and wrongs, intimidation. The cynicism by many younger citizens is an expression of a type of disempowerment. As eduicators we have the difficult and exciting task of convincing those in our classrooms that as citizens they have profound powers to shape and improve their world.

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