Civics and Ireland
The Secondary teacher, June 1966, Vol. 1 No. 6
The proposed introduction of civics as a subject in Irish schools is a welcome addition to the curriculum. The fact that the majority of school-leavers finish their formal education without being instructed in their rights and duties as citizens is appalling. Admittedly, in so far as they are instructed in their religion, they have some kind of substitute. But it is not a sufficient substitute in so far as the Church and State have not identical ends. It would seem that the State is at last awakening to this fact and becoming aware of its responsibility in educating citizens. This "socialization process" is a phenomenon of the modern nation-state and can have good or bad repercussions depending on the uses to which it is put. Its aims will be determined by the political and social circumstances of the state in question.
Many definitions of civics are available. Generally speaking, the aim of civics is to inculcate responsibility as a result of the recognition by the individual of his rights and duties. It includes educating the individual for a job; in this case, the job of being a good citizen. The man of our time is not an isolated individual living a self-sufficient existence in a primitive environment. Rather is he a person whose actions have repercussions for a large number of people. In so far as this is so, his relations with other men must be regulated. The more complex these relations are the more sophisticated must be the regulations governing their behaviour. Side by side with this development of interdependence is the decline in individual independence.
These relations between man and man occur on different levels. There are relations with the family, the locality, the county, the employer, the State, and, in contemporary times, the international environment. The more developed the society is the more complex will these relations be. Only an educated man is capable of understanding the ramifications of the rights and duties of such relations. It would be nearly true to say that the complexity of our present civilization has grown at a greater rate than the standard of education necessary to understand that civilization; fewer and fewer people understand how things work. The result is that people become more and more dependent and more subject to greater concentrations of power. In so far as it is possible, civics should aim at explaining these relations, informing the citizen on his rights and responsibilities, and giving him back some freedom.
Civics teaching will emphasise different things from state to state. In Ireland certain historical and social factors will dictate the emphasis. There is a strong authoritarian streak in our social experiences. Beginning in the family, the relation between parent and child is usually a one-way street; the child is to be seen but not heard. He does not contribute to family discussions; his remarks are at best tolerated. Growing up in this environment, his concept of the relation between authority and subject is one of power rather than persuasion. In school, a similar procedure obtains; his behaviour is ruled and his relaxations are "put in their place". If he toes the line of servitude he succeeds: if he is "unconventional" the world descends on him like a ton of bricks. Religion will play an important part in his life. His first experience with a minister of religion will probably be a happy one. However, as he grows in experience, he will find that religion is not a very personal thing: it is a rigidly laid down form of procedure. He will find that the position of the minister is one of authority. With a little study of history it will be easy for him to find the historical reasons for that position: the minister always held a position of leadership in the country and his word was law not only in religious matters but on political and social matters as well. The minister will have retained the position and the attitude of the only wise man. From this experience the growing child is confirmed in his concept of the relations between ruler and ruled : one of dictation.
When the child becomes an adult he will carry these attitudes into life with him. He may become a good subject or a severe master but he won't contribute much to the reasonable discussion of problems. This habit of the authoritarian approach to problems may be the cause of the failure of communication between many sections of Irish life today. Here civics could play an important role in making mature men. By mature men I mean those who are capable of sitting down together, despite differing positions of authority, and solving mutual problems on the basis of the recognition of each other's rights. It entails eroding the feeling of insecurity which is at the basis of the authoritarian attitude. When a man knows his rights, and knows that others know them, he will feel secure and will be less inclined to indulge in arbitrary behaviour towards his fellowmen. On the other hand, when he realises that his rights are preserved with the performance of his duties, he will have a greater incentive to perform the latter.
Civics is probably more important in Ireland today than ever before. The traditional centres of authority—the parent, the teacher, and the minister of religion— are gradually being eroded by the growing power of the state. The state is drifting deeper and deeper into socialism, even though we don't recognise it by that name. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, in Irish circumstances, where resources are at such a premium, the need for the State to distribute the wealth of the country may be desirable. But regardless of its desirability, an offshoot of the development is the tremendous increase in the power of the state. The state becomes the great giver of largesse and more and more of us become civil servants. This outcome gives the state more power in the direction of our lives. There does not seem to be any alternative to this development, even if it were to be desired.
In such a situation, the need for responsible citizens is greater than ever. If we accept the general direction of government, are we capable of questioning particular decisions? Do we sit back and accept un-questioningly directives from the elite of the civil service? The majority of us will be unable to keep ourselves informed on most matters of government. But we could make it our business to be acquainted with the matters that most closely concern ourselves; an educator ought to be able to discuss the Government's educational policy. Where does civics come in ? It was mentioned above that civics should contribute to the education of responsible citizens. If the awareness of this responsibility is inculcated in the school, the carry-over should be sufficient to develop the type of citizen recommended above.
This brings us to the actual teaching of civics. There was a court case in an Irish town recently in which a youth was found guilty of stealing. The lawyer for the defence claimed that the youth was really a good boy—he got 90 per cent, in the Christian Doctrine examination in his school. The logic was dubious; a person could get 100 per cent, in religion and yet never perform an act of religion. The same is true apropos of the teaching of civics. The subject could easily develop into a catechism; question and answer without meaning. This development can be avoided in a number of ways. Not only must civics be a subject in its own right, but it must be part of every subject. In her article Why Civics? Miss Nora Kelleher suggested many relevant ways in which this could be realised. But the teaching of civics must go further to be meaningful; it must include practice as well as theory. Naturally, making the subject practical will be far more difficult than merely teaching theory; the textbook and the teacher are sufficient for the latter whereas a fundamental change of attitude will be necessary for the former. Making civics practical will involve some kind of devolution of authority in the schools; students ought to be given responsibility as soon as possible. In some schools there is a prefect system; in others, senior students have separate rooms for study; in more, one finds the honour system taking various forms. Some of these have succeeded, others have failed. But whether success or failure has been their lot, they need to be informed with a new attitude from those in authority; they must be seen not as "liberal" concessions but as the rights of the students. It should be possible to have a graduated transfer of responsibilities as the student moves from the lower to the higher forms in the school so that, by the time he leaves, he will have been responsible for getting his final examination : the means will have been available in the form of teachers and facilities but the success will have been his because he has properly used the means at his disposal. If the student gets his training in the school, side by side with the underlying theory, there is a good probability that fewer of his kind will be breaking beer bottles against the railing of St. Stephen's Green during their first year at university to prove that they don't give a damn about anything. It will also facilitate the entry of a boy or girl from a secondary school into a position of responsibility. They will have been trained in responsibility.
The task before teachers will by no means be easy. Initially, they may have to face failure. The material at their disposal will be coming from a background which does not contribute to the development of responsibility. To throw such children on their own principles will lead to early disillusionment. At the other end of the scale they will turn out students capable of some responsibility into a society that tends to regard responsible people as upstarts, "getting out of line". But regardless of the difficulties, the inculcation of responsibility must go ahead. It was mentioned above that the power of the state was growing side by side with the decline in the traditional areas of authority. At the present we are probably lucky in having two great centres of power, the Church and the State. One tends to balance out the worst effects of the other. But to have either one supreme would be to the detriment of the freedom of the ordinary citizen. Present indications would seem to point to the growing power of the State without necessarily a decline in the power of the Church.
In the face of this development, the need exists for the training of a greater number of alert, responsible citizens, people who, by their awareness of their rights and duties, will be able to offset this encroachment on their freedom. The teaching of civics has a fundamental part to play in the training of such citizens and teachers have an obligation to see that mature men are the end product of their efforts. Teachers have one other responsibility: they must ever be on their guard lest the teaching of civics be used for the propagation of some pernicious doctrine. It is their duty to make certain that the subject never becomes a tool in the hands of partisan politics. When teachers have fulfilled these obligations they can be assured that their students will do them credit on leaving school.