As a child, I grew up hearing the term “citizenship” applied very narrowly to two concepts: be nice and follow the rules. I would scratch my head as I read about revolutionary figures who rarely followed the rules and certainly failed in the nice category. Nice guys wear cardigans and read the sports page and politely avoid conflict while they pin up stock photo posters with motivational lines.
Nice guys don’t get crucified. They don’t drink hemlock. They don’t get assassinated on balconies. They don’t fast for days while people mock them for a non-violent revolution.
Citizenship isn’t about saying “excuse me” when you burp or turning in homework that isn’t sloppy. It’s about asking questions and listening and developing a social voice. This can be difficult, because authentic citizenship doesn’t look pretty on a spreadsheet. True citizenship is about paradox and mystery, requiring students to take up a hammer and swing it at injustice and yet learn to also wield the hammer with a chisel to sculpt something better. It requires students to make an honest analysis of poverty and racism and injustice and yet not turn too jaded; to serve and change the community and to celebrate what is beautiful in the midst of the brokenness.
We lie to students when we tell them citizenship means “stay in school” and yet we never let them develop a philosophy of education. We lie to them when we tell them citizenship means “vote when you’re older” and yet we don’t teach them about gerrymandered districts that prevent authentic change. We lie to them when we teach them that the world is made up of the good and the bad side and we are always the good guys because we wear cardigans and sip Merlot and pin up motivational posters with stock photography. (Not that cardigans or wine are a bad thing)
Ultimately, when I think about the people running a democracy, I care very little about whether or not they can open doors and follow rules and smile politely. I want to know if they can think critically and act ethically and feel empathetically.