Seedbeds of civic virtue

Compulsory schooling is the only option as there is no other institution solely available to teach the full range of civic virtues for a better society

Seedbeds of civic virtue

Democracies cannot survive in good form without some essential civic virtues. Political theorists have specified several kinds of such virtues needed to support a flourishing democracy. Some of these are general virtues [courage, loyalty, and law-abidingness], social virtues [independence, open-mindedness], economic virtues [work ethics], and political virtues.

Amongst these the political virtues are the most critical as they include the ability to recognise and respect one’s own and others’ rights, ability to evaluate the performance of political office holders, and a willingness to engage in public discourse.

So take a look around to see if you can find enough people with these virtues available in Pakistan’s polity. If I were to go by my own stereotypical opinion of our society, Pakistan would get a thumbs-down for most of these virtues except perhaps courage and loyalty, and a mix of up and down for work ethics.

More importantly, the spectacle of public discourse, at least the one that we routinely see on our TV channels, is one where the conversations between people with different opinions regularly spiral into uncivil exchanges utterly devoid of any political virtues. The willingness to engage in public discourse involves listening seriously to a range of opinions many of which the listener may find utterly disagreeable and even obnoxiously distasteful. Yet, one must still be willing to persuade and influence others through intelligent and civil argument instead of use of brute force and manipulations. Yet, such civil argumentation remains a rarity.

No one is born equipped with the political virtues. Rather, they must be transmitted and acquired through meaningful and educative interactions between the individuals and between the individuals and the institutions in a given society. It is important for us to understand the possible sites of such educative interactions within our society and to imagine the limits and possibilities of development of civic virtues at each one of them. I should also acknowledge that the following discussion benefits tremendously from a comprehensive study of contemporary political philosophy authored by Will Kymlicka.

Kymlicka describes three possible seedbeds, or schools, of civic virtue, discussing the limitations of each one of them, mandatory political participation, market, voluntary associations, and schools. I believe it is important to consider these seedbeds in order to develop full grasp of the importance of public schools in developing the civic values.

The willingness to engage in public discourse involves listening to a range of opinions many of which the listener may find utterly disagreeable.

So the first seedbed of civic virtue can take the form of a mandatory requirement for political participation. An example of such mandate is South Korea where it is mandatory for the adults in a neighbourhood to attend monthly meetings to discuss the local political affairs. The hope is that such participation will automatically educate people in civic virtues. But, as Kymlicka argues, this faith in educative function of political participation may be overly optimistic.

While coercing people into political participation may have some benefits, it is not likely to result in the development of a full range of civic virtues. Individuals in such forums may get an opportunity to display leadership and the ability to create coalitions. This process may also involve a partial development of the virtues of justice and public reasonableness inasmuch as these are needed by the emerging leaders to persuade and rally others behind them. But such forced political participation has no mechanism of addressing the existing prejudices against marginalised groups and their claims are likely to be ignored in the development of political agendas.

So making political participation compulsory is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution to the problem of teaching civic virtues, which must be taught indirectly and not through direct imposition of political participation. In any case, there is no likelihood that Pakistan will go the way of nations -- such as Australia and South Korea -- which have introduced various mandates for compulsory political participation.

The second potential seedbed for civic virtues is the market. How does the market work as a teacher of civic virtue? Free market advocates argue that market influences individual virtues through reducing welfare benefits and through free trade and regulation. These measures require people to display civic virtues of independence, initiative, and self-reliance. The welfare state, according to market proponents, reduces the citizens to "passive dependents under bureaucratic tutelage."

The market, on the other hand, inculcates the important civic virtue of self-reliance, which is a precondition of being accepted as a full member of the society. These arguments rely on the language of obligations rather than rights and regard supporting oneself as a common obligation of all citizens to the society.

An effective welfare policy should not exclude some citizens from a common obligation by turning them into passive recipients of the benefits. So in sum, market promotes important civic virtues such as self-reliance and initiative. Furthermore, the corporations also encourage civility through meritocracy and by extending equal opportunity employment policies to gain competitive advantage.

Clearly markets have their limits as schools of civic virtue. They do not teach social justice and responsibility. Also the markets may even encourage exclusion of certain groups if the population that they cater to harbours prejudices towards those groups. Notice, for instance, the ways in which Islamophobia is accommodated by some businesses, predominantly the media houses such as Fox TV. The markets also have no concern with political virtues such as public reasonableness. If anything, the markets may in fact thrive, as can be witnessed in the talk show market of Pakistan, by encouraging the very opposite of public reasonableness.

Another set of candidates for the school of civic virtue in a society is the voluntary associations, such as the faith-based associations, families, cooperatives, charities, etc. What sort of civic virtues can individuals learn by participation in such voluntary associational networks?

Political theorists suggest voluntary associations are a far better practical school of civic virtues than compulsory political participation or the markets. It is here that individuals voluntarily cooperate with each other to further the goals of the association. Nevertheless, we should also recognise that while such associations may teach civic virtue, it is typically not their raison d’être. People do not join voluntary organisations to learn civic virtues. Their motive for becoming member of a voluntary organisation may not have anything to do with promotion of citizenship. For example, a certain faith-based organisation formed on a sectarian basis may foster the virtue of loyalty, courage, tolerance etc. within its members but not toward other citizens that it seeks to exclude from the polity.

So we cannot rely on compulsory political participation, markets, or voluntary associations as schools of civic virtue. Each one of them can teach us some important virtues but can also enhance our prejudices in ways that work against the display of political virtues in the larger political domain. So where else can we go to learn the full range of civic virtues? Where else, but the common schools?

We can clearly see the stake of society in common schools if we realise that there is no other institutions in the society, which are as well positioned as the school to teach the full range of civic virtues. This was indeed a fundamental justification for compulsory schooling. Where compulsory political participation was unlikely to impart the full range of civic virtues, compulsory schooling was much more successful in doing so. But it is not always necessary that schooling will always act as a seedbed of civic virtues.

Indeed, as several reports about social studies curricula in the case of Pakistan illustrate, the schools can also work to exclude some marginalised groups from full political participation in the society. Indeed the schools can be used successfully for a variety of purposes including production of militants, as illustrated by the, often understated, use of education by the Reagan administration in the 1980s to foment insurgency against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

Yet, it is only the schools that can be developed into the seedbeds of civic virtues. It is also so because out of nearly every institution in a given society that can potentially influence the development of people’s beliefs, schools are most susceptible to the oversight and regulation by the state. A state will only ignore schools if it does not need inculcation of civic virtues for its security and preservation.

There is little recognition by the functionaries of the state, the politicians as well as civil society-based champions of education of the potential of schools as seedbeds of civic virtue. The evidence of this is visible in all aspects of education, in the curriculum, in the textbooks, and in what is given priority in the assessment of students’ learning gains.

Most noteworthy studies and assessment reports look at English, Math and Science scores as evidence of schools’ performance. One does not come across any initiative that focuses specifically on development or assessment of civic virtues. Furthermore, with over 40 per cent of Pakistani children going into unregulated private schools, we are perpetually condemned to a state of civic virtue deficit. Will the champions of democracy realise what this means for its future?

Acknowledgement: The contents of this article are based on a description of seedbeds of civic virtue in Kymlicka, W. (2002).Contemporary political philosophy: an introduction: Oxford University Press

Seedbeds of civic virtue