Citizenship and Edmonton Public Schools

How do you define citizenship? I think Equity and Empathy are two key traits necessary for our graduates in our complex world. Through my grade 11 and 12 years I served as a Rifleman in the Calgary Highlanders Infantry Reserve-- a life experience that certainly shaped how I think of citizenship. We had done a long march and this photo always makes me grin.

As we are going through the process of reviewing and promoting our district priorities we have been talking about many of the values and competencies we would like our graduates to posses when they are finished their time with us of citizenship in our public education system. To me, citizenship means much more than our students will pick up litter in a park or will remember to recycle pop cans. Too often it seems the idea of citizenship has been diluted to mean volunteering or being a good neighbour, just as “social service” too often becomes a replacement for “social justice”.

When I think of citizenship I think about more about the root word, and what does it mean to be a citizen; of a city, of a province, of a country– and more importantly, how can we help our graduates to view themselves as citizens of the world? How can we help them recognize that life is not about them, they are about life and that they are one in a line of many; a member of a species, grounded in a shared ecology and shared community on this planet.

The concept of citizenship also makes me think about the relationship between public education and democracy, and how I would like every graduate to leave, feeling that they are prepared to be a full-participant in our democratic process and if our students were eligible to vote, their voter turnout would be 100%. We don’t have mandatory military service in our country (and I don’t think we should), but I would hope our mandatory public education system leaves every graduate feeling truly a part of our shared future.

I was keyed into a recent speech by his worship the Aga Khan at the Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture that Mayor Naheed Nenshi quoted from in his energizing speech to the Commonwealth Club of Canada. Incidentally, If you have not watched Mayor Nenshi’s incredible speech, it is absolutely worth the 30 minutes and can be viewed here.

During his speech, Naheed spoke about being Canadian, being a citizen, and the I thought I might share this Quote from his worship the Aga Khan:

Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections – momentary majorities. But effective governance is much more than that. What happens before and after elections? How are choices framed and explained? How is decision-making shared? – so that leaders of different backgrounds can interactively govern – rather than small cliques rule autocratically.

We must go beyond the simple word “democracy” if we are to build a framework for effective pluralism.

This will mean writing more effective constitutions – informed by more sophisticated understandings of comparative political systems. It will mean explaining those arrangements more adequately – and adjusting and amending them. It will mean separating and balancing powers, structuring multi-tiered – and often asymmetrical – systems of federalism, and defining rights and freedoms – as Canada has learned to do. I would also point here to the experience of the largest democracy, India, which defines specific Constitutional rights for eight distinctive cultural groups, an approach which has been echoed in Malaysia. And we have seen how Kenya and Kyrgyzstan are moving now to decentralize power.

All of these institutional arrangements can help resolve political deadlock, build social coherence and avoid the dangers of “winner take all.” They can provide multiple levers of social influence, allowing individuals of every background to feel that they have “a stake in society” – that they can influence the forces that shape their lives.

These are fundamental questions of public education. I thought I would just share a few of the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my mind as our board has been reviewing our district vision, mission, and priorities.

Our district will be voting on the final cut of our district priorities on Tuesday evening and you can read the draft here:

http://www.epsb.ca/board/march08_11/item03.pdf

DRAFT:

Vision, Mission, and 2011-2014 District Priorities

All students will learn to their full potential and develop the ability, passion, and imagination to pursue their dreams and contribute to their community.

Mission

We work with families and community partners to provide safe, healthy, diverse, and equitable learning experiences that engage students to achieve their full potential in an increasingly interdependent world.

District Priorities 2011-2014

1. Provide supports and programs that enable all students to complete high school.

2. Deepen students’ understanding of equity and empathy as key citizenship traits.

3. Ensure all students and their families are welcomed, respected, accepted, and supported in every school.

4. Promote health and wellness for all students and staff.

5. Listen to staff, honour their contributions, and support their opportunities for growth and professional development.

The Aga Kahn Lecture continued: (Click to listen on CBC Ideas)

III. THE FUTURE; THE PATH AHEAD

This brings me to my third and final topic this evening, the path ahead – how we might better predict and prevent breakdowns, and encourage progress.

A. Institutional Concerns

On the institutional level, we can begin by looking at the structures of public governance.

Let me warn, first, against a naïve hope that simply advancing the concept of democracy will achieve our goals. Not so. The high count of failed democracies – including some 40 percent of the member states of the United Nations – should disabuse us of this notion.

Too often, democracy is understood to be only about elections – momentary majorities. But effective governance is much more than that. What happens before and after elections? How are choices framed and explained? How is decision-making shared? – so that leaders of different backgrounds can interactively govern – rather than small cliques rule autocratically.

We must go beyond the simple word “democracy” if we are to build a framework for effective pluralism.

This will mean writing more effective constitutions – informed by more sophisticated understandings of comparative political systems. It will mean explaining those arrangements more adequately – and adjusting and amending them. It will mean separating and balancing powers, structuring multi-tiered – and often asymmetrical – systems of federalism, and defining rights and freedoms – as Canada has learned to do. I would also point here to the experience of the largest democracy, India, which defines specific Constitutional rights for eight distinctive cultural groups, an approach which has been echoed in Malaysia. And we have seen how Kenya and Kyrgyzstan are moving now to decentralize power.

All of these institutional arrangements can help resolve political deadlock, build social coherence and avoid the dangers of “winner take all.” They can provide multiple levers of social influence, allowing individuals of every background to feel that they have “a stake in society” – that they can influence the forces that shape their lives.

How we define citizenship is a central factor in this story – but one that is newly in dispute. Even the well-established concept that citizenship belongs to everyone who is born on national soil has been questioned recently in parts of Europe and the United States – as attitudes to immigration intensify.

Independent judicial and educational systems are also essential to effective pluralism, and so are non-governmental agents of influence – the institutions of civil society. As we have seen, Kenya presents a positive case study in this regard, while civil society in Kyrgyzstan was largely marginalized during its crisis.

Independent news media are another key element. This is why our Network has been involved for fifty years in the media of East Africa, and why the Aga Khan University is planning to create there a new Graduate School of Media and Communications.

The value of independent media was summarized recently by a veteran Ghanian journalist, Kwane Karikari, who wrote of their

“…remarkable contributions to peaceful and transparent elections in Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia; to post-conflict transitions … in Liberia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone; and to sustaining constitutional rule … in Guinea, Kenya and Nigeria.”

Finally, let me emphasize that healthy institutions will tap the widest possible range of energies and insights. They will optimize each society’s meritocratic potential, so that opportunity will reward competence, from whomever and wherever it may come – independent of birth or wealth or theology or physical power.

B. The Public Mindset

But institutional reforms will have lasting meaning only when there is a social mindset to sustain them.

There is a profound reciprocal relationship between institutional and cultural variables. How we think shapes our institutions. And then our institutions shape us.

How we see the past is an important part of this mindset.

A sense of historic identity can immensely enrich our lives. But we also know how myopic commitments to “identity” can turn poisonous when they are dominated by bad memories, steeped in grievance and resentment.

The marginalization of peoples can then become a malignant process, as people define themselves by what they are against. The question of “Who am I?” is quickly transformed into “Who is my enemy?”

Some would address this problem through a willful act of historical amnesia – but suppressing animosity can often produce future explosions. In Kenya, national history is largely missing from the public schools. And, in the absence of shared history, divided communities feed on their own fragmented memories of inter-tribal wrongs.

On the other hand, the value of confronting memory lies in catharsis, an emotional healing process. As we know, the Truth and Reconciliation Process has helped South Africans address deep social divisions, as has Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.

As societies come to think in pluralistic ways, I believe they can learn another lesson from the Canadian experience, the importance of resisting both assimilation and homogenization – the subordination and dilution of minority cultures on the one hand, or an attempt to create some new, transcendent blend of identities, on the other.

What the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic. Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others. One can embrace an ethnic or religious heritage, while also sharing a sense of national or regional pride. To cite a timely example, I believe one can live creatively and purposefully as both a devoted Muslim and a committed European.

To affirm a particular identity is a fundamental human right, what some have called “the right to be heard.”

But the right to be heard implies an obligation to listen – and, beyond that, a proactive obligation to observe and to learn.

Surely, one of the most important tests of moral leadership is whether our leaders are working to widen divisions – or to bridge them.

When we talk about diversity, we often use the metaphor of achieving social “harmony.” But perhaps we might also employ an additional musical comparison – a fitting image as we meet tonight in this distinguished musical setting. We might talk not just about the ideal of “harmony” – the sounding of a single chord – but also about “counterpoint.” In counterpoint, each voice follows a separate musical line, but always as part of a single work of art, with a sense both of independence and belonging.

Let me add one further thought. I believe that the challenge of pluralism is never completely met. Pluralism is a process and not a product. It is a mentality, a way of looking at a diverse and changing world.

A pluralistic environment is a kaleidoscope that history shakes every day.

Responding to pluralism is an exercise in constant re-adaptation. Identities are not fixed in stone. What we imagine our communities to be must also evolve with the tides of history.

As we think about pluralism, we should be open to the fact that there may be a variety of “best practices,” a “diversity of diversities,” and a “pluralism of pluralisms.”

In sum, what we must seek and share is what I have called “a cosmopolitan ethic,” a readiness to accept the complexity of human society. It is an ethic which balances rights and duties. It is an ethic for all peoples.

It will not surprise you to have me say that such an ethic can grow with enormous power out of the spiritual dimensions of our lives. In acknowledging the immensity of The Divine, we will also come to acknowledge our human limitations, the incomplete nature of human understanding.

In that light, the amazing diversity of Creation itself can be seen as a great gift to us – not a cause for anxiety but a source of delight. Even the diversity of our religious interpretations can be greeted as something to share with one another – rather than something to fear.

In this spirit of humility and hospitality – the stranger will be welcomed and respected, rather than subdued – or ignored.

In the Holy Quran we read these words: “O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul …” …[and] joined your hearts in love, so that by His grace ye became brethren.”

As we strive for this ideal, we will recognize that “the other” is both “present” and “different.” And we will be able to appreciate this presence – and this difference – as gifts that can enrich our lives.

Let me conclude by emphasizing once again the urgency of this challenge. We are at a particularly complex moment in human history. The challenges of diversity are frightening for many people, in societies all around the world. But diversity also has the capacity to inspire.

The mission of the Global Centre for Pluralism is to look closely at these challenges – and to think hard about them. This will be demanding work. But as we go forward, we hope we can discern more predictably and preempt more effectively those conditions which lead to conflict among peoples. And we also hope that we can advance those institutions and those mindsets which foster constructive engagement.

The world we seek is not a world where difference is erased, but where difference can be a powerful force for good, helping us to fashion a new sense of co-operation and coherence in our world, and to build together a better life for all.

Thank you very much.