Seeking social justice through civics and citizenship education: what are the curriculum challenges?

Year: 2019

Author: Atherton, Hugh

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Social justice is nominally valued and positioned in the education policies of many countries in various ways. Rizvi (2008) posits social democratic (protecting personal rights and freedoms), market-individualist (re-distributing material wealth through the market), and identitarian (redressing the disadvantage of the marginalised) notions of social justice.

In recent times, a market-individualist paradigm can be identifed in Australian educational policy which ‘rearticulates’ social justice as equity (Lingard, Sellar & Savage, 2014). Promoted through international policy networks and manifested in national performance measuring infrastructures such as NAPLAN, ‘equity’ is conceived in this paradigm as a means of investing in the human capital for engagement in a global economy. Scholars describe a prevailing ‘identity politics’ in Western societies, driven by socially just recognition of those marginalised on the basis gender, race, sexuality and ethnicity (Appiah, 2018; Lila, 2017; Fukuyama, 2018). Such group identification, it is argued, potentially undermines cross-cultural appreciation of shared civic principles.

The teaching of civics and citizenship as part of the Australian Curriculum (AC: CC) has potential for a social democratic response to market-oriented and identitarian notions of social justice. AC: CC foregrounds knowledge of what constitutes “just” treatment, within the framework of the social and political institutions that comprise Australian democracy. Such knowledge, accompanied by dispositions for applying it, is intended to develop a principled and critical citizenry able to negotiate diverse identities and sustain the social-institutional order which undergirds economic prosperity.

This study reports on the thematic analysis of interviews of fifteen stakeholders involved in the writing, adaption, and implementation of the civics and citizenship curriculum. Although participants rarely referred explicitly to ‘social justice’, AC: CC was viewed as a means of developing critical, democratically knowledgeable and inter-culturally capable citizens who can foster equal opportunity and fair conduct. However, obstacles to the implementation of AC: CC were identified: notably, the de-prioritisation of civics by some state authorities, the priority given to History and Geography, teachers’ lack of familiarity with the civics material and greater attention to NAPLAN and STEM. Notwithstanding recent federal affirmations of philosophical and financial support (Department of Education and Training, 2019) for civics and citizenship, a renewed and sustained national focus would be required to further its potential for social justice education. This study considers whether such a renewal is possible in the context of the continuing prominence of market-individualist and identitarian notions of social justice.