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The Need for Civic Education

by Conor McAleavey

(Participant at the We the Citizens event in Tallaght - (June 1st 2011)

We were asked to ‘Imagine an Ireland that is truly designed around the common good. What would need to change for your picture to become a reality?’

In response to that I spoke about the fact that we needed to nurture a culture of responsibility to the greater good and an aspiration to work, in at least some way, for society instead of always working for ourselves. As kids we are always taught – study hard, get YOURSELF a good career, look after YOURSELF, get YOURSELF some money, get YOURSELF a nice house. Success in terms of money and fame is always championed. Ask a bunch of kids who they want to be when they grow up and they will mostly say people like Christiano Ronaldo or Britney Spears. It’s never people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Aneurin Bevan or John Hume. When asked how I envisaged an Ireland designed around the common good I said I envisaged a country where kids came out of school wanting to work towards making the country and the world a better place. As opposed to wanting to advance their own personal lives in terms of status and wealth.

Several times last week Fiach asked the tables had they come up with any practical solutions that might solve the issues that were being discussed, I have an idea and it’s in relation to what I’ve mentioned above.

Firstly I think that civics needs to be taught from as young an age as possible. However I also think that this needs to be married with teaching our kids, in an aspirational and inspirational manner, about the great social movements that changed the world and about the great people who led them. As well as teaching them about great social movements we would also need to teach them about the tools of change making such as peaceful demonstration, petition writing and fund raising as well as how to raise awareness about things through public meetings or event organizing.

In parallel to teaching civics and in parallel to teaching kids about great people and great social movements we should run a national initiative, in conjunction with the department of education, called something like ‘Make a Change’. This would mean that within every school in the country - whether it’s at a class, classroom or school level - that the children would be asked to come up with one thing that they see in their local community, or within Ireland that they would like to see changed. The ideas might be to clean up the local river, to start a campaign where they donate toys at Christmas, to create a campaign and petition against the closing of the local hospice or public swimming pool. Any idea would be valid as long as it helped several people and was appropriate for kids to be involved in.

Not only would you kick start hundreds or even thousands of worthwhile initiatives all over the country you would also empower a generation of humble and confident thinkers and activists.

I believe we can instill values into a society from the youngest up and not necessarily always from the eldest down. It was common practice in the 1980's to throw litter every where, until the kids who were learning about littering in school, taught their parents that it was wrong to do this. It worked with that so I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work in this broader sense.

We need to send our kids off to college and to their chosen careers armed with the knowledge, the ideas and the methods of how to effect change in the world. We need to show them that this is their country and their world, and that they have the power and right to shape it in any way they see fit. Do that and we will spawn a generation of selfless humble thinkers and change makers. Ireland would never be the same again.

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