Educating Children for Responsible Citizenship


by Dr. A. C. Visvalingam

The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) is increasingly perturbed by the rapid deterioration of civic consciousness in our citizens. Rather than complain only against politicians and government servants regarding their commissions (of every type!) and their omissions, there is a need for all citizens to engage in a little introspection and take steps to improve the outlook at least for the next generation.

Sri Lanka was among the first of the developing countries to enjoy universal adult franchise but we cannot be proud of what we have achieved with it. Increasing numbers of Sri Lankans have disengaged from civic and electoral activities, and have also lost interest in getting balanced and dispassionate information on public issues. The recent trend of low voting at elections, even where critical national issues were in the forefront, shows a mounting trend of indifference by people regarding the Rule of Law and good governance. They seem to have forgotten that democracy depends for its survival upon citizens who are not only well informed about their system of government and other civic issues but who also feel empowered by this knowledge to participate actively in civic life.

When it comes to fostering good citizenship, Sri Lanka starts off with a huge handicap because a vast number of Sri Lankans too frequently teach their children to be dishonest, discourteous, undisciplined and inconsiderate. In general, this is not done deliberately but by unthinking example. Many are the infants who are taught to lie about their place of residence to help get them into a good school. Not so rarely, children may see a parent bribing a traffic policemen so as to be let off lightly after being caught infringing the Highway Code. Parents may on occasion discuss with each other, in the presence of their children, how a customs official, tax assessor, municipal inspector or similar State employee was improperly induced to help them evade an obligatory payment. We have little doubt that many children hear their parents rejoicing that a family property was sold for a good price but with a much lower value declared in the deed so as to save on stamp duty or to help conceal illegitimate wealth.

Yet others may reveal how their employers allow them fictitious expenses and allowances to supplement their declared taxable salaries. Once in a while, children see their parents taking advantage of their friendships and other contacts to get past less influential persons waiting patiently in queues. A large number of anti-social drivers park their vehicles in such a way as to obstruct the movement of other vehicles. Using powerful horns to blast their way past everyone else is yet another popular pastime. Most readers will need no reminder about political thugs who intimidate or assault conscientious policemen, journalists, hoteliers, school principals and others who cross the path of their ill-bred progeny. The list is endless. Children exposed to such negative parental examples cannot be blamed if they come to believe that there is nothing very wrong in doing what their elders freely and proudly do.

Election-related violence, unless it is of exceptional ferocity, is accepted by the majority of citizens, without comment, as a part and parcel of "normal" political activity. Even children in their early teens know that most politicians indulge in all sorts of malpractices to get elected to public office so as to become well-known, powerful and rich.

A few concerned citizens do express their views on these matters through the media when they get an opportunity to do so. However, the impact of their expressed opinions is much, much less than we would wish. Therefore, we are compelled to look to our schools to make the sorely needed teaching of good citizenship a compulsory exercise.

In the years gone by, there used to be subject named "Civics", which we had to study, be examined on, and marked, as part of our overall academic performance. This subject is believed to have been dropped from the curriculum for some years and replaced more recently by "Citizenship Education" or something on those lines. Whatever be the name of the subject which is designed to foster responsible citizenship in schoolchildren, it would undoubtedly benefit by incorporating the features listed below:

a. Education for responsible citizenship should be made compulsory for, say, two hours a week as a participatory group activity and not as a subject for collecting examination marks.

b. Children from different language, ethnic, religious, caste, class and other types of groupings should receive a common message and not ones which are adjusted to suit a particular faction. Children of all backgrounds, but of the same age, should be taught in a single class with a secular curriculum so that they will automatically think as Sri Lankans and not as members of their respective sub-groups. This attitude will contribute enormously to the promotion of national unity, the importance of which cannot be sufficiently emphasized.

c. Such education should be commenced as early as possible, certainly with five or six year olds, who are perfectly capable of differentiating between good and bad social behaviour in the more simple contexts, eg. it is bad to throw litter all over the place, to make so much noise as to disturb one’s neighbours, and so on.

d. The subjects taken up for the interactive sessions and the teaching of such subjects should be carefully graded by educational experts to match the ability of the children of each age group to understand the value of the issues taken up for dialogue, discussion, debate, play-acting and other interactive exercises.

e. Advantage should be taken of the maturity of children over the age of 12 to teach them about the Constitution, the People’s powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise, and the need for a clear separation of powers between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.

f. The obligation to observe the Rule of Law and practice good governance, by supporting independent institutions or commissions to monitor these objects.

g. The meaning of the oath taken by elected and appointed public officials to uphold and defend the Constitution and the law.

h. Older children should be introduced to the significance of the many rights guaranteed to citizens of Sri Lanka by its ratification of a number of international commitments made over the years after it became a member of the UN, as well as the necessity to respect the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens.

i. The reasons why there should be a multiplicity of independent media and why it is imperative that all citizens should have the right to access information from any State institution, subject only to minimum constraints pertaining to genuine considerations of security.

j. The need for clear-cut, formal arrangements for a clearly defined sharing of powers, and financial and other resources among the peripheral units – such as gam sabhas, pradeshiya sabhas, districts, provincial councils - and the central government, thereby fostering the invaluable principle of subsidiarity, which encourages the solving of problems locally rather than referring everything to the Centre.

k. The necessity to insist on the rights and responsibilities of citizens to participate in and shape public policy, and contribute to the maintenance of our democratic way of life.

l. The impact of international relations and world affairs on the lives, security and well being of their community, state and nation.

The more mature students should be asked to express their views on selected news items. This would encourage them to read newspapers and to listen to more serious TV broadcasts and not watch only cartoons, teledramas, and singing and dancing competitions. It is only in this way that the country can hope to produce citizens who can participate actively and effectively in the process of governance. Acquiring the ability to explain, analyze, interact, evaluate, defend a position, and monitor processes and outcomes in relation to matters of governance will help develop the confidence necessary to participate in the building up of the Nation. All these skills must be acquired from a young age.

Last but not least, just as much as some children already put pressure on their parents to desist from smoking or excessive drinking, children may even begin to persuade their elders to become responsible citizens.

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