I figure I am not alone in stating that the citizenship education I received in grade school skewed heavily towards the personally responsible citizen, as outlined by Joel Westheimer: Volunteerism was class-mandated in high school, factoring heavily into our grades, and food and clothing drives were promoted via intercom, a regular occurrence in both elementary and high school. In many ways, we were trained to be a hoard of Littlest Hobos, only without the non-comformist roving: we were encouraged to enact individual and isolated acts of kindness when opportunities for good character presented themselves in the social fabric. Any opportunities for participatory citizenship necessitated extra curricular interest, mainly interest in Student Leadership Council, in which students were granted the privilege of organizing said food drives. In student leadership, however, student members’ power to enact change was heavily limited by structures already set in place. Teachers knew which fundraisers worked. Teachers knew where the money should go. And so, the student council (non-elected appointees, I might add) were in many ways the sweater-vested political puppets of the benevolent oligarchy that was staff and admin. Like a good soldier, though, I stayed in line and enjoyed the perks of office, mainly the fickle but heady power of using the intercom every now and again. Key to opportunities for citizenship in school (in the classroom and extra curricular) was time-honoured structure. Never once did it occur to me, though, that I could reshape that structure.
In reflecting upon the kinds of citizenship education I received in school, my mind keeps returning to Westheimer’s assertion that “democracy is not a spectator sport,” but rather “a participant sport.” I keep coming back to this point, I think, not because my schooling discouraged engagement in democracy, but because my schooling experience in many ways limited the ways we could participate in democracy. What my schooling neglected to teach me were the skills to critique the structures that guide my participation in democracy. Take, for example, Social Studies 30 unit four: “Governance,” a unit that, by its very nature, should be devoted to promoting active citizenship. But while the unit does a good job informing students of idealized facets of Canadian political institutions, it actively deflects critique away from such institutions by presenting them as lofty and infallible: “Canadians have a good society, because our political culture and discourse has demanded a constitutionalism that is moral and ethical,” states curriculum (403). Such a generalization, the assumption that Canadian society is inherently “good,” discounts the historically rooted socio-economic issues facing marginalized groups. Also troubling is the curriculum’s effort to define Canadian structures of governance as inevitable: “[T]he Constitutional Act (1897) had no choice but to establish Canada as a constitutional monarchy, because the political culture would accept no other approach” (403). To state that a nation’s political make-up is inevitable uncomfortably echoes the fallacious authority of manifest destiny. In mythologizing Canadian political culture and institutions in such a way, the curriculum disempowers (and disincentives) students from challenging Canada’s political institutions, discouraging structural adjustment towards the present-day necessities of social justice and inclusion.
Ultimately, what was lacking in my grade school education was the promotion of social justice citizenship. While I was taught to participate as a socially responsible individual within the sanctioned traditions and structures of school life and curriculum, my critical gaze was deflected away from the very structures that guided my every day affairs. The greatest tragedy of Littlest Hobo, in my mind, is that despite all his selfless acts of kindness, he never once, to my knowledge, influenced structural political policy. While his good character is undeniable, his social participation was limited to atomistic acts of kindness. I wonder if it was his frustration with this political culture, one that limited meaningful democratic participation, that pushed him to the fringes of society. You have clearly chosen The Road, Littlest Hobo, but why? I ask: Was Littlest Hobo always a hobo? Or was this title thrust upon him by a non-inclusive political culture? I demand a reboot of the TV show, with a pilot episode where Littlest Hobo reforms the electoral system through grass-roots activism. Justice for Littlest Hobo. Littlest Hobo for president. Return from your exile, friend.