Going public

What constitutes a city? Is it the sum of urban physical features within a defined boundary? Is it the bylaws and regulations that maintain order in that specific place? Do the citizens make up a city and, if so, who gets to be a citizen?

Lynette Shultz, professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and co-director of the Centre for Global Citizenship Education Research, has spent a lot of time thinking about these questions relative to how we understand democracy and how education prepares people for membership in society. She’s leading a research project that she hopes will frame questions of what citizenship is in a new way.

“In lots of ways, citizenship education is teaching children and youth to understand society—the laws, their responsibilities and rights—to fit into what exists. We’re quite stuck in our perceptions of who a citizen is and how we might research questions around citizenship,” Shultz says. “What if we understood a citizen as their encounters and the city as the space they’re engaging in? For citizenship education, that holds a lot of exciting possibilities around how to educate for that kind of encounter and engagement.”

Shultz says this idea of the city as the sum of citizen interactions draws on the work of French thinker Henri Lefebvre around how social spaces are produced, and is of particular interest given the cumulative impact of free market capitalism on western societies that has changed what it means to be a citizen.

“We’ve had neoliberal policies that have restructured what we’ve come to know as shared space and what’s publicly available—really teaching everyone that, like Margaret Thatcher said, there’s no society, there are only self-interested individuals,” Shultz says. “We’re now living with the consequences of that. We see it everywhere, this sense that you’re really on your own here, that we don’t have a responsibility to each other, that we’re not part of a collective. And education is for giving people skills for their own individual benefit, it has no benefit to society.”

With funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Shultz and her research team have developed a methodology to examine where and how Edmontonians interact, and what forms their civic engagement take. Now it’s time to put it to the test, she says.

“People within the team are really interested in trying out new ways to capture and to portray these experiences of democracy and citizenship. So we’re looking at some of the work around issue-mapping and cartography—how do we actually map what’s happening in terms of people’s encounters?” Shultz says.

“It can be what happens at a street corner, it can be what happens at a summer festival, at a community league meeting, it can happen at a high school or where students find a place to meet out in the community. It’s also what doesn’t happen, like places that aren’t child- and youth-friendly, or where particular people are not welcome.”

Though the project is in its early stages, Shultz says she hopes this new framework and methodology for thinking about the city and citizenship creates opportunities for new ways to think about citizenship education.

“A lot of education work exists in the idea of what’s possible. What about citizenship education that would deal with the realm of the possible?” Shultz says. “Do we teach kids how to create society, do we teach them to be creative members of this world? Not so much. That has always been my interest in citizenship education, that space of what’s possible.”