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Adventures in Academe

Are we misusing the word ‘citizenship’ in higher education?

The term is ubiquitous in university mission statements, but students seem to understand it differently than we do.


Last fall I was in the U.K. delivering a keynote at a conference on student engagement. My talk, titled “Building Critical Hope through Student Engagement: Curiosity-Driven Approaches to Learning,” proposed that “critical hope is a key ingredient for deep and transformative engagement when it is fueled by values of integrity, ethical and moral responsibility, and citizenship.” While my talk explored what constitutes ethical terms of engagement – and argued that we must rethink paradigms by talking with rather than about students – the first question when I finished was how I define citizenship.

In that moment I realized that I had waded into a national debate about citizenship amplified by Brexit; by looking through a Canadian lens I had inadvertently erased contested (and deeply fraught) aspects of citizenship in Britain and around the world. In my talk, I used citizenship as a shorthand for engagement in the process of co-constructing meaning, but hadn’t engaged in any critical self-reflection about how I was deploying the term. I had merely heard “citizenship” used so often in relation to higher education that it crept into my lexicon without scrutiny.

A perusal of university vision statements reveals the ubiquity of the term: Harvard University promises “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society” while the University of British Columbia’s mission is “pursuing excellence in research, learning and engagement to foster global citizenship.” The Maple League, which represents four smaller Canadian universities, has as its mission to “ensure our graduates are capable of navigating an increasingly complex world as citizens and leaders dedicated to the values of a just and civil society.”

In hindsight, my concept of citizenship cobbled together republican, liberal and universalist theories of citizenship – basically a 21st-century spin on Aristotle’s Politics, or the belief that citizens should be active in the deliberation of values of liberty and equality for the common good. The common good, by my estimation, imagines citizens dedicated to securing equal civil, political and social rights for all within a democracy that includes many perspectives, none of which are considered a priori more legitimate.

During the Q&A I talked about the balance between rights and responsibilities, the role of fiduciary duty and the urgent need to champion human rights on a global scale. However, the question of citizenship continued to haunt me well after the conference. When I find myself in these situations, I’ll often put the issue I’m grappling with in the middle of the classroom so we can poke at it together from various angles with diverse lenses. This process almost always provides clarity and deeper understanding while still honoring spaces for complexity.

Therefore, at the start of the winter term, I explored citizenship with the help of students in a senior seminar on 16th-century poetry and prose. Comfortably ensconced in my disciplinary field, and fairly confident that Canadian students at a liberal arts institution would share my definition of citizenship, I started the course with the following writing prompt: “define citizenship.” Their answers shocked me. For them, citizenship was almost uniformly understood via discussions of national identity and regional belonging, the demarcating power of borders, and the privilege of individual rights for “insiders” at the exclusion of the “other.”

As I listened intently to these students, I had the horrifying realization that not only were we not on the same page, the definition of citizenship had radically shifted and I missed the memo. The space between our definitions – and between intention and reception – seemed impossibly vast in that moment.

What I thought would be a first-day refresher on citizenship (and an introduction to 16th-century humanism) morphed into an ongoing set of discussions that shaped the course’s trajectory. We started to see “citizenship” everywhere – in articles, speeches, advertisements, blogs and social media feeds. Together we unpacked the concept both in light of early modern texts and our present global reality, with its polarizing discourses and walls and detainment centres.

We kept circling back to two questions: Can we rehabilitate the concept of citizenship for higher education? Can we rehabilitate the concept of citizenship through higher education?

While seeking answers to these questions is daunting, stepping outside of our respective echo chambers is a crucial first step. Only then can we engage in the process of co-constructing a shared definition of citizenship animated by values of equality, liberty and freedom for all.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Melissa Belvadi / May 27, 2019 at 09:08

    You are assuming that your definition is the “right” one and students need to be brought back to your conception. Language doesn’t work that way and you have no hope of winning that battle. Further, some of the uses you quote from elsewhere may well have intended the students’ definition, not yours (except for of course UBC’s, as “global citizenship” must be an oxymoron to your students in their definition).

    Find a new term to use for your definition. Teach students reading older texts what “citizenship” used to mean so they can understand the texts, but don’t think they will change their contemporary usage to match that old meaning, any more than you will get them to mean “terror-causing” when they say “terrific”.