Citizenship education can be defined as educating children, from early childhood, to become clear-thinking and enlightened citizens who participate in decisions concerning society. ‘Society’ is here understood in the special sense of a nation with a circumscribed territory which is recognized as a state.

A knowledge of the nation’s institutions, and also an awareness that the rule of law applies to social and human relationships, obviously form part of any citizenship education course. Taken in this sense, citizenship education is based on the distinction between:

  • the individual as a subject of ethics and law, entitled to all the rights inherent in the human condition (human rights); and
  • the citizen – entitled to the civil and political rights recognized by the national constitution of the country concerned.

All human beings are both individuals and citizens of the society to which they belong. Therefore, human rights and citizen rights are interdependent.

Men, women and children all come into the world as individual human beings. Thanks to the immense historical conquest of human rights, we are equal, in rights and dignity, to all other human beings. When citizenship education has the purpose of ‘educating future citizens’ it must necessarily address children, young people and adults, who are living beings, having the status of human beings endowed with conscience and reason. It cannot, therefore, exclude consideration of individuals as subjects, each with individual characteristics.

Moreover, human rights include civil and political rights, the latter obviously relating to the rights and obligations of citizens. Thus a comprehensive human rights education takes account of citizenship, and considers that good citizenship is connected with human rights as a whole.

Conversely, citizenship education which trains ‘good’ citizens, ie. citizens aware of the human and political issues at stake in their society or nation, requires from each citizen ethical and moral qualities. All forms of citizenship education inculcate (or aim at inculcating) respect for others and recognition of the equality of all human beings; and at combating all forms of discrimination (racist, gender-based, religious, etc.) by fostering a spirit of tolerance and peace among human beings.

Thus, when we speak of the purposes to be ascribed to either citizenship education (producing citizens with moral qualities) or human rights education (comprising a knowledge of the social and political rights of all human beings, and their recognition) we inevitably end up with the complementarity between citizenship and human rights.

Depending on the cultural traditions of each education system, we shall have, in some cases, civics education, comprising a knowledge of human rights and their exercise, and in others, human rights education, stressing civil and political rights as the basis of citizenship, and hence the national features assumed by these rights and guaranteed by states.

Bearing in mind this complementarity, citizenship education means not only ‘educating citizens’ but also ‘training children for adulthood and citizenship’.

Citizenship education has, therefore, three main objectives:

  • educating people in citizenship and human rights through an understanding of the principles and institutions [which govern a state or nation];
  • learning to exercise one’s judgement and critical faculty; and
  • acquiring a sense of individual and community responsibilities.

These three objectives correspond both to educating the individual as a subject of ethics and law, and to educating citizens. These objectives suggest four major themes for citizenship education:

  • The relations between individuals and society: individual and collective freedoms, and rejection of any kind of discrimination.
  • The relations between citizens and the government: what is involved in democracy and the organization of the state.
  • The relations between the citizen and democratic life.
  • The responsibility of the individual and the citizen in the international community.
  • Adapted from UNESCO (1998) Citizenship Education for the 21st Century.

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