Citizenship and the Philosophy of Education

By Richard McCance
In her wide ranging analysis of citizenship education in Aotearoa New Zealand, Carol Mutch (2013) stresses that school decision-making should rest upon “a strong philosophical base” (pp 59, 62) when considering theories and pedagogies to inform practice. The contentious nature of citizenship in the Western Liberal tradition and Aotearoa NZ’s unique bicultural heritage require we establish a clear and widely accepted definition of citizenship. Dialogue is needed to facilitate better understanding of what citizenship is and how it is practiced. A revised understanding of our collective conception of citizenship would then necessitate further discourse into the meaning and purpose of education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The New Zealand Curriculum (2007) identifies citizenship as a key “Future Focused” outcome of education, alongside understanding of issues like sustainability, enterprise, and globalization (p 7). A critical discussion exploring our shared conceptualiazation of citizenship is crucial if we are to 1) effectively educate society towards that notion of citizenship and 2) by the nature of that education, create a future as identified through the principles underpinning that “strong philosophical base.”

Critical theory can inform discussions around the purpose of education and the nature of citizenship by providing a philosophical lens that reveals interactions amongst the historical, social, political and ideological forces that influence our structures and systems. It can help to identify the potentialities and pitfalls of implementing a curriculum with the notion of citizenship as an outcome. It can also help us come to terms with issues of post-colonial societies as well as prepare us for the possibilities and challenges of 21st century life.

Ultimately, however, what remains essential to our success in citizenship education is the answer to that fundamental question: What is the purpose of education? Critical theory would call for debate and dialogue. What is the nature of that debate today? How easily can we, as a society, define the purpose of education? What is our collective understanding of citizenship? In which spaces is this dialogue occurring? Unless we remain focused on that discussion and on improving our understanding of those questions, we may fail in any endeavour to create a more equitable or democratic society.

With no clear definition, understanding or acceptance of the purpose of education or a shared concept of citizenship, a dominant narrative may become entrenched within education discourse at the exclusion of other social, cultural or ideological perspectives. With skilful management of dialogue, this narrative can normalize certain theories, pedagogies, and practices and promote a particular outcome of education. Larger national or global political interests use this discourse for their gains while local political machinations both rely on and sustain it.

With a lens of critical theory we can redirect this discourse towards a view of social justice. Citizenship without social justice is tyranny. Education without social justice is ignorance. We have the choice. We can define education for social justice, active citizenship and a specific, desired future or we can acquiesce and perpetuate the dominant narrative. But we must decide. And debate.

Mutch, C. (2013). What does a decade of research reveal about the state of citizenship education in New Zealand? New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 48(2), 51-68.

Ministry of Education (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.


This article is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence. Originally published at


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