Educating Citizens: Preparing Liberians for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility

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By Dr. Anthony A. Kanneh

Among the many challenges that our nation is experiencing is utilizing meaningful strategies to provide quality education to our citizens. In my purview, educating our citizens has always been inspired by an old and honorable tradition of our country’s educational and political thought. Educating citizens exemplifies the advancement of teaching’s commitment to a vision of education that integrates intellectual with moral virtues and connects the values of civil to the classic academic core mission of learning.

In line with that perspective, I take you to the masterful biography of the late American President, John Adams, by the historian, David McCullough, who gives special attention to one of President Adams’ most impressive accomplishments, i.e., his single-handed authorship of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. McCullough (2001) characterizes this work as “one of the great, enduring documents of the American Revolution” and “the oldest functioning written constitution in the world” (p. 225). Perhaps, the most remarkable passage in President Adams’ work, he observed, is found in Section Two of Chapter Six, which puts forward a conception of the state’s obligations to educate its citizens. It reads:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the University of Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, and the social affections, and generous sentiments among the people (p. 223).

How inspiring and exciting it is to see the importance of this vision displayed during our generation; an eloquent expression of one of America’ founding fathers, calling for an educational mission that does not only seeks to inculcate the practical and theoretical arts, literature, the sciences, commerce, and the national history of the United States, but envisioning education as a process that a nation must utilize to nurture the principles of humanity and general benevolence, including virtues, such as, honesty, integrity, character, sincerity, and even good humor to accelerate social, economic, and political advancement of a nation.

The wise President John Adams understood that if a democratic society was to function effectively as intended and as a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, such covenants can only be entered into by an educated citizenry blessed with virtue, as well as wisdom and knowledge. Absent such intentionally sought accomplishments, a functioning democracy might well become a shattered dream.

I concurred that to ensure that a democratic system survives, a combination of moral and civic virtue must be accompanied by the development of understanding, which occurs best when fostered by institutions of a country’s educational system, but importantly, such does not occur by accident, or strictly through early experiences. Indeed, there is a critical period for the development of these virtues, and that period begins holistically with the family, the church, and during the primary, secondary, and college years. This developmental period defined as much by the educational opportunity, as by age; students of all ages develop the tools and resources needed for their continuing journeys through adult life.

To make an analogy, I liken students’ educational journey to the planning and supply phase of a long and complex expedition. Those who embark on this expedition spend a considerable amount of time and energy to ensure that they have gathered the most useful material goods if their journey is to succeed. Even more important, they must prepare themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with a wider range of contingencies. In some ways, their preparations directly shape the trajectory of their subsequent journey.

For example, maps direct them toward one set of paths rather than another. Available tools dispose of them to seek out kinds of terrain. In addition, their choices of comrades open some options to them, while foreclosing others. And importantly, the knowledge, skills, and values they acquire along their educational sojourn equip them to respond effectively and efficiently to the unpredictable challenges that would inevitably confront them during their sojourn.

I am strongly convinced that without boundaries, the educational arena must be a setting that promotes moral and civic development of students, irrespective of institutional differences from one another, i.e., public, private, faith-based, secular, counties colleges, including colleges and universities that offered bachelor and master’s degrees programs. The idea of educating citizens represents a carefully crafted set of “existence proofs” that such integration is both possible and desirable. It highlights the importance of the general principles that characterize moral and civil education in all institutions, the local contexts, and mission that ensures each educational program is unique and with special quality for students’ full preparation for the future.

Taken together, this article offers a vision of the possible, an inspiring and instructive vision of how our country, Liberia, must transform the educational system to integrate moral and civil engagement in all institution of learnings to fully prepare students, recognizing the competitive environment our students and nation find themselves. As an authority in education, the questions that invoke my curiosity to write this article are as follows:

  1. What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for students?
  2. How can education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained, effective and meaningful ways?
  3. What problems do institutions face when they seriously and intentionally undertake moral and civic education for the betterment of students?
  4. What strategies do institutions employ to overcome challenges in this endeavor?
  5. How well has our nation prepared for the challenges of educating its citizens? And,
  6. How well are we, as a nation preparing the next generation of our citizens to meet the unexpected educational challenges of the future?

These, among other questions, tend to have invoked my curiosity to pen this article, knowing that they are the fundamental questions at the heart of our nation’s educational system to sustain our democratic future.I fervently believed that the essence of moral and civic education is an important element; an understanding of a whole person aims at fostering positive values and attitudes, strengthening resolves to be generous and responsible to family, friends, and neighbors. The fact remains that we as leaders must be more responsive, responsible, patriotic, and loyal to our citizens by providing them with the essential educational resources to increase their knowledge, skills, and ability to become critical thinkers for the betterment of our society.

Educated citizens tend to understand and accept their obligations to society, which reinforces their mindsets to make their country worth defending for a world safe and promising for children and families. Educated citizens means preparation with knowledge and skills to understand, challenge, and engage with the norms of a democratic system that involves politics, the media, civil society, the economy, and laws that governed society. It is therefore imperative to presents the facts that democracy is inherent in citizenship education because it concerns politics, the rule of law, the economy, and social institutions. Importantly, democracies around the world are dependent on citizens’ rights and responsibilities to serve their communities and to participate in the social and political spheres of their environments.

Arguably, combining both moral and civil virtue within the curricula of institutions would reinforce and accelerates the preparation of students’ learning to understand how inextricably their duties are to families, communities, and our nation. The result would align with citizens knowing and feeling how important they are to one another as they recognize what affects one citizen, affects all citizens. The writings of Massachusetts’ constitution by President Adams’, as observed by McCullough mentioned from the beginning of this article, was in all, a declaration of president’s Adams’ faith in education for preparation of the nation’s inhabitants and as the bulwark of the good society; and that the survival of the rights and liberties of the people depended on the spread of wisdom, knowledge, and virtue of all the people; the common people of whom we belong.

To establish workable approaches to moral and civic education well suited to institutional mission, history, constituencies, and strengths, it is befitting to encourage specialization, to some extent in the relative emphasis on ways of framing moral and civic education. We can establish that by integrating the three basic thematic approaches of moral and civic virtue, i.e., a) virtues and character, b) systemic social responsibility, and c) engagement with communities that support pertinent aspects of moral and civic education.

I am also of the view that moral and civic education would be incomplete if it does not somehow consider the three thematic approaches. Naturally, the three approaches will not be equally salient in most cases. Even so, the emphasis on the three approaches would be understood to represent different aspects of moral and civic virtue so that all students can fully understand the imperatives of moral and civic education. Essentially, integrating these approaches must be the cornerstone of the transformation of our nation’s educational system; one guided by effective educational leadership.

I also call on our leadership in charge of educational decision making to understand that an overly strong focus on building students’ characters or virtues runs the risk of limiting their development as well as inadequately preparing them for their respective roles as active and engaged citizens. If we as a nation insists on that direction, we could be missing lots of opportunities to build on the academic and intellectual strengths of our students as well as to reinforce important aspects of developing their characters and open-mindedness, all of which ensure strong moral courage and good ethical backgrounds that guides their behaviors in the larger society.

Emphasis on systemic social responsibility or social justice that does not include enough attention to moral virtue is essentially vulnerable to the illegitimate imposition of students’ use of morally questionable means to pursue the ends of social justice, which they have passionate convictions off. The fact that many citizens/students first become totally involved in political action by participating in canvassing campaigns is a good example. A drawback of this kind of political involvement is often seen as an educational experience that almost always involves a deliberate polarization of issues and demonization of political oppositions. When portrayals of issues and members of oppositions are less than honest, the experience teaches society unsavory immoral lessons of their actions.

Likewise, community involvement without virtue or systemic social responsibility is often subjected to several problems. For example, if the community does not pay some attention to the systemic implications of the problems in the community, it is needlessly limiting students’ learning and the good they can do as engaged citizens for the common good of their country. On the other hand, if community involvement does not include careful attention to ethical concerns, it often does more harm than good to both the students, community partners, and nation. If these occur, virtue-based and systemic approaches can both be meaningless, unless consideration is given to the community-based part of the action, irrespective of the community’s environment, or on the campuses of schools, colleges, and universities.

In addition, the importance of inculcating the three thematic approaches as mentioned here is crucial for the transformation of our nation’s educational system. With that, I would suggest as a first step that institutions must incorporate some versions of the three thematic approaches—virtues and character, community connections, and systemic social responsibility or social justice in their curricula. I am not arguing here that institutional approaches to moral and civic education must be homogenized because each institution has its own special quality, but that with collaboration, a single approach can be primary if that approach makes for the most powerful and natural connections with institutional history and mission.

With this understanding, the breadth and focus concerning moral and civil virtue must be most pertinent when thinking about a balance across programs at institutional levels; one that is applicable to some extent, within courses and programs, understanding that some courses or programs tend to focus intensively on one approach more than on the others. If this is the case, a focus on one approach could barely clash with or undermine the others. Under that context, educational programs under the jurisdiction of our nation’s educational system must determine, foremost, that the learning progression of each subject and the stage it falls would assist and prepare citizens to decide on their core interests and advancement.

As such, the suggestions provided in this article cannot be fully implemented when there are continuous shortages of instructional staff, infrastructure deficits, and financial constraints that incapacitate many students from furthering their education, or when there are educational impossibilities for them to continue their educational quest. I am optimistic that implementing new strategies to improve our nation’s educational policies to meet the educational needs of all Liberians, supported by our country’s national leadership would alleviate the numerous educational problems that have hurt our people and nation for so many years in its attempt to provide a better quality of education to our citizens.

Along that line, I submit that there is a brighter future for our nation’s educational system. I am also delighted to contribute to this endeavor for the purposes of transforming the Homeland educational system. This article carries forward those dreams and those visions regarding the role of educating our citizens to accelerate a vibrant and learned civic society. Thank you for reading.

The author

Dr. Anthony A. Kanneh, returned to Liberia after 34 years of residency in the United States. He holds a bachelor’s degree in finance, a master’s degree in leadership from Augsburg University in Minnesota respectively. Dr. Kanneh also holds a doctoral degree in educational leadership from the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. As of now, Dr. Kanneh is pursuing another Ph.D. in Governance and Public Policy. He currently lectures at the University of Liberia, Graduate School of Education. He can be reached at #0776-103-533; Email: [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Comrade, in Liberia where many young people are clueless that “Civic Responsibility” isn’t only about advocacy, activism, or vigilantism, but includes obeying the laws and respecting the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others, this topic resonates, excites, and your deft handling should guarantee it a must-read. And therefore I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    A concern though is that the questions which motivated your article might leave some wondering whether classroom learning alone can suffice. More so, considering that among the agents of socialization – family, religion, school, peers, and mass media – family is the traditional influencer of formative behavior. I used “traditional” intentionally since the Internet Revolution changing the dynamics in favor of mass media.

    Thanks, once again, friend, that you even tackled this topic amid toxic polarization which continues to extend the societal gulfs. As a veteran of the security sector, I’m worried that many of our best and brightest want to drive Liberia’s political vehicle like the Americans irrespective of the fact that theirs have automatic brakes; wider roads with guardrails; rest stops; cops 24/7; and traffic courts that don’t fool around.

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