RESPONSIBILITY AND CITIZENSHIP

Professor Helen Haste, Bath University, on 10 November 1999

"If once a man indulge himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he next comes to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and then from that to incivility and procrastination.." — Thomas de Quincey, Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, 1827.

 

This quotation made an impressive start to the talk and was followed by various newspaper clippings illustrating how the interest in producing `good citizens' has frequently been covered in the national press. This recent prominence focuses on the need for moral development as a means of improving society.

 

Prof. Haste started by defining a good citizen as being of one of three types: one who conforms to rules and regulations; one who breaks boundaries and sometimes the rules as well while caring for others; or one who is able to act, not just have values.

Citizenship provides rights as well as involving responsibilities; to obtain one's rights it is necessary to know your entitlements under the law and to claim them by finding them out, requesting them effectively and overcoming the inevitable inertia and bureaucracy.

Responsibility has three facets: duties and obligations within the established order; a need to care for others, not just obey rules; and a personal obligation to act and accept the consequences.

Schools are assuming a greater role in helping young people to achieve sufficient competence to understand issues and also to understand what positive action might be taken. This latter she refers to as innovative competence.

The speaker gave three examples of official documents on these subjects: The National Curriculum Council's document on citizenship in education — a masterpiece of compromise; the Blue Peter programme's `Green Book' — which might almost be considered subversive. It listed 28 items of ecological concern and how children could act on them, from using public transport instead of a car, to joining an organisation, and writing to their MP; and the Crick Committee report, 1998, on Social and Moral Responsibility for school children, proposing they are taught about political literacy and conflict resolution.

During the question period, members of the audience asked about the influence of television on ethical standards: the speaker suggested `Friends', `The Archers' and `Neighbours' were communities which demonstrated good citizenship. Village communities used to provide an influence on the inhabitants but now the community is generally the school, which, with more parents working longer hours, has had responsibility for ethical standards thrust on to it in place of the family. The desirable male role model for boys is then often missing.

Young people distinguished between a personal faith and a community of religious people so that they did not attend church as much.

The recent Paddington rail disaster was given as an example of where various organisations might have assumed responsibility rather than blaming the train driver.

Betty Suchar & Don Lovell