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Becoming formed as well as informed

November 1, 2019 - 7:30am

As we go into our third opportunity in four years to perform our highest civic responsibility, I’ve been thinking about citizenship and formation. Thomas Jefferson is regularly (slightly mis-)quoted as saying that democracy relies on an informed electorate. It’s often read as an argument for the free press, or other sources of information dissemination – if a citizenry has all the facts, they will make good choices.

Leaving aside “fake news” and the problems of accurate information, scholars since De Toqueville have long argued that facts are not enough. De Toqueville called for “habits of the heart”, social stories and rituals which shape disparate individuals into citizens able to sustain a democracy. Formation, the kind of people citizens are becoming, is as important as information, and even harder to get right. With most adults no longer regularly attending “sites of formation” such as religious services, voluntary groups and unions, our “habits of the heart” are ever more delegated to social media and entertainment consumption- industries not designed, or indeed willing, to bear that weight.

It’s no surprise then, given the founding fathers, De Toqueville and a relatively newly minted citizenry, that Americans are often further ahead than us in wrestling with this issue. Become America, a new book by Eric Liu, former advisor to President Clinton and chief executive of Citizen University, collects 19 ‘Civic Sermons’ originally delivered at gatherings intended to be a “civic analogue for church”. The active verb in the book’s title indicates the nature of the project- by meeting, acting together and reflecting on pieces of “civic scripture”, he hopes to inspire a new movement of Civil Religion which can restore the foundations of America’s troubled polity.

His project raises some serious questions but it’s left me asking- what do we have? Where do British people get opportunities to think and act and grow into people who can live together well? What are our stirring ‘civic scriptures?’. Citizenship education is relatively recent here in schools and taught differently in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Where it is statutory it is usually under the umbrella of SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural)  education which is itself often squeezed and under pressure to fulfil the Prevent Duty. Adults older than 30 are unlikely to have had any.

Maybe, despite my allergy to the concept, the UK also needs a “civic religion”- something beyond the anaemic “British Values” taught in schools. However we do it, we need to get more intentional about the ways we are allowing ourselves to be formed, changed and moulded if our democracy is going to endure. A population that that is well formed *and* informed?

It’s surely too late to make the next six weeks until this general election easier to bear, but it might not be for the next one.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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