The author is professor of political sociology at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM). His current research focuses on nationalism and populism in Canada, Quebec and Germany.
One year before the Quebec elections, the themes on which the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) will campaign are starting to take shape. The recent announcement of a new citizenship education course is part of this horizon. It activated in a few days a polarization where the ghosts of guilt and pride resurfaced.
Why such mistrust of this course?
Partly because the CAQ has shown in the past that on identity issues, such as immigration, it does not hesitate to borrow elements from a national-populist repertoire. light.
That said, although François Legault has already declared, in 2016, to be comfortable being compared to Donald Trump, it is not in the league of Trump, Viktor Orbán or Éric Zemmour that the premier of Quebec plays. . In many ways, its economic nationalism is part of a tradition that has been practiced on the left as well as on the right in the past. His calls for greater decentralization of power aren’t particularly populist, and he hasn’t generally approached the pandemic with the same contempt for science as the Trumps or Jair Bolsonaro.
The new “father” of the nation
The CAQ inspires mistrust in some and borrows from the populist register in identity issues and in its way of framing its opponents, for example by qualifying Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois as woke, a term that François Legault defines as ” [quelqu’un] who wants to make us feel guilty for defending the Quebec nation and defending its values ”. With this declaration, the Prime Minister presented himself not only as the chief interpreter of Quebec values, but also as the judge of what constitutes or not a legitimate criticism of a public or memorial policy in the name of very subjective feeling. that is guilt.
This type of statement explains why some await this new course with apprehension. However, it does not justify the derisory comparisons, which have circulated on social networks, with Maoist China or other totalitarian regimes.
One can very legitimately find that certain criticisms of the old course of ethics and religious culture have been pointed out, but this does not justify an equally demagogic treatment of a course whose content we have not yet seen. Remember that there has already been a course in history and citizenship education, that knowledge exists in this area and that we are not advancing here in unknown territory.
The importance of citizenship as a social bond
In a context where many observers see a decline in democracy all over the world, a citizenship education course is an initiative that must be welcomed.
Quebec society, like any other, is crossed by complex issues. There is no shortage of themes linked to citizenship that young people can think about. If they can do so in an appropriate educational setting, it is difficult to find reasons to oppose it.
But citizenship and the lived feelings that flow from the national fact are two different things. Citizenship is guaranteed by the rule of law and vice versa. The feelings experienced which arise from the national fact, however strong and real they are, remain subjective. A course on citizenship should focus on what surrounds the institution and practice of citizenship, and not foster subjective feelings around lived nationalism.
Citizenship is the most fragile, the most abstract and the most important social bond for a democratic regime. Fragile, because it requires that we adhere to the rules of law, not necessarily because we like them, but because we consider the process from which they are established as more legitimate than the recourse to arbitrariness or violence. Abstract, because like health, citizenship is what we take for granted when it accompanies us, but which we regret when we are deprived of it. Important, because it is the social bond that holds others in place.
It is through citizenship that we can make and break other social links in democratic debate and not in the use of violence.
Transmit knowledge on complex issues
Basically, such a course should address the classic and current themes of the sociology of citizenship: the institutions, movements and processes by which democracy has developed and is practiced in Quebec and Canada. We are thinking of the rule of law, but also of rights and freedoms and the division of powers and fields of jurisdiction. It is essential to remember through science that the context in which these institutions were established in Quebec is not the same as in France or the United States.
The course should address the civic, political and social components through which we study citizenship from the work of the British sociologist TH Marshall. These dimensions have developed at a pace specific to Quebec and in different ways for men, women, owners, workers, French Canadians, English, First Nations, Innu, Jews, etc. Once again, there is concrete empirical knowledge that can be transmitted on these questions.
We are also entitled to expect that such a course will address hot issues of the day: eco-citizenship, citizenship in the digital age, sexualities and consent, pluralism, deconfessionalisation, secularism and the phenomena of radicalization. Parents know the importance of these issues and cutting-edge research is being done on them in the social sciences in Quebec.
This course will require that teachers receive a solid training in particular in sociology, political science and history. They will be asked to supervise and transmit knowledge on questions that even adults have a lot of difficulty discussing. It will be necessary to give them time, access to training and recognize the complexity of the task they have to accomplish.
What about the cultural component announced in the course?
At first glance, one might wonder why a cultural dimension is built into one citizenship education course, rather than another.
However, it should be remembered that it is not yesterday that sociologists of all tendencies, from Jean-Charles Falardeau to Gérard Bouchard, have resorted to literary works to revive contexts of transformation of civic practices in Quebec. If sociologists reconstructed the political and economic structures of Quebec in the 1950s, a novel like Used happiness is extraordinary for reconstructing the life of French Canadians. It should also be remembered that the democratization of access to public education and culture was a fundamental matrix provided by the Quiet Revolution.
Here, once again, it will be necessary to trust the teachers, respect their freedom of teaching, mark out and not impose, and leave as much space for works less known as works canonized. Gabrielle Roy, Louis Hémon or Jacques Ferron, of course, but An Antane Kapesh or Naomi Fontaine also have their place in this reflection.
Neither pride nor shame: a bias for democracy
In short, should this course seek to exalt national pride or, on the contrary, to make shame and penance the fabric of the social bond? Neither.
While citizenship can generate pride, its exaltation is not what its teaching should seek. The objective of such a course should be sober: to convey an explanation and an understanding of the origin and functioning of the institutions guaranteeing citizenship in Quebec and Canada.
If such a course should not aim to inspire pride, should it seek to instill shame or cultural intimacy? No more. The shame shared by a group of individuals united by historical and cultural ties can strengthen social bonds between them, but it also generates boundaries with people outside the group.
Understanding through empathy can lead us to understand feelings and values, but it is not the same as feeling them. The teacher must seek to make opposing points of view understood, but he must leave to the manipulators and propagandists the objective of making them felt. Mutual understanding, which does not exclude disagreement, is essential for democracy. The pooling of shame or feelings should not constitute the basis of citizenship.
If pride and shame are not good counselors, what feelings should such a course elicit? None, except a bias for democracy. The course should aim to transmit knowledge, methods and skills. This transmission will inevitably generate feelings, misunderstandings, questions and new social and civic practices. But it is not for the legislator to give a political direction to these feelings. This role will fall to civil society, as it should in a democracy.
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