Civics and Citizenship: Understanding the past, knowing the present, and aiming for the future
by Simon Weldemichael
Eritrea’s Ministry of Education has constantly revised and updated the national curricula in order to improve students’ achievement and performance. The curricula are made relevant and consistent with the local reality, context, and culture. Thus far, textbooks from kindergarten to secondary level have been developed.
An important addition to the national curriculum is associated with lessons on civics and citizenship. The main goal of civics and citizenship is to connect young students to their country and society and to help them understand their rights, roles, and duties. Lessons about civics and citizenship, which are taught at all levels, are meant to encourage students to develop supportive attitudes, acceptable ethical behaviors, and respect for their culture and society.
Beyond helping support national goals, civics and citizenship education is an agent of socialization and can also help ensure political stability and the development of a sense of tradition, community, and solidarity.
In order to foster a tolerant and harmonious society, citizenship education is based on Eritrean culture and tradition, Eritrean laws and principles, human rights, tolerance, and respect. Citizenship education also teaches the youth about self-discipline, patriotism, individual and collective identity, and ethics. Other topics associated with citizenship education include the elements of Eritrean culture, traditional norms and practices, values, and the importance of working collectively for the common good. Although aspects of Eritrea’s ethno-linguistic groups are featured in the syllabi, emphasis is given to national and universal values. The aim is to strengthen awareness and understanding of national identity. In this regard, citizenship education can play an important role in helping build national solidarity.
Citizenship education focuses on three general concepts. The first is basic moral values, the second is the history of Eritrea, and the third focuses on respect for the law and society, and being a good citizen. The concepts of the “common good” and patriotism, love, and loyalty to one’s homeland are also among the central topics within citizenship education.
Patriotism refers to devotion to Eritrean principles, working for the common good, following the truth, and being faithful. The common good is important because society stands to benefit when we are concerned with the well-being of others. Citizenship education also teaches students to be tolerant and respectful of differences, to be cooperative and disciplined, to work hard, to unite behind the national cause, to help those in need, and to firmly stand against injustice.
In Eritrea, citizenship education enhances the awareness and consciousness of Eritrean youth and prepares them for the task of nation-building. The Eritrean education system strives to develop dynamic, intelligent, critical, ethical and patriotic individuals that will move the country forward. The youth are expected to care about their families, communities, and nation and be committed to Eritrean principles, values, and culture.
Being an Eritrean means being engaged in the battle for freedom and justice. Within citizenship education, critical patriotism is favored to blind loyalty. Patriotism has a long history in Eritrea. In Eritrea, patriotism is demonstrated by more than simple talk; rather, it is based on action and active engagement.
Teachers can help foster patriotism. Instead of only teaching students to love their country, they can help and encourage students to build their communities and the nation. Teachers can deepen students’ understanding and love of country by explaining the sacrifices of our patriotic fathers and mothers and noting the young generation’s duties to fulfill their obligations.
Citizenship education in Eritrea supports the development of national identity. Importantly, this process contributes to social harmony, national unity, political stability, and the nation-building process. Over the years, the PFDJ has outlined its goals to build a strong, prosperous, and harmonious state. This requires a population that has self-respect, a sense of identity and community, dignity, and work ethic.
National identity refers to the bonds of solidarity among members of a community. An important function of national identity is to provide a community a “history and destiny” and to instill or restore collective faith (Smith 1990: 161). Additionally, “a sense of national identity provides a powerful means of defining and locating individual selves in the world, through the prism of the collective personality and its distinctive culture” (Ibid 17). As well, renowned scholar Benedict Anderson states, “In the modern world everyone can, should, and will have a nationality, as he or she has a gender” (2006: 5).
Once established, national identity is one of the most powerful types of identity, usually fertile with fundamental values that people are willing to die for. Nationalism, as defined by Smith (2006), is about land. Territory represents more than the geographic location of a nation. Eritreans have made enormous sacrifice for the preservation of the Eritrean national identity and for the protection of territorial integrity and sovereignty. President Isaias Afwerki has stated, “Our unique history, our long struggle and our national identity afford us a strength that few others enjoy.”
Eritrea was founded on a sense of “we” rather than I. Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council has said how Eritreans across the world “demonstrate a strong sense of national identity and display pride in their country” (2016: 10). In this regard, the introduction of citizenship education in Eritrea’s schools will help strengthen Eritreans’ awareness and understanding of their identity, culture, history, and values.
Patriotism, like national identity, is complex. It is generally understood as the “love of one’s country.” Manifestations of patriotism can include service to communities and fellow citizens, living according to moral values and ethics, respecting laws and regulations, and pride or respect for one’s country. After decades of long struggle, Eritreans won their independence and secured their homeland. As they came to see themselves as one people, united by a shared past and a common goal, they were willing to sacrifice their lives for each other and their shared identity. Civics and citizenship education is important because it will ensure that we all understand our unique heritage and identity. Moreover, it will help us move our country forward and develop the nation that we all desire. Every effort must be made to ensure that all Eritreans, especially our youth, know their history and culture, respect their country, and are committed to its future.