Citizenship education in Serbian higher education: re-defining curricula for better results

Many years ago, while I was still teaching at Grammar school in my hometown, I applied for a programme designed for shaping future leaders in education. Having been fully funded by the American government, the opportunity to stay at an American university for a month was super attractive for both teachers and students. Citizen education had been a compulsory subject in elementary and secondary schools in Serbia at that time, so the basic values of the field were well institutionalized. Needless to say, the process was highly selective, aiming at discovering the hidden potentials of the candidates. Luckily though, two of my students and myself were among the 5 teachers and 15 students from Serbia who were awarded the fellowship.

In all the initial excitement, we learned that the idea behind this initiative was to gather young people from South-East Europe in a structured programme to teach them collaboration, democracy, and civic engagement. Indeed, the experience proved to have been what was advertised: 4 weeks of intensive work on classes and seminars ended with a group of youngsters flashing around their newly acquired competencies. I remember I was amazed at seeing all of them solve complex environmental issues in heated debates while offering creative solutions to popular political misconceptions. At the end of the process, as they were all demonstrating respectful behaviour towards the nationality, race, and gender of their collaborative peers, the 16 year-olds lavishly displayed their understanding of the world expressing the viewpoints I did not know even existed.

Not only were my students transformed by this programme, it was ME who also learned so much: I got trained to understand the importance of civic engagement is social changes and to use the skills once I get back home. With the programme being a complete success, my students and I showed some reasonable benefit from it: one of them graduated from the Law faculty and started his own business in Belgrade, and the second mastered quantum physics and works as a scientist in Germany. I left Grammar school and pursued a career in higher education.

I thought that students who attend universities already possessed skills and willingness to tackle current societal issues, especially those students who could directly relate to various discrepancies of the ‘what the world is’ and ‘what it should be’. One of the reasons I thought students would be interested more, was the fact that they had already been familiar with citizenship education in their previous education. At the point when they become ‘full of age’ and are actually legally approved to vote on the elections, they must have been eager to take the matter into their own hands and start changing the society for the better. Or it is what I thought. I was wrong.

The ‘citizenship culture’ has not been established in any of the small neighbouring towns my students have been coming from. By introducing ‘the culture of change’ in communities with the aim to put into practice things learned at school, the citizenship etiquette with its norms and goals would definitely be assured. Drawing public attention to societal issues usually IS a cry for action, but sometimes, an established pattern of civic engagement makes that path more approachable and more prone to success. If you have SEEN an action being debated on, improved – polished – upgrades AND adopted, you have actually traced the citizenship culture in a community. At the same time, you have given the added value to curricula which offer citizenship education as a university course.

Unfortunately, ideas of cosmopolitanism turned into practice, with individuals considering themselves (and others) citizens of the world, have clearly been strange to my students. They neither perceive themselves as potential policymakers nor they understand their role in shaping a generation of community leaders. Even when they are invited to partake in activities which have the potential to enable social changes and, more directly, mobilize young people to create ‘citizenship culture’ as such, students generally tend to ‘choose to remain inactive’. They just ‘do not have to get involved’ – they have never seen other students do it, so why bother now? Disbelief in change is high in the percentage. If the change depends on them, even more.

To sum up, what all those young people have learned in secondary schools stays in the realm of those ‘boring subjects’ we just have to attend. However, it is not them to blame. After the educational ties to citizenship education have been violently cut off with the ending of the secondary education, a question can be raised: Why teaching citizenship education to the minors and then just stop once they become legally allowed to act on a number of actions, ones they initiate themselves, or of the others?

If the 21st-century skills are widely recognized as the 4C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, how can higher education add to the shaping of citizenship culture to blend them all? Collective learning for social change among thoughtful and committed colleagues at this educational level, under the guidance and support of university teachers, can really make a change. We, teachers, should not be only those who advocate for and strengthen students’ citizenship skills, we are responsible for making THEM bring about the changes that matter. And by doing so, young people will define the core values in the ‘citizenship culture’ which, once settled, will only serve us for the better.