When educators think about barriers to equity and opportunity, nationality and ethnicity may not immediately come to mind. But students’ nationality, ethnicity, and citizenship status intersect with — and can significantly shape — their access to resources, sense of membership and inclusion, and ultimately their educational and life outcomes.
Likewise, schools play significant roles in teaching and enacting civic relationships that can be democratic and just or hierarchical and exclusionary.
“Civic and national identity and status shape one’s educational experience, but this reality is often made invisible,” says political philosopher and civic education expert Meira Levinson, whose new module on citizenship and nationality was offered at Harvard Graduate School of Education this January as part of a pilot of the school’s new foundational course, Equity and Opportunity. “These factors must become visible to educators if they are to become more equitable agents of change.”
For educators eager to understand how citizenship and nationality intersect with education, Levinson offers three starting points.
1. Reconsider how you measure and reward “citizenship.”
Schools often teach citizenship implicitly, handing out good citizenship awards for compliance but punishing “talking back” and other activist behaviors, notes Levinson. These implicit teachings can be at odds with what is formally taught in history. Educators should ask, how am I defining the role of citizen for my students? Am I making space for students to develop the skills of a “good citizen” — like fighting for justice and questioning things that feel wrong — or am I actually doing the opposite?
2. Research your own school’s history.
For centuries, schools have been used to advance disturbing national or colonial agendas. In the United States., Canada, and Australia, for example, government-created boarding schools snatched Indigenous and Aboriginal children from their families for over a century with the goal of providing a “civilizing” education designed to destroy Native communities and cultures. Even now, many schools are named for White supremacists, exclude refugees or national minorities such as the Roma, and/or teach curricula developed to elevate the Global North over the Global South.
“Schools are agents of civic — including colonial — relationships,” says Levinson. “Educators should keep these histories in mind as they make sense of their schools’ own civic roles and identities.”
3. Reflect on your own identity.
All practitioners’ identities have been shaped by their own civic and national memberships, exclusions, and experiences. To explore the impact of citizenship and nationality on education, educators must consider how their own experiences have impacted their perspectives. This work can be done with colleagues, but it is important to make space for reflection and sharing in the process. “Aim to hit a balance between building common foundational understandings and engaging in personal identity work,” says Levinson.