Jon Alexander is co-founder of The Citizenship Project and author of the new book CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. For details of the new book and a special discount code read on ...
In March 2020, as the world began to face the challenge posed by the Covid pandemic, one country took a very different approach to almost any other. In Taiwan, a key principle of the response was to invite ideas to improve the nation’s response from anyone and everyone. Among other initiatives, a telephone hotline was set up, with a voicemail recorded by President Tsai Ing-wen, to which any citizen could call in and leave their ideas. Among the callers was a six year old boy, who lamented the fact that the boys in his class didn’t want to wear their regulation-issue facemasks because they were pink, and suggested getting the national baseball team involved to make pink facemasks cool. A few days later, there they were, on national television, resplendent in their pink masks.
This is just one small example of an approach to Covid and indeed to government that has seen Taiwan - thus far at least - weather the storms of our times more successfully than any other nation, not just in health terms but also socially and economically. The nation has not even had to have a lockdown. As I tell it in my book CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us, Taiwan is showing the world what government might look like if we could step into a story of ourselves as Citizens: creative, collaborative, caring creatures who want to shape our world for the better. In this story, all of us are smarter than any of us, and so tapping into the ideas, energy and resources of every member of society makes sense: that is clearly the strategy that will achieve the best outcomes.
This shift in story really could change everything. For the last 80 years or so, we have been trapped in the Consumer Story: a story that tells us we are competitive, lazy, and selfish by nature, that only the best of us can overcome human nature and rise to the top. This was preceded by the Subject Story, in which we were naive and guileless, if not downright wicked; the god-given few knew best and held power, and the rest of us did as we were told.
I doubt I need to spell out the link between these stories, education, and oracy. As Peter Hyman puts it, “oracy enables students to find their voices both metaphorically and literally.” A Citizen society needs every member to find their voice; in such a society, oracy will be the cornerstone of education. That Taiwanese telephone hotline was oracy taken to a national scale.
But if we remain trapped in the Consumer Story, or if the Subject Story is reimposed, those who champion oracy will feel they are talking at cross purposes with those who design policy from a worldview that seeks to find out which children are the cleverest and “best”. Oracy represents a powerful challenge to the Consumer Story, but unless that story can be broken, it will be rejected - partly because it will simply not be seen.
I believe we are living in a moment in time when the story of society is up for grabs. Oracy has a major part to play in this moment, because it embodies the story we need in the realm of education. As such, the work of the oracy movement could not be more vital. My hope is that seeing the context through this lens of story might equip you to see your allies in other spheres - from those who challenge business to be more purposeful and participatory, to those who work to make government more open and deliberative. In doing so, I believe you will find even greater confidence, and unleash even greater power. I for one will be cheering you on.
CITIZENS is released in February 2022. To pre-order a copy with 15% Discount please use the link here using the discount code 'CITIZENS'.