Can Civic Education Prevent the Death of Democracy?

In 2012, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter argued that if citizens understand their system of government and know who is responsible for improving problems in society, they can demand results.

If people’s concerns are not addressed and there is a lack of accountability, he goes on, ‘some one person will come forward and say “give me total power and I will solve this problem.” This is the way the democracy dies.’

With the election of Trump, it is tempting to see these words as remarkably prescient. It might be hyperbolic to suggest that we are witnessing the death of democracy. However, I believe it is certainly true that in this age of fake news stories, resentment towards politicians and a lack of understanding of political institutions, people are increasingly feeling cynical and lost when confronted with real problems.

Educators cannot ignore these events. We must have some form of response to how we deal with events such as Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of the far-right across the West.

In my previous post I argued that, when not equipped with proper knowledge and understanding, young people often turn to conspiracy theories to explain complicated world problems. Belief in these conspiracies is often shallow but betrays a lack of engagement with real political systems and mechanisms for change.

In the UK, turnout amongst 18-24 year olds is 35% lower than for over 65s (29% lower than 45-54 year olds). Generally, young people are not as interested in politics as adults.

However, when it comes to trust in politicians, young people are not alone. The 2015 Ipsos Mori ‘Trust in Professions’ Veracity Index found that only 21% of the British public thought that politicians were trustworthy.

Another worrying trend is how little people know about their own country. Fueled by dramatic headlines and endless, anti-immigrant narratives, British people typically overestimate the percentage of Muslims and Immigrants in the population and underestimate voter turnout and the number of Christians in the UK.

None of this is helped by the politician who goes back on his word or manipulates the truth; or the shock-jock journalist who distorts or fabricates figures; or the parent who abdicates the responsibility of teaching their child about the political system.

However, my main concern is that many teachers, having themselves become disillusioned with politics, are modeling this cynical attitude to their students.  Yes, we need to call out those politicians who exploit or abuse the system but we also need to champion those who are fighting to improve our country and the world. It takes an MP’s murder for us to talk about the good things they’ve done.

In 2012, many of my students thought the BNP had dozens of MPs, more recently they thought that UKIP was the opposition and believed that there were no black or asian MPs.

Our political system is far from where it should be, but teachers need to present a more objective version of reality to pupils. There are currently more women MPs than ever before. There are more black and ethnic minority MPs than ever before. There are fewer privately educated MPs than ever before. Arguably, we have the most diverse and representative parliament in our history.

Part of me instinctively replies: ‘but our parliamentary system is still embarrassingly unrepresentative. First past the post, political funding, lack of accountability, MPs’ expenses…’ But this kind of talk discourages young people from getting involved in the first place. The greatest ally of the corrupt and feckless politician is voter disengagement.

As Laura McInerney writes, civic education is not a silver bullet. I agree that it is just a part of a much more complicated picture. However, there is much we could do.

Provide Knowledge

We should expect that pupils know certain things by the time they leave school. They should know how laws come to pass; the function of the House of Commons and House of Lords; how first past the post and other voting systems work; who the key political parties are and how they came to exist; how the UK links to other International organisations such as the UN and EU; how our political parties are funded; the role of trade unions, think tanks, lobbyists and quangos in government; the role of the queen in our political system and the difference between institutions in a democracy versus a dictatorship.

The aim should be to provide our young people with the knowledge and understanding to either have confidence in our political system or to know how it can be improved. Understanding is empowerment.

Raise the Stakes

Citizenship is on the English curriculum. The thing is no one really cares about it. The curriculum is strange. Some of what I mentioned above is there, but then they’ve thrown in things like ‘budgeting’ and ‘community volunteering.’ These things are important, but their inclusion suggests a ‘just shove it in’ approach to the citizenship curriculum. Kids can smell this kind of thing a mile off and know that no one’s going to take it seriously.

We should reform the curriculum and make it a compulsory (and tough) GCSE. I’m not a particularly enthusiastic advocate of forcing kids to do more exams, but in our current system they’re the primary and most effective lever of change available to government. If there’s no exam, it takes a passionate individual (or group of individuals) to make something happen. We can’t rely on that across the system.

Lower the Voting Age

So maybe a little out of the scope for teachers, but hey. School is the perfect place to engage young people in the political process. Debates could be screened in school, classes could be given on the voting system, we could have mass voter registration events, MPs would actively engage with young people (in a previous school we invited the local MP and the other candidates to a debate – only the Green candidate turned up), mock elections could be held in younger years in preparation for the main event. There are so many possibilities.

Students rise to the expectations we set for them. If we expected them to take part in politics, they would.

Be Enthusiastic

Every teacher needs to take on this responsibility of political engagement. If we were to strive for objectivity, impartiality and positivity we could empower young people rather than provide a scaffold for students’ political disengagement by modeling cynicism. This could take many forms: we could give assemblies on positive changes to the law; have speaker events from different MPs and political figures; more generally teachers could just be aware of the way they talk about politics. As well as denounce the failings of politicians, teachers should shine a light on the positive acts of parliament.

A healthy democracy is inclusive. It relies on the informed participation of a every part of society. As teachers, we must provide our students with the practical knowledge of how our systems of change work, but must also model a positive belief in democracy. Otherwise, we surrender power to those who will exploit ignorance and division.

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