How to teach citizenship in schools | The Economist

Good discussion of what citizenship or civics education should entail:

IN 2012 David Souter, a retired justice of the Supreme Court, argued that the greatest threat to American democracy was neither a foreign invasion nor a military coup, but ignorance about how government functions. “An ignorant people can never remain a free people,” he said, referring to Thomas Jefferson, “and democracy cannot survive too much ignorance”. People become willing to hand power to a strongman who promises to solve all their problems. “That is how the Roman Republic fell…That is the way democracy dies, and if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge, that is what you should worry about.”

He was on to something. The World Values Survey, a global study by social scientists from over 100 countries, found that far fewer millennials object to autocracy than their elders. Only 19% of millennials in America and 36% in Europe say that if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, a military takeover would still not be legitimate. Just a third see civil rights as “absolutely essential” to democracy. In America, more than a quarter dismiss the importance of free elections. In 1995 only 16% of American youngsters thought democracy was a “bad” system; by 2011, that number had risen to almost 25%.

One reason may be that long-standing democracies have forgotten the need for eternal vigilance. Worried about unemployment and global competition, governments and schools have focused on preparing young people for work, rather than to participate in democracy. Citizenship education, said Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary from 2010 to 2014, was a “pseudo-subject”. In America, schools no longer bother testing it. When the subject survives, it is often recast narrowly, says Bryony Hoskins of Roehampton University, as a way to counter radicalisation or promote national values to recent immigrants.

In Britain, a positively regarded curriculum introduced by the Labour party in 2002 has been largely dismantled. There is much talk of “educating for character”, with the aim of developing “grit” and “resilience”. But it is narrow and instrumental, says Ben Kisby of the University of Lincoln, reflecting the government’s focus on pupils as future workers and consumers, rather than as voters. In Poland, a recent revision to the syllabus has thrown out all discussion of how the European Union functions; the focus is on Polish identity formation. “‘Nation’ is more important than ‘society’; ‘Pole’ is more powerful than ‘citizen’,” says Alicja Pacewicz of the Centre for Citizenship Education in Warsaw.

In America civic-education classes no longer cover what life is like in non-democracies. Schools used to educate their charges about life in the Soviet Union, points out Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation, a think-tank, making the case for democracy by comparison. But when the cold war ended, that stopped. He thinks declining support for democratic values is a partial consequence. “It’s easy to be sceptical [about the value of democracy] when you don’t know anything different,” he says. Without context to help them appreciate the benefits and safeguards afforded by democracy, young people may be vulnerable to emotional appeals to nationalism and fiery rhetoric about seizing power from “elites”.

Laboratories for democracy
The best civic-education classes do more than impart knowledge about how government works. They create environments in which pupils get used to the tools of democracy, such as debating controversial issues and disagreeing respectfully. Parents may worry that schools are indoctrinating their children, and teachers can be wary of treading on thorny ground. But schools are more ideologically diverse than many other environments, making them ideal testing-grounds for such skills.

It is important to avoid crude propagandising, says Peter Levine of the Centre for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Pupils’ criticisms of their country’s politics and governance may be perfectly legitimate. Members of some minorities may be justified in distrusting arms of the state, such as the police; cheerleading in the classroom may alienate them further. Best to combine realism with discussions of practical steps pupils can take to bring about change, says Mr Levine. Rather than simply teaching about Martin Luther King Jr and the Voting Rights Act, for example, use the story to emphasise that social movements are driven by ordinary people, who can make a difference.

Schools in Nordic countries seek to ensure democratic values are developed right across the curriculum, and from the very start. Even the youngest children take part in age-appropriate decision-making: choosing the name of their group, for example, or what they will eat. Older pupils are expected to help develop school policy. They learn to make a case and cope with being outvoted—and that every choice, even that to abstain, has consequences.

Research suggests that these programmes work: pupils who have become used to discussing current affairs are much more likely to be politically engaged and involved in their communities, and to vote when they are old enough. Civic-education programmes also increase the likelihood that pupils will have more accepting attitudes towards people of different backgrounds. In Norway, where 95% of 14-year-olds participate in school elections, more than in any other country, nearly the same share participate in multicultural activities outside school.

A new programme, “Learning Democracy at Utøya”, has turned the Norwegian island where 69 people were killed by a far-right terrorist in 2011 into an education centre. Over three days pupils learn about the attack, as well as challenges to democratic values and how to respond to them. Much of the programme is interactive, prompting students to reflect on their values and argue their position. They then develop lessons to share with their peers back at school. Participants say it is an emotional experience: most of the victims were teenagers. In the words of Marianne Støle-Nilsen, a teacher in Bergen who took four of her pupils to the island, it is a place “where you don’t have to explain why teaching democracy and continuing to fight for it is important”.

Source: How to teach citizenship in schools | The Economist

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to How to teach citizenship in schools | The Economist

  1. Marion Vermeersch says:

    This is indeed a good article and the subject really needs to be taught in school, at a grade level where it will reach the most numbers of students. I would also add, in Canada,, historical material about Canadian citizenship, the context in which it developed and what can happen to it – Don Chapman’s book details that aspect thoroughly.

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