Lee Suckling 's Opinion

Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Lee Suckling: Should we teach civics in school?

104 comments
Civics in schools is about instilling ethics and critical thought into everyone from a young age, writes Lee Suckling.
Photo / Thinkstock
Civics in schools is about instilling ethics and critical thought into everyone from a young age, writes Lee Suckling. Photo / Thinkstock

It's almost election time, and there's a feeling amongst the modern generation that we're not all that relevant to politics this time around.

Youth apathy is always a problem when it comes to elections, but this year, we're seeing dirtier politicking than usual, very little debate on actual ideals and goals, and political parties (from both ends of the spectrum) trying to offer New Zealanders quick bribes for the swinging of their votes.

Gen Y, in particular, is left feeling alienated: as young professionals, we're not the target market for any of the campaigning. Realistically, as a still child-less generation of renters, we have little (or nothing) tangible to gain in voting for any of the parties on 20 September. I won't be surprised, come the election, if statistics reveal a good chunk of my generation didn't vote.

In 2011 it was one in four who didn't turn up at the polls, but this year, I fear it might be more. Is duplicitous and inapplicable political bickering responsible for this? Perhaps.

But there's a more serious issue at hand here.

The New Zealand-wide lack of civic mindedness applies to all generations, not just my own. We have a wonderfully functional and stable democracy, yet most of us take that for granted. How could this be prevented, you ask? We might start by teaching civics at school.

It seems strange that the New Zealand Curriculum dedicates up to 13 years of education to maths - something most of us forget as soon as we possibly can - yet learning about political literacy, or being informed and engaged participants in society, is largely ignored. Funnily enough, while we'll devote hundreds of hours and dozens of tests and exams to algebra, few people graduate from high school with the faintest idea of how MMP works. Only the latter will affect us all for our entire lives.

The concept of teaching civics at school isn't just about knowing your front line soldiers from your back benchers. Put simply, it's about instilling ethics and critical thought into everyone from a young age. It's about teaching personal responsibility, and what is required - on an individual level - for a functioning and prosperous society. It's about human rights and freedoms, and how democracies such as that present in New Zealand work to protect them.

Moreover, civics education would address the trend to be self-centred and absorbed with documenting our lives. By learning civics, citizens learn the value of being involved in local community groups, participating in sport, chatting about the world over coffee, picking up rubbish, volunteering, and taking up Justice of the Peace or celebrant duties. It increases a community's social capital - meaning we have a nicer place for everyone to live. With greater social capital, we create a cleaner environment with less crime, fewer addictions, and will see a decline in poverty.

This is a very libertarian way of thinking, indeed. But it's one that would pay dividends decades after civics education is uniformly introduced, when every New Zealander would be able to responsibly and aptly choose how active they would like to be in overall society; inclusive of their voting responsibilities every three years.

Additionally, slurs like "pinko" and "ignorant conservative" would no longer frustrate those on the left or right, as we would all be civically educated equally. Rather that putting others' views down to them being "ill-informed idiots", we'd all have to be a bit more accepting of differing opinions.

The Ministry of Justice actually provides some good material for New Zealand teachers on civics lessons, but the UK's compulsory subject Citizenship Education provides an ideal model - one we'd do well to replicate here in New Zealand. Not relegated to a lesson or two within Social Studies, Citizenship Education is a standalone subject that covers human rights, diversity and equality, social and moral responsibility, and politics and the legal system; all for the goal of developing engaged high schoolers that will one day go on to participate in their communities and wider society as informed, responsible, and critical citizens. These are vital attributes for every person in any democratic nation to possess; not just those who went on to a tertiary education with a POLS major.

The modern generation is going to have to go with its gut for Election 2014, and vote based on which party it believes has the potential to see our country prosper in the long-term. Trouble is, most political parties can't see outside the term for which they're campaigning. Thus I can only hope, in the absence of civics education, we've all read up on electoral policies and know exactly what we're voting for.

Perhaps a civic-minded New Zealand is a bit of a pipe dream. But one day, if I ever have the misfortune of appearing before a court, it would be nice to know the jury was made up of informed and intelligent citizens who understood the purpose of their civic duties, not just those who were sitting at home with nothing better to do.

Lee Suckling

Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Writer Lee Suckling pens his opinionated thoughts every Wednesday, covering issues surrounding Generation Y, New Zealand's gay community, and the ethical dilemmas presented every day to those living in a tech-centric modern world. Outside of the New Zealand Herald, Lee writes for a range of magazines and newspapers across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Read more by Lee Suckling

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 27 Nov 2014 17:38:01 Processing Time: 538ms