Steve Liddle: Election apathy shows need for civics at school

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Photo / Northern Advocate
Photo / Northern Advocate

Democracy is the best form of government but it relies on high participation and eternal vigilance over its health. At least, this is what most of us learn from parents or teachers.

But over the past decade, some concerned citizens and governments have become worried about a disengagement from politics of younger people in particular. Their disengagement shows in the number not voting.

New Zealand is better off than comparable countries - thanks especially to compulsory voter registration and a proportional system that delivers a diversity of voices in Parliament. But a million of us did not vote at the 2011 election, the largest chunk being under 25. It is clear that democratic participation here cannot be taken for granted.

From the 92 per cent turnout at the 1935 election, participation has dropped to 74.2 at the last election, the lowest since 1887.

Other democracies are making civics courses compulsory in education. In Germany, courses about democracy are integrated into institutions including the armed forces, trade unions and schools, and absorbed into the fabric of society.

In 2002, England made citizenship a compulsory subject in high schools. It consisted of three topics: political literacy, social and moral responsibility, and community involvement.

Following home-grown terrorism in 2005, a fourth was added: identity and diversity - living together in the UK.

Nevertheless, at the 2005 election England's youth vote reached a low of 37 per cent. Merely teaching dutiful citizenship, it seems, is not enough.

Polls in the UK have found that while 33 per cent trusted non-government organisations such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, only 10 per cent trusted politicians and just 6 per cent trusted political parties.

Reviews of citizenship courses in England and the United States have found the most effective were conducted by well-informed teachers who could challenge students with a mix of thought-provoking discussion, research-with-action projects, speakers and mentors, internships and service, and structured reflection.

It is naive to believe we are immune to world trends because of MMP or our isolation from hot spots, or constitutional laws or common decency.

Nor are we immune to shifts from populism to extremism, which history shows follow widespread disengagement from politics.

New Zealand schools do not have to have civics courses, or teach the history of ideas or comparative religious studies.

My attempt to teach a two-week history of democracy course, as a backgrounder to the year 13 classical studies philosophy topic, followed two years of teaching and research in England and Italy during the second US-Iraq war.

There I saw a more diverse media than in New Zealand, doing more serious things. Aside from dispassionate analysis, the media included partisan propaganda and patriotic self-censorship.

In London I saw anti-democracy mall stalls run by university students - with hovering imans. The stalls declared democracy haram (forbidden) and mocked its basis, citing less than 60 per cent voter turnout in the UK and US.

I was able to retort by pointing to what was then New Zealand's high voter turnout.

I came back to New Zealand, where Otago Professor Jim Flynn says we now have a growing subculture of "ahistorical students no longer reading great literature or history", living in the bubble of the present and "infinitely malleable by whoever manipulates public opinion".

Studies show that those with most civic knowledge are most likely to participate in civic activities, but also that such knowledge still depends on parents' social background, education, region and age - and that voters' disengagement often results from ignorance about complexities of policy-making and need for messy compromises in which no one gets entirely what they want.

Research in 2009 attributed English disengagement to the "marketisation of political competition" plus the withdrawal of the state and the outsourcing of risks.

As well, cynicism about electoral politics grew.

Young or old, if you think voting cannot make a difference, that politicians never do anything for you and that outsourcing and privatisation mean governments no longer care for you, then your vote seems to count for nothing.

Positively, recent international testing found 84 per cent of year nine students in New Zealand expected to vote when they reached 18. It also found 75 per cent of teachers were dedicated to "critical and independent thinking".

Not so impressive was trust in the media (less than half) and a civic knowledge score significantly above only five of 16 OECD countries.

The US has civics courses but affordability has eroded their widespread provision at tertiary level. High school provision varies widely from state to state.

Compulsory teaching of citizenship is needed in the US and here too. The decision is too important to be left to individual schools, teachers, students or even parents alone - that is, if we want an engaged and tolerant citizenry, proud of their hard-won freedoms.


Steve Liddle is a secondary teacher and writer from Napier.

- NZ Herald

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