Education for citizenship is a hot topic these days. Many are the pundits who bemoan the perceive political disaffection of the young, so the results of a recent report entitled “Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen” is of more than passing interest.
Education for citizenship is a hot topic these days. Many are the pundits who bemoan the perceived political disaffection of the young, so the results of a recent report entitled “Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen” is of more than passing interest.
The study was conducted by the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement, and it had a deceptively simple goal: to find out what youngsters living in democratic countries know about their governments. Do they understand how democratic institutions work? Do they expect to be involved with those institutions? The study tested for student knowledge about fundamental democratic principles and processes, and assessed concepts of citizenship and related attitudes. It involved 90,000 fourteen-year-olds representative of their respective countries.
Students were assessed to determine their knowledge of civic content, their skills in interpreting civic information, their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, their concept of the role of citizens, their attitudes about democratic institutions and individual rights, and their intended eventual participation.
The findings are quite interesting.
· While we are used to hearing that U.S. students fare poorly in comparison with other countries, our children were at the international mean on measures of what they knew, and well above that mean in demonstration of “democratic skills” like interpreting political communications.
· Over half of U.S. students have done community service, compared to 18% internationally. 40% have collected money for a social cause as compared to 29% internationally.
· Students everywhere believe that democracy is weakened when wealthy people have undue influence on policy, when politicians influence courts, and when people are forbidden to express criticism of the government.
· Students everywhere believe it is important to obey the law, and to vote.
· Data from all participating countries confirmed that students who knew the most were most likely to say they expected to participate politically when they were older.
· Significantly, schools that modeled democratic practices were most effective in promoting civic knowledge and engagement. Schools that promoted an open climate for discussion and expected students to participate in shaping school policies were significantly more likely to produce students who expected to go on to vote and participate. Authoritarian approaches were dismal failures.
· Students everywhere get their news from television, and only in the U.S. were newspapers considered more credible than television and radio.
· While political institutions in general (police, courts, government generally) were moderately trusted, political parties were not.
The most sobering finding was that students everywhere are skeptical about traditional forms of political engagement. They are far more likely to join an environmental group, to collect money for a social cause or participate in a project to improve their community, than to engage in partisan political activities. These kids care about their communities, the environment, and social justice. They just don’t trust the system—whether it’s in Finland, Latvia or the USA.
We need to think long and hard about why.