Democracy is not a once achieved goal – it requires ongoing work by all of us to make sure it works. This includes engagement in both formal politics (often call ‘big P’ Politics and includes voting) as well as ‘small p’ politics (the everyday engagement with our communities, neighbourhoods and online involvement such as petitions) – something I have written about here…

Central to a successful and vibrant democracy is the education system which should bring politics into the classroom – seeing every student as an active and engaged citizen rather than a ‘citizen in waiting’.

In the recent history of liberal democracies, however, scholars and social commentators have raised concerns about levels of civic engagement for both formal and informal politics. Almost 20 years ago, Robert Putnam’s (2000) study Bowling Alone identified growing civic disengagement and decreasing levels of social capital among American populations.

In Australia, similar finding by Michael Pusey back in 2003 have been supported by more recent Lowy Institute polling presented the startling statistics that ‘only 60% of Australians, and just 42% of young Australians [18-29], believe that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”’.

For those of us committed to the democratic health of our nations, such trends are concerning on both a local and an international level as it is clear we are seeing a fracturing of the civic sphere.

As such, teachers and researchers and policymakers alike must come to terms with – and respond to – this evident fracturing. Indeed, in the current Australian political environment, it appears to be worsening with contemporary Australian political culture driven by cheap insults rather than a meaningful and visionary politics that could and should enrich the nation. Toxic and divisive narratives, reproduced by the 24-hour news cycle, stymie policy development and paralyse a scandal-ridden government.

This dissatisfaction is clear at the ballot box. Increasingly, Australia is witnessing decreasing voter turnout, alongside a growing informal vote count despite the fact that, almost alone among the western liberal democracies, Australia has a compulsory voting regime.

This can be understood in terms of democratic deficits (see Arvanitakis and Hodge, 2012). Democratic deficits refer to disengagement and disempowerment among citizens. A citizen without a sense of empowerment or ‘agency’, or
one who has been denied agency by the state, cannot actively participate in a participatory democracy.

How to understand this and respond?

Working with the wonderful and amazing Keith Heggart and Ingrid Matthews, we wrote the following article attempting to understand both the failure of government-led citizenship education initiatives such Discovering Democracy (1997–2007) and seek a way forward. The that this blog refers to had two objectives:

  • to explore the ways in which government-directed civics education programmes have fallen short; and,
  • to argue for a shift in our approaches to civics education, in terms of both content and delivery, drawing on the surplus model, which credits students with unique ideas, knowledge and experiences.

To respond we draw upon Justice Citizens, an alternative approach to Civics Education that foregrounds students’ own interests and abilities as central to their development into active citizens as an example of the educational practices that can promote and strengthen active citizenship among school students. From this programme and other research, we discuss four student-centred themes that should inform further civics education curriculum development.

As always, I look forward to your comments and feedback.