Is Civic Education the Answer to Populism?

Chris Peters

My career has been spent largely in the international development sector in the management of overseas aid projects wherein I developed an interest in public policy.

A recent article in The Atlantic posited the suggestion that a renewal of civic education in America is arguably the best means to defend against the threat to democracy that a Trump presidency proffers. Given that there have been a number of significant figures on the right wing of Australian politics, most notable among these have been Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson, who have heralded Trump’s ascendancy as a win for “middle America”, does this suggest that Australia should look to re-invigorate our own engagement with civic education to avoid the rise of populism here? Like many of my own generation and since, I recall the rite of passage afforded to me by my local primary school in travelling to Parliament House in Canberra to get a sense of what Australian democracy looked like up close. Beyond this my memory fails me as to what I learnt at school about the precepts of civic life and citizenship that bind us together as a democratic nation. Arguably, notions of civic duty and citizenship within Western democracies have been overtaken in recent years with schools attempting to ensure that students are made ‘job ready’ to the neglect of formal education about the values that underpin democracy and how they are enacted through our institutions.

Australia has not been derelict in recognising the importance that civic and citizenship education must play to guard against a further decline of trust in democratic institutions that now seems endemic across developed nations. Several states have endorsed the Australian Curriculum’s Civics and Citizenship Module for years 7-10 with NSW one of the key states yet to adopt it. The degree to which the Civics and Citizenship module of the Australian Curriculum is able to deliver on the promise to better educate our future citizens will come later this year with the release of the National Assessment Program’s civics and citizenship survey of years 6 and 10 students. Perhaps one of the more compelling reasons to put forward for NSW policymakers to endorse the Civics and Citizenship module of the Australian Curriculum is the state’s willingness to enact the Gonski school funding reforms. As the Atlantic points out in reference to the role of public schooling as a bulwark in American democracy that, “integrated learning environments underline the democratic message that in America, everyone is equal”. If we recognise that school environments offer the space in which all students have the opportunity to learn and understand what life as a citizen of a democracy entails then it’s only reasonable to ensure that all students are afforded the opportunity to participate as fully as they can within that environment which in itself is a microcosm of what democracy promises all of us.

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