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Frances Boylston
Henry Milner
Chi Nguyen
Paper to be presented at the ECPR General Conference, Pisa,
September 2007
(Draft: Please do not quote.)



Introduction

Political knowledge is a democratic value, an important element of democratic citizenship. And it is a practical issue in most democratic countries. With a general decline in electoral turnout, and the sense of civic duty that brought earlier generations to the polls apparently eroding – a phenomena often referred to as the “democratic deficit”, the political knowledge dimension becomes increasingly salient. Research is needed to best identify those measures that could enhance citizens’ capacity to make informed choices – measures that could thus stem the decline in, if not foster, political participation.

This is especially the case since there is no shortage of data to suggest that the combination of declining political knowledge and electoral participation is in good part a generational phenomenon. Young people arriving at the age of citizenship are in the process of developing habits that will affect choices they will make throughout their lives. Yet sociological and technological changes have made young people less subject to the traditional socializing influences of family and community. Apart from being affected by the well-known changes in the structure and role of the family, young people in the last 10 to 15 years have reached maturity in a world in which the Internet has allowed them to replace the shared social and informational network of their geographical (and political) community with an individualized virtual one, composed of persona distant both geographically and psychically. Hence a greater socializing burden is placed on the school, which retains a physical link to the community, and is potentially able to act as filter of knowledge - including political knowledge - from electronic sources. This role is normally termed one of citizenship education, while the specific courses and activities designed to carry it out this role are usually termed civic education.

Citizenship education, as generally understood, seeks to promote civic engagement and democratic involvement (Crick Report, 1998), to increase knowledge, promote citizenship interest in politics and public affairs and to reinforce the individual’s sense of efficacy (Verba et al., 1995; see also Whiteley 2005). A substantial literature has pointed to, and begun to address, the need to know more about citizenship education – a recent development at least as far as political science is concerned.

An explanation for this belated realization lies in the paradox that as western societies have invested more and more resources into education they have experienced a decline in key forms of participation, particularly electoral participation (Wattenberg, 2007). The assumption that increasing the average number of years in school itself assures the widening of democratic participation has proven unwarranted. On the other hand, more educated citizens are better informed and more likely to participate politically.

This paradox points to the need for more and more systematic research into the effects of education on participation, and combining what we know about the specific content of civics courses and related activities, to the wider institutional context in which citizenship education takes place. But so far, the work in this area has not been such as to allow for the development of a cumulative body of knowledge. Civic education until relatively recently has been largely a domain left to education specialists lacking social science training and ignored by political scientists. With some exceptions, the civic education literature consists of case studies which do not lend themselves to cumulation. The current involvement by political scientists and sociologists is thus hampered by the lack of systematic communication among the different disciplines. Though there have been some efforts at cross-national comparisons in the past decade, these have tended more to illustrate the absence of the needed systematic comparative data on civic education rather than to provide it. It is this absence that lies at the root of a series of efforts to address the issue from which this paper emerges.

Conclusion

Clearly, this is but a first step. Nevertheless given the absence of comprehensive data and the need for it, it is nonetheless an important one. Much clearly needs to be done. One inspiration lies in ideas offered by respondents in filling in the questionnaire, in response to a request for their comments and suggestions. In particular, respondents had suggestions as to elements missing in the questionnaire reflecting curriculum content in their country. These are listed in the table below.

The content of this table serves to remind us that civic education cannot be isolated from wider cultural concerns. Beyond the repeated mentions of the media, economy and human rights, we see in several instances of concern with morality, religion, and national identity.