In the 2010 general election, only 44% of under 24s chose to vote. This was the worst turn out of any age group, but I’m sure the figure comes as no surprise. After all, the last Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) election seems to prove that the majority of students at Oxford feel disillusioned or at least unconcerned enough by politics to prefer a candidate whose manifesto was written in crayon. This is by no means a criticism of Trup, but it says a lot in itself.
The battle of politicians to ‘engage the young’ to deal with ‘apathy’ and ‘alienation’ (those were mocking air quote marks, by the way) are buzz words often thrown about on the news round election time, with little result. Well, I can see a very obvious place to start: make the study of politics mandatory in secondary school.
In principle, I think most would agree that young people should be intelligently involved in the decisions that will shape their future. Furthermore, to leave school with a basic understanding of how these decisions are actually taken is crucial to feeling involved in society. An introduction to political ideology, how our state was formed, and the Westminster model, could surely help with this. In an education complete with dance, drama, and geography, it seems a glaring oversight not to include politics. Why, then, isn’t the subject taught in schools?
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, to me an oversight this obvious no longer seems an oversight, but a conscious – and self-interested – decision on the part of the government. To try and plant the seed of political interest in every child in Britain could be a risky move. Chomsky has argued the student movement contains the few possibilities for significant social change. Young people have a tendency to be passionate, radical, and highly inquisitive. Does any government, left or right, want to deal with the chance of more protests, or probing searches for the truth? Teaching people about the state, before they are too firmly installed in it to see it from the outside, might lead to many young people taking a fresh take on politics.
Of course, there are arguments against the study of politics at a young age, but they are easily rebuffed. Some might say it is too complex. I think like any subject from science to history, the basics could be taught in a useful and inspiring way. The aim would not necessarily be to provide an in-depth understanding. It would be to spark an interest, whether that meant just questioning your parents that night, or doing more research in your own time.
Others would remark wryly that it would be just too ‘political.’ Politics may be controversial, but then I remember debating abortion in school, and being given religious and sex education. Perhaps, then, it is just too dangerous to let the government be in charge of a political education and to let potentially biased individuals teach it. However, we trust the government to help shape politics AS levels, and the latter objection remains true for many other contentious subjects we entrust to teachers. A classroom environment might even be less biased to learn about politics than the home.
When I was growing up, I solidly supported Labour the way I supported Arsenal – because my parents did, whilst remaining totally ignorant of the party’s policies (or the footballer’s names). I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say this is true of the majority of young people. Indeed, 29% of constituency seats have not changed hands since 1945. This can only be advantageous for comfortable and secure MPs, who do not have to work to convince the ‘apathetic’ and ‘alienated’ young to support them.
However, to create change is not necessarily the purpose of mandatory political education. Nor does there need to be an ideological motive, simply this one: enabling an eighteen year old to be able to make an intelligent decision, when voting. Otherwise, expecting them to show up at all seems at best, hopeful, and at worst, hypocritical. Anyone who believes in the sanctity of politics or, really, in true democracy, will surely see the advantages of mandatory political education.