School-Based Programs to Promote Democratic and Political Participation: Lessons from Canada
In recent years, Canadians have wrestled with a host of policy concerns that call for the kind of rigorous public debates that are the hallmark of democracy. Following the 2006 general election, for example, concern for the health of the planet figured as the highest priority issue for 26% of Canadians surveyed.i Not surprisingly, politicians, policy-makers and media pundits have given environmental issues widespread attention. Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented a new Clean Air Act to cut 20% of greenhouse emissions by 2050. Opposition parties and government officials from numerous industrialized countries criticized Harper for setting weak targets that undermined Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto protocol. The public became witness to and participant in explosive debates relating to climate change. Other issues have figured highly in the public psyche as well. Concern over wars in the Middle East, trust in our government and political leaders, and calls for democratic reform of the political process itself have vied for public attention.
In many ways, these debates mark the health of one of the world’s more respected democracies. Politicians express varying positions on issues of public concern. The media carries a variety of views and perspectives. Through election campaigns, a free press and community discourse, politicians and the broader public debate those policies most prominent in the minds of the people these policies will likely affect. Ideally, as Aristotle envisioned, democratic citizens thus move themselves and each other “from individual ignorance to collective wisdom.”
However, as Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter point out in their study of US citizens’ political knowledge, the “quality of the public debate [on such issues] and thus ultimately the quality of the reforms that emerge, depend on two things: the nature of the information brought to the public marketplace and the ability of citizens to use that information to discern their interests and to articulate them effectively.”ii Unfortunately, recent studies indicate cause for concern on both counts. Knowing the names of major political leaders and contenders, how Parliament functions, how social policies have been implemented in the past and basic historical facts about Canada and global affairs are all forms of civic literacy that elude a large number of Canadians.iii If, as Rousseau asserted, the right to vote should be accompanied by an obligation to be knowledgeable in public affairs,iv strengthening democracy will require attention to the level of civic literacy and the ability to use civic knowledge in the democratic process of governance.
While civic literacy needs to be addressed for Canadians of all ages from the workplace to the home, schools and their students are a central place for reform. Our future public policy depends on the commitments of young Canadians and thus deserves the attention of educators and policy-makers. Although most researchers would agree that the school and the community must give priority to harnessing the vision and energy of youth for civic affairs, there is much less agreement on where or how to seek improvement. Indeed, definitions of civic literacy, how to strengthen it, and its importance in democratic reform are all contested in the research literature. A full picture of civic learning would have to seriously consider the role of family, media, law, religion, community clubs and many other institutions. The scope of this report allows only for a focus on school. We recognize that the school and its teachers, shaped by a complex web of societal relations, are neither