6.8.1 Education for Political Awareness
Political education in a democracy can enable people to constructively participate as individuals in politics (6.6.1); it can increase the usefulness of consultation (6.5.3); and it can provide a pool of talent from which politicians and public servants can be recruited. A population which understands the politicians’ role can help to ensure that it is better governed.
Education in several disciplines is desirable:
- People should be able to evaluate a government’s economic decisions, particularly on taxation and public spending, to understand whose interests are being served and to recognise how the national debt is affected.
- They should understand their political system and be aware of the different political ideologies and approaches.
- They need to have some knowledge of history, particularly to help them to connect historical political decisions to their consequences, and to recognise where these are comparable to current situations.
- Education in critical thinking, such as in the humanities, can help people to detect bias, illogicality and omissions. Everybody needs to be aware of the potential problems with what they see and hear on the media – and to know that it is helpful to cross-check material from different sources if they want to know what is really happening.
- It is particularly important to be able to recognise propaganda, which otherwise reaches people at a subconscious level and influences their decisions without them realising it. People can be taught, in a classroom, to recognise propaganda – raising their awareness of it and making it less likely to be effective; a teachit english education handout, Propaganda Techniques, offers an example of a possible teaching approach.
If people lack either education or interest in political matters they have to look to others for guidance, making them more susceptible to being misled. They are also less able to participate in public discussion or use their votes well. Ronald Dworkin highlighted the need for education in his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, quoting some empirical evidence from America:
“In 1996 pollsters set out a long list of questions about current events that they deemed critical to the election that year; no more than half the public polled could answer even 40% of those questions.” (at the start of chapter 5, p. 128)
As well as helping people to get the best from their politicians, education can help to stabilise society:
- It can increase social mobility and reduce economic inequality, if it is available at an adequate level to everyone.
- As has already been mentioned (220.127.116.11), education can help different ethnic groups to understand each other better and thereby reduce the likelihood of conflict between them.
- It can help people to understand the need to negotiate.
- People who lack the education to think for themselves are likely to be uncritical in following the leaders of groups with whom they are associated. This can be dangerous because irresponsible leaders can deliberately exacerbate ethnic divisions to challenge the government and threaten the unity of the country (18.104.22.168).
- Educated people are less likely to be resentful of the current government if they have a better understanding of how economic performance can be affected by external factors or might be the delayed impact of the decisions of an earlier government.
These aspects of education are additional to the training required to equip people for economic activity (3.2.5) and the education to help them to achieve fulfilment in other ways.
The privatisation of education, which some neoliberals want to accelerate by distributing education vouchers to everyone (22.214.171.124), could reduce a government’s ability to achieve educational goals. This could be a good thing, if it is seen as preventing indoctrination by an authoritarian government, or a bad thing in that it can undermine social cohesion by accentuating economic and cultural differences. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, examined some of the social issues raised by privatisation of education in a paper published by the BBC: What would a voucher system mean for schools?