The lack of political engagement among the young and not-so-young is a frequent topic of discussion in contemporary democracies. The world we live in, a complex set of political entities with their corresponding complex institutional frameworks, has become difficult to understand (and to follow, and to be attached to) for the average citizen. This results in low voting turnouts, a decline in levels of confidence in the judiciary, citizens who have very poor knowledge of their rights and obligations and very unequal access to new forms of participation.
Much has been written about the subjects, trying to find the actors responsible for this ‘malaise’ of post-industrial democracies. Mass media are often the centre of criticism: most citizens depend on the TV and the newspapers to be up to date with politics; however, the strong commercial pressures to the mass media are under means that little space is devoted to sophisticated reporting, while sensationalist pieces receive more and more attention. Although public channels attempt to counteract this trend of treating citizens as consumers, the fact remains that a big part of the population still doesn’t receive a decent amount of correct and balanced information on politics. Given the increasing privatisation of broadcasting companies and the strong competition that characterises the mass media market, this is unlikely to change.
An issue that is often neglected when discussing the failures of contemporary democracies is the existence of proper citizenship education. Providing young people with the skills and the basic knowledge to understand their political system is essential if we want to promote meaningful political participation. Citizens need to know the system in order to take part in it; once they know it, they will have better tools to thrive in a complex institutional setting that runs parallel with a poor performance of the mass media. Unequal democratic participation is, in the end, a reflection of an unequal access to proper political education (commonly related to lower socio-economic strata and ethnic minorities). From this perspective, a feasible option for the policy maker interested in improving democracy would be to secure satisfactory levels of citizenship education across all schools, especially those from deprived backgrounds.
Be that as it may, the existence of proper schemes of citizenship education (either as cross-curricular or as a self-contained subject) is very unequal across Europe. The champion of citizenship education being Germany, many other countries cite financial constraints and underfunding of the educational sector as reasons for the impossibility of a strong programme of civic and political activities. Another common issue is the difficulty of reforming the educational curriculum in places where the topic is perceived as politically sensitive (a particularly acute problem in countries with various national identities like Belgium or Spain). Changes at the political level, if any, will only take place in the long run after costly and lengthy political negotiations
An alternative to this top-down approach could be a scheme that respects the current national architectures of citizenship education while promoting the access to programmes and activities in the field by all schools, particularly those in a disadvantaged area – and a scheme that does so without the need for public funding. This would be possible by setting stronger partnerships between the schools and the private sector (companies and civil society): practitioners from, say, law firms, NGOs and consultancies could come to schools and teach as part of a previously designed scheme that guarantees neutrality and the promotion of critical thinking among the students. The private-public model of citizenship education is to a certain extent operative in England through entities like the Citizenship Foundation. While other European countries might be more reluctant to bring the private sector into the schools, national adaptations are possible, even as an interim solution while citizenship education becomes a political priority for the policy makers.
Having to rely on corporate and other private actors for a function that should initially be secured by the public authorities is not an ideal solution. However, it would not be without advantages. Besides reducing public costs, children would have the opportunity to interact with actors that have a real expertise in a particular field and even get a professional inspiration that promotes social mobility among the poorer schoolchildren. In addition, we would be establishing a bridge between the citizenship and the private world: in the end, our identity as citizens and political actors is strongly determined by our interactions with the workplace, with the markets and with the non-governmental entities.