The importance of looking beyond political literacy for Generation Z

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By Andrew Peterson, Professor of Character and Citizenship Education and Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham. 

“It is civic character that enables young people to develop the sense of purpose and intent so important to meaningful political engagement and which, in turn, helps them to understand and reflect upon their connections with others.”

At a time when concerns about political misinformation, disinformation, polarisation and incivility are rife, and when Generation Z are becoming increasingly politically active, it is unsurprising that attention is increasingly turning to the role of schools and other educational settings in preparing young people for informed, critical and active citizenship. The recent launch of an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy once again brings under the spotlight the importance – and also the inconsistency – of education for citizenship in UK schools. The focus on “political literacy” is significant, but when taken alone lacks the recognition that character and virtue lie at the heart of young people’s formation as citizens.

The focus on political literacy

The new APPG has some notable strengths in terms of its aims and intentions. The first among these is that it is, by definition, nonpartisan. While this point may seem obvious, any real and meaningful developments in education for citizenship have largely occurred where the political commitment and will has had a wide political base, and where those with differing political views find common ground regarding the value of educating for citizenship. Second, the new APPG, again rightly, makes an explicit connection between political literacy and participation, reinforcing the importance of education for citizenship as an active, engaged endeavour. Third, the APPG places young people’s interests, voices and needs at heart of political literacy. And, fourth, the APPG is attentive to the need for more specialist teachers with the expertise and confidence to engage pupils in political literacy within and beyond the classroom.

Beyond these strengths, it is both striking and concerning that the APPG takes political literacy as their focus. Doing so means that a broader, and indeed richer, conception education for citizenship is disregarded. We need only look back to the highly influential Report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship published in 1998 (which led to the inclusion of Citizenship education as a statutory subject in the English National Curriculum for 11-16 year olds) to appreciate that education for citizenship runs more deeply than political literacy. The Report – known commonly as the Crick Report after its Chair, the late Sir Bernard Crick – identified three related and mutually dependent elements of ‘effective education for citizenship’: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. While the APPG’s focus incorporates the latter two of these elements, as things currently stand they say little about the first – social and moral responsibility.

Character matters

But, why does this matter? First, we must recognise that arguments for educating political literacy (generally understood as the knowledge, skills and values that enable effective participation in public life) are not new. The Association of Education in Citizenship in the 1930s, the Programme for Political Education in the 1970s, and the aforementioned Crick Report in the 1990s all advanced the case for political literacy in schools. However, the Crick Report realised that political literacy alone was too limited as a basis for education for citizenship, as did Crick himself. The reasoning – still resonant today – was that political literacy failed to capture the connections that tie citizens to each other and which motivate them to come together in joint effort for the common good. In recognising the need for education for citizenship to pay due attention to social and moral responsibility, the Crick Report, and again Crick himself, emphasised the role that moral and civic virtues play in the public sphere. Crucially, the personal characteristics of citizens – whether they are kind, compassionate, just, honest, trustworthy, civil and so on – act as necessary preconditions of, and for, citizenship. In addition, while political literacy and political action are core elements of education for citizenship, moral and civic virtues are needed to provide the motivational force to bridge the two. It is civic character that enables young people to develop the sense of purpose and intent so important to meaningful political engagement and which, in turn, helps them to understand and reflect upon their connections with others.

Beginning a national conversation

The current context brings many challenges – yet there is hope. Young people express and form moral and civic virtues in a multitude of ways, and these deserve recognition, celebration and cultivation. To best support the next generation to fulfil their civic potential we must pay renewed attention to the social and moral ties that bind citizens in the public sphere, as well as to the civic conduct needed for a healthy, stable and flourishing democracy. Indeed, it may well be time for a nonpartisan “national conversation” on civic character, both within education and in society more widely. The APPG may be a step in this direction, but without fully appreciating the full breadth of education for citizenship, including the importance of civic character, its remit and outcomes will remain unnecessarily limited.

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