Civic education lacking in Canada’s school system

There is an alarming lack of political knowledge amongst the Canadian electorate and it is disturbingly prevalent in younger generations. With declining rates of voter turnout and an apparent lack of interest in the democratic process, this is perhaps the greatest challenge for Canadian politics and the strength of our society.

A study conducted in 2007 by Henry Milner of the Institute for Research on Public Policy discovered, that, among Canadians aged 15-25, a large majority could not correctly identify even the most basic facts about Canadian and international politics. Milner devised a scale out of seven potential points and young Canadians scored 2.57.

Milner’s study supported the findings of other political scientists. In 2004, Paul Howe of the University of New Brunswick found that Canadians are far less knowledgeable about their politics than their European counterparts, with scores declining over time.

In the 18-23 age group, the mean percentile score on a political knowledge test was 31.4 per cent compared to 60 per cent for senior Canadians. Young Canadians are able, on average, to correctly answer only 1.5 questions out of four, compared to three of four for those aged 50-59.

This is directly relatable to the lack of political participation in this country. Howe found that among those Canadians who could answer every question correctly, 93 per cent voted. Even those who could answer even one question correctly were 20 per cent more likely to vote than those who could answer no questions correctly.

It would follow that it is absolutely vital that we provide strong civic education to young Canadians. In fact, there is actual empirical evidence that the strength of our democracy itself rests on our ability to instil a strong base of political knowledge in Canadians.

It is not only surprising, then, but also extremely troubling that there is such a lack of commitment to political education in the Ontario education system. In the Ontario high school system, students are expected to enrol in a half-semester’s worth of civic education — everything you ever needed to know about the Canadian political system, is not even deemed important enough to receive an entire semester.

A course in the final year of high school is available on Canadian politics for those who are so inclined to enrol in it (the ones who volunteer to take it are probably not the ones who need it most) and even that is not offered in every Ontario high school.

And what do our province’s esteemed teachers’ colleges have to say about the subject? Not much, it would seem.

According to the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC), there are only two teachers’ colleges that accept political science as a teachable subject: University of Toronto and York University.

A political science major (without two other teachable subjects) would be unable to apply to the rest of Ontario’s bachelor of education programs if they wish to teach intermediate or high school — arguably where we need civic education the most.

This is not to say that a teacher who majors in something other than political science does not have the necessary qualification to teach politics. And the blame does not rest solely with teachers’ colleges — why educate politics teachers when they will have a hell of a time finding a job teaching their subject?

It’s the message that’s troubling though, to apparently neglect the importance of teachers with clear political aptitude, in an environment where political knowledge is tanking along with civic participation.

When you look at Howe’s figures — a direct correlation between political education and voting behavior – how can anyone deny the value of increased civic education?

Forget about the other voting measures that people debate: compulsory voting, Internet voting or any other concocted scheme we’ve thought about. The answer is already there for us. We need to offer students more opportunities earlier in their academic careers to learn about politics and become excited about the democratic process. It means more courses in high schools and more teachers who are directly knowledgeable about the field.

And yes, it means opening up teachers’ colleges to political science students.
There are no more excuses. We need to increase voter turnout or risk the legitimacy of our democratic regime. And, by extension, there is no way we can let the sorry state of political knowledge amongst Canadian youth deteriorate any further.

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