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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 21 November, 2014

Aaron McKenna: We need a robust civics education if we want informed citizens

CSPE should educate on how the economy, government and tax fits together, rather than just how proportional representation works, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THERE HAS BEEN more than one survey here and abroad about the effect of the recession on the mental wellbeing of people. The latest, from the government, says that 25 per cent of children are worried about the economy and household finances.

Uncertainty messes with your head, and be it a child or an adult the recession has put massive worries and pressures onto people and families. A constant stream of news, good and bad, can be difficult to assimilate into a round picture of how the country is doing; and wave upon wave of new taxes, household bills and shrinking take home pay packets bring it home.

The biggest stress in this whole mess is the constant question, “how are we going to get through this?” Either as households and individuals, or as a country. Very few of us have a well rounded understanding of how we have got to be where we are today, and where we’re going from here. It can feel like being along for the ride at times, even though we’re all supposed to get a say through our elections and, from time to time, referendums.

Civic, Social and Political Education

For all that our education system does well, we don’t do a very good job of turning out informed citizens and voters. In our schools today we have a three year program in the junior cycle of secondary, usually one or two classes per week, called CSPE – Civic, Social and Political Education.

The heart is certainly in the right place to have such a program, but it in reality it is a mostly wasted curriculum that tells students that they shouldn’t litter, be insensitive to others or break the law. The subject is only taught at one level – ‘common’ – and is more difficult to fail than pass with any modicum of effort invested.

This course is a box ticking exercise in trying to flesh out some of the basic societal niceties. It actually carries quite some bias – for example, if you happened to be somebody who thinks foreign aid is a bad idea at a time of straightened economic conditions, the CSPE course would admonish you. There’s not much in the way of discussion of how governments effect their policies and the impact that has on wider society – CSPE will tell you that government should provide shelter to the homeless, but it won’t mention much about how massive tax increases to fund social programs might drive people out of jobs and… Well, you get the idea.

Primary school foundation

I think that if we want to have truly well informed voters by the age of 18, and if we want to help alleviate the stress of events on children in general, we should aim for a much more robust civics education spread out over the entire course of ones education; starting in the 1+1=2 foundations all the way back in primary up through in-depth discussions of different social models by leaving.

Start with understanding what government is. What it does and how, basically, it does it: Levying taxes on this and that to achieve various ends. Work from this foundation to understand that the way we do things is not the way everyone does, from nanny states to socialist states to near libertarian states. Move up the years and start to have real understandings of how government effects the economy, and vice versa. How do the welfare stabalisers work? What would happen if government just raised enough taxes to cover off the deficit? Why can’t it just print more money?

Start with the basics

These are fairly basic questions that many people, including quite a few who call for solutions based on them, do not understand the arithmetic behind or the answers to.

To be informed voters – and be able to clearly define the fragrance of many political election promises – people need to understand the governmental equivalent of what a tracker mortgage is. People often see problems and ask, “What will the government do about this?” I’ve heard this statement repeated about everything up to and including the erosion of beaches in the west by none other than the Atlantic ocean. People see problems and assume government should fix it.

If people had a more rounded view of the opportunity costs that government faces by taking or not taking a particular action, how would that affect their world view? It feels like we’re raised in a state where we expect government to fix our ever ill, when in fact more government intervention often deepens the problems; or the money government needs to throw at the problem has to come from somewhere it could be better used, like in your and my pocket.

Of course, people should also be educated on what a fully socialised state looks like; and everything in between that and libertarian anarchism. Inform people that there are different ways, that there are choices, and how the wheels of government work beyond simply explaining proportional representation and the makeup of the cabinet.

I think that, armed with that sort of an education, we could put our minds to rest a little easier; and make better decisions as an electorate and as citizens of this country.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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