Protecting Australian politics in the school curriculum

Several years ago, I was researching young social entrepreneurs, what makes them tick, and what they need to succeed. I am a youth researcher seeking to understand how education can better support young people in their transitions through school and beyond.

Though sharing big ambitions to improve their worlds, the social entrepreneurs I interviewed were diverse, but they shared two other things.

The first is that they wanted to know more about how the Australian political system worked. This was mainly because the social entrepreneurs wanted to know what levers they needed to pull to influence decision-makers mainly governments to support their entrepreneurial goals.

Teaching politics does this, but has rightly been criticised for being dry and focused on the mechanics and structure of representative democracy.

While these are important, politics is about so much more. It is about power and contestation of ideas about issues that are current, complex and important. Take, for example, the tensions arising from governing during the pandemic, or the Voice to Parliament seeking to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to provide advice to the Parliament on policies that impact their lives.

Critical discussions about these need to be had in schools as well as Parliament. The very fabric of our society depends on informed choices and rigorous debate. Learning how to do these does not occur in a vacuum, and should begin early in life.

Arguably, these could still take place if the VCE subject is folded into global politics next year, which leads to the second common characteristics of the social entrepreneurs.

The very fabric of our society depends on informed choices and rigorous debate. Learning how to do these does not occur in a vacuum, and should begin early in life.

Even when their projects were global in orientation, they identified much more strongly with their local worlds. This has been a recurring feature among most young people in my research during the past 15 years. To some extent, this is because the local is more familiar. Importantly, it is also where perception of a need for change starts.

A major risk is that understanding politics in young people’s local worlds will be engulfed by the global. Perhaps this is partly why we see a rise in nationalism throughout the world today.

With fewer than 200 students studying the subject last year, examining whether to continue to teach politics in VCE is understandable. But should student numbers be the only metric by which we decide what ought to be taught in schools?

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, which is signed by all education ministers to set the goals of schooling, seeks for all Australians to become “active and informed community members” who “know how to effect positive change”.

Where and how will young people learn about this if not in school? The echo chambers of social media?

As one 16-year-old recently observed in the United States, where 51 per cent of teens use social media feeds to get their news: “When information is drowned out or filtered by the time it gets on our feeds, we don’t always get the full picture. In times of rampant misinformation, clickbait, and different versions of the same story; media companies selecting what part of the conversation we subscribe to is dangerous.”

The same could be said of young Australians.

With all the challenges young people face, from rising housing costs to climate change, enabling conditions for uninformed citizens is the last thing we need.

Learning how decisions are made and our future decided upon should be central to the curriculum, and taught in a lively, practical way in which young people learn democracy by doing.

All curriculum routinely needs refreshing. Let’s think about ways of making politics more relevant and dynamic, rather than relegating it to the periphery of global politics.

This article was originally published in Monash Lens

Photo by Social Estate on Unsplash.


About Lucas Walsh

Lucas Walsh is Professor in the School of Education Culture and Society, Monash University. He is also Director of the Monash Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice.

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