The Blog

Democracy And Protecting Our Inalienable Rights: Education Is Crucial


Dr Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress , in his moving comments on Holocaust Day commemorations last month, said: "It's crucial that we develop special programmes, from kindergarten and reception all the way through to university to educate people on the dangers of religious hatred, xenophobia and anti-Semitism."

I would add that we need to address the problems of divisiveness, racism, and hatred of all kinds, and to protect and enhance democratic values, global harmony and human freedoms. It is becoming patently obvious that one of the most important subjects that can be taught in schools today from a young age, needing the most thoroughly considered and updated curriculum in view of current events and trends, is Citizenship (called Civics in the US).

One of President Obama's final comments upon leaving office was: "I won't stop; I'll be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by your voices of truth and justice, good humour, and love", as he established the Obama Foundation intended to be "a living, working centre for citizenship." Obama has this way of hooking into a very potent idea. He may have been President of the United States, but now, he says, he is just like you and me: a private citizen.

Our status, wealth, and positions may vary rather a great deal, but one thing holds true: you are never not a citizen. And as such, under a democratic government, you have certain inalienable rights. Today, more than ever, we are understandably feeling a good deal of concern about some of the most basic of those rights.

What is a citizen, what is a good citizen, and what are our responsibilities? As a teacher of Citizenship, Government and Politics, I spent many years attempting to help students find answers to these questions, and to appreciate democracy, a flawed system, but the best of the alternatives we have presently available. Those students, prior to doing the course, were often completely apathetic. They failed to feel that their opinions or even their lives mattered much; they felt they had no voice.

By the end of the course, much of that changed. They learned to understand and formulate their own views, to vocalise them, to debate, and to hear out conflicting opinions. They learned critical thinking, including differentiating fact from opinion, and absolutely essential to today, recognising bias.

They enacted roles as Members of Parliament, discussing and deciding upon controversial and crucial topics of the day; they ran an election for their own Prime Minister in the class, which was an eye-opening educational process in itself. They gained respect for how the government functions and for international organisations like the United Nations, understanding that it was formed to meet the great need for peace after the World War. They learned about Conflict Resolution, and the crucial key factors needed for even the beginning of a resolution to any problem to take form. They learned about listening and empathising. They become vocal, interested, and most importantly, empowered.

The basic premise to the course which they all noted down at the outset was: "What I Do, Matters". Why? Because individuals make up a class, classes comprise a school, schools and villages make communities and communities form nations; 196 nations make up our world. "Society begins with me", a basic premise teaching individual responsibility and that solutions often begin at home with each of us. And that our society, which we may criticise, is a reflection of us all.

However these points may strike us in our adult experiences tinged with scepticism, it was nevertheless meaningful and inspiring to these young people. In the end, they came to a greater appreciation of participatory democracy and by association, of their own country, and to understand the many precious freedoms they enjoy now and would not own under an authoritarian government.

These include not least of all, the Four Freedoms articulated by Franklin D. Roosevelt: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Significant freedoms indeed.

Add to those the importance today of Freedom of the Press and the responsibilities of that press; how important it is for an electorate to be well-informed through true and accurate words that matter a great deal.

Principles of truth, equality, unity in diversity, the oneness of mankind and respect for freedom, all these are corollaries of learning Citizenship, a subject so rich in its scope and potential it should be constantly revitalised and given significance in any curriculum. We can all learn from it.

Eddie Izzard said recently, "We have to figure out a way to make the world work for all 7 billion people on it, starting with the premise that every one of them deserves a fair chance".

Surely education is the answer. "Teach your children well," sang Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Let's start them very young. There could hardly be a better time or greater need.

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