Should public schools be privatised? Day 3

Day 3

[Introduction] [Day 1] [Day 2]

Dear A.L.,

Periodically, our politicians rediscover civics in schools. In 1994, the Keating-appointed Civics Expert Group released a report supporting civics and citizenship education. One of their reasons was that a survey, which they had commissioned, revealed widespread ignorance of our political institutions.

Two things are important about the report’s date. The first is that it was published about 120 years after education became free and compulsory, yet neither attribute had yielded much political knowledge. The second is that was published about 140 years after democratic institutions were established in Australia, and 90 years after universal suffrage. Australia is a long-term successful democracy despite the absence or failure of civics education in our public schools.

While understanding political institutions can do no harm and would probably do some good, you don’t need it to acquire democratic values. The citizens of stable democracies like the US and the UK show similar levels of ignorance to our own. Democracy is so deep in the culture as to not need teaching or defending in principle, even while we argue endlessly over the detail. Children much too young to participate in elections intuitively understand that voting is a fair way of deciding things.

There is no reason to believe that private schools would challenge this democratic ethos. Surveys show that current ex-private school students are more active in political affairs and more strongly in favour of democratic rights than those who went to government schools. (Though generally there are only minor opinion differences regardless of school background.) In my view, preserving public education to teach civics is a non-solution to a non-problem.
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