It is no surprise that youth are less likely to vote than other age groups. In the 2011 federal election, only 38.8% of voters aged 18-24 decided to vote[i]. Many explanations have been devised to account for this lack of participation, suggesting anything from a general lack of time to not knowing where the polls are. But this is just scratching the surface. On a deeper level, the real reason for voter apathy is lack of motivation, and this stems from the lack of information these voters have about politics.
On 22 February 2013, the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association released the results of their 2012 Ontario Student, Parent, and Educator Survey. The purpose of the survey was to give students a chance to speak up about issues that concerned them.
One such issue was in the area of politics. When asked whether school adequately prepared them to vote after graduation, only 42.4% of students said ‘yes’. Surprisingly, when parents and teachers were asked the same question regarding students, 49.5% of parents said ‘yes’ and a whopping 65.4% of teachers said the same. This is a huge problem. Not only do students feel they have not received enough political preparation in the classroom, but teachers seem oblivious to it.
There are many who dismiss youth political inactivity by saying that it doesn’t really affect the country as a whole. If older people vote more often, then it follows that youth will eventually start voting. But this line of reasoning ignores the consequences of political apathy, especially among the young. If someone is less inclined to vote as a young person, it is very likely that they will carry this habit into adulthood. The voting habits of the youth affect the voting habits of the whole, and eventually even the most politically active seniors can’t stop the inevitable reality of mortality.
The second consequence of a lower young turnout is theoretical. The basic idea of a democracy is such that every citizen is equally represented. Without the youth participating in elections, many politicians are elected based on the opinions of an older electorate that doesn’t reflect the will of the population. This makes our system less like a democracy and more like a pseudo-oligarchy, except that this “oligarchy” is composed of older people who decide to go to the polls.
The last concern follows from the second. If politicians are elected largely due to an older electorate, they will only court those votes during election season. Issues important to youth, especially education, will be ignored. Instead pensions, healthcare, and tax cuts for corporations will dominate the public sphere. The lack of attention on issues that affect youth will prevent them from being addressed.
Currently in Ontario, the only time students obtain mandatory political information is during the required civics course. This course is half a semester and covers the functions of government and the political process. However, there are a couple of problems with the civics course as presented. Firstly, it is too short: half a semester is hardly enough time to develop an in-depth understanding of politics. Secondly, the course is offered too early in a student’s high school career. With the voting age at 18, it is highly unlikely that a bunch of 15-year-old kids will remember what they learned in half a semester and apply it when they’re 18. Regardless of retention, many freshmen and sophomores simply don’t care enough about politics to appreciate the information given to them.
Christian Muller, an MGCI senior, agrees:“When I first took the civics course in grade nine, I had little interest in the subject matter. But in my later years, after increasing the breadth of my learning, I found my interests gravitating towards political and economic issues.”
With that in mind, it would make sense for the civics course be extended to a full semester. One half could be dedicated to government with the other half focused on political science. Not only would there be more time to go more deeply into these subjects, but it would also give Marc Garneau CI a political science and government course, something not currently offered. The course could also be offered in grade 11 or 12 rather than in grade 10. A more strenuous workload is appropriate for this grade level, and students can apply this information in a shorter time. But most importantly, students would be more interested in the subject at a later age, and thus would be more motivated to do well in the course.
But even if these changes don’t come to pass, there are still ways to improve civics without changing it fundamentally. We interviewed Mr. Pearce, a civics teacher, about what he does in his course and how he engages students. When questioned about the adequacy of the current curriculum, he agreed with the majority of teachers in the 2012 Ontario Student survey. Nonetheless, he puts his own spin on civics to keep students motivated:
“In my course, I talk about events relevant to today’s society, such as democratic struggles around the world. We talk about Egypt, Russia, and the civil war going on in Syria. These people risk torture, jail and death to fight for their democracy. I think when students see that happening, they have a greater appreciation for the rights we take for granted.”
And despite the fact that this is Mr. Pearce’s first year teaching civics, he does have a few words to say on how to make the course successful:
“Stick to the nuts and bolts. Students need to learn about political theory, especially the theory of democracy. Students need to be taught the structure of our political system. And most importantly, they need to recognize how democracy plays in our world today. All these concepts are essential to being an active citizen.”