The future of our democracy relies on young people being informed, empathetic and critical thinkers

Beki Martin, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves UK, talks about young people and politics

The last few months have been a time of considerable political turbulence and uncertainty: there have been revelations of law-breaking in Downing Street during Covid-19 lockdowns; multiple by-elections due to unacceptable behaviour by members of parliament; and mass resignations of government ministers, which ultimately led to the resignation of the prime minister himself.

These controversies, premature changes and the unacceptable conduct of those in positions of power threaten our democracy – they highlight its fragility, and weaken public confidence in elected officials and the democratic process. If people do not have faith in the democratic process, they may not work to protect and maintain it, which, as history shows us, can open the door to fascism and authoritarianism.

Young people and politics

To best protect and maintain a healthy democracy, everyone must understand what democracy is, its strengths and weaknesses, how it can be improved, and be aware of how they can participate in it. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of young people do not possess this knowledge. In a recent survey undertaken by Censuswide, 27% of 14-17-year-olds said they don’t understand democracy – that is more than one in four young people who will soon be eligible to vote.

Without this knowledge, our young people are likely to choose not to vote, likely to be influenced by fake news about the democratic process, and, perhaps fundamentally, will not understand how they can use their voice and actions to affect change for the better.

27% of 14-17-year-olds said they don’t understand democracy – that is more than one in four young people who will soon be eligible to vote

However, knowledge alone is not enough to prepare young people to play an active role in our democracy and society in general. It is also vital they are educated to think critically, to separate fact from fiction, to discern between the political spin often propagated on social media and genuine government policy, and to be able to make ethically grounded decisions about the policies and parties that they wish to support.

Additionally, it is important that they develop as empathetic beings, who consider the needs of others. This can ensure that, when they come to vote or participate in democratic processes, they will do so thinking about what is best for society as a whole and in the long term – and not just about what might benefit them and their immediate circles in the short term.

At Facing History and Ourselves, we believe that education is a key tool in ensuring and supporting a healthy democracy.

We also need to teach young people how to disagree constructively and listen to different perspectives. This is all the more important in the face of increasing polarisation, which has no doubt been fuelled by personality-led politics that capitalise on, and exacerbate, division, and by social media’s capacity to distort and manipulate sound bites. Inclusive, constructive debate is vital for the health of democracy.

We need to actively create spaces for young people to engage in honest conversations about the issues facing our society, and the policies and approaches that could be used to address them. Such inclusive, civil dialogue has to be learned – it is a skill that needs to be acquired and one that in recent times has not been modelled particularly well in the public domain. It is, therefore, important that it is built into the educational environment. Doing so helps to prepare future generations to participate in our democracy in a conscientious and reflective way.

Education key to healthy democracy

At Facing History and Ourselves, we believe that education is a key tool in ensuring and supporting a healthy democracy. Our work prepares students to make choices that are informed by knowledge and rooted in evidence-based reasoning, and helps them develop skills in critical thinking, ethical reflection and emotional engagement.

We know, through evaluation, that if we educate young people in this way, taking account of the head, heart and conscience, they are more likely to take action in challenging injustice and upholding democracy.

In one independent evaluation, it was proven that Facing History alumni were 37% more likely to vote than their peers. Having been educated to think critically and to use their moral compass, they understand the value of their voice in helping to shape and protect a compassionate, inclusive society.

To this end, we have a range of resources for secondary school teachers that can be integrated into humanities, citizenship and PSHE lessons. These resources actively develop the knowledge base, ethical reflection and empathy of young people, and provide strategies for engaging in, and honing skills for, civil discourse.

With a new prime minister set to take office as schools return across the United Kingdom in August and September, there is an opportune moment to help young people understand, and engage with, the democratic process.

Our new resource Understanding and Assessing the UK’s Democracy is freely available to teachers interested in starting democracy-focused conversations with students, whilst our unit Standing Up for Democracy provides teachers with an in-depth look at what roles and responsibilities we all share in upholding democracy.

You might also like: #Break the Bias – Giving girls a voice and fair representation in politics and the working world

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