• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Students fed content-lite will never know the value of democracy and freedom

Freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted. Unless they are given real content by the way communities conduct their affairs, these important institutions can become emptied of meaning. They need to be cultivated among the young and it is the responsibility of the adult community to educate and acquaint the younger generations with these important values.

The recent poll carried out by the Lowy Institute, which found that only 39 per cent of Australians aged 18-29 believed democracy was better than other forms of government, indicates that the socialisation of young people is seriously flawed.

The real problem faced by Australia, as in many other Western societies, is not that it is confronted by the dark forces of authoritarianism but that the ideals of freedom and democracy are taken for granted and often regarded as no big deal.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, including a complacency borne out of relative prosperity and a comfortable life, and a culture of cynicism towards public life in general and politicians in particular.

However, the principal reason some young people have such a cavalier attitude towards democracy is because of the way they have been socialised and educated. One of the responsibilities of a mature democracy is to prepare its children for freedom.

Bertrand Russell once wrote that “we cannot give freedom to the child, but we can give him a preparation for freedom; and this is what education ought to do”.

The idea of education for freedom recognises that children lack the experience and the intellectual resources to exercise freedom. However, they have the capability of gaining insights into its working and the more schools and communities cultivate the habit of independence and self-consciousness the more they are likely to use their freedom creatively, intelligently and responsibly.

Unfortunately the task of education for freedom runs counter to powerful cultural trends that incite society to adopt a regime of low expectations of young people. The principal feature of this regime of low expectation towards children is a tendency towards infantilising them.

The main way that schools infantilise their pupils is by not taking their intellectual and moral potential seriously. In recent decades classroom techniques have been increasingly dominated by the imperative of motivating children rather than cultivating their hunger for knowledge and a love of ideas. So the crisis of history teaching in Australia is invariably described as failure of motivation - boring teaching - rather than the absence of a stimulating intellectual content.

Once motivation dominates the perception of the problem, the solution offered is to transform history into a gimmicky quick-fix program that relies on technology and a content-lite curriculum, or abandon the subject altogether.

In the case of history the relationship between a community’s experience of the past and the valuation of democracy gains clarity and definition. And if schools acquiesce to the prejudice that history is less relevant than computer studies then it should not be surprising that young people are unlikely to feel inspired by the ethos of freedom.

Of course there are many ways through which children can be educated for freedom and history is only one of them. But whatever subjects a community chooses to teach the young, schooling needs to encourage the habits of independence and responsibility. The precondition for achieving this objective is to challenge young people and stretch them to the point where they feel that they are almost ready to assume responsibility for the future of their community.

Unfortunately, in too many schools, the challenge of intellectually stretching youngsters has been displaced by a one-dimensional emphasis on motivating them. Motivational techniques are useful tools for encouraging students but on their own rarely successful in fostering an effective learning environment.

More worrying, the obsession with motivation often contributes to the deterioration of the academic ethos of a school, as well as to its standards of discipline. It encourages a culture where the question of how to keep children interested overrides the issue of what is the content of education that must be taught.

Invariably, the conclusion is drawn that since it is not possible to motivate children to read books it is preferable to show them DVDs or give them worksheets.

This tendency towards the infantilisation of young people continues into higher education. The model of teaching that is slowly creeping into university life is one where undergraduates are perceived as biologically mature pupils who require constant direction and guidance. The idea of a university student as someone who engages in independent study and self-directed work is questioned by current practice.

In many instances the lecture hall has been turned into a classroom: lecturers do not simply provide handouts, they sometimes provide a playful “interactive” environment. And if a student is still too switched-off from taking notes they can have the option of printing off the lecturer’s PowerPoint.

One of the clearest symptoms of the infantilisation of university life is the appearance of the parent in campus life.

Many universities now print brochures addressed to parents to help them make a decisions about their children’s future. University websites assume the parent is a partner in the making of decisions that traditionally have been left to young people.

Education has become estranged from the task of fostering a culture of independence that young people require to take their freedom seriously. This restrains young people’s aspiration for independence. So it should not come as a surprise that figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a steady increase in the proportion of young adults living with their parents. The comforts of a room provided by Mummy and Daddy are particularly attractive to children from affluent backgrounds, according to one recent study.

Yet it is young people’s aspiration for independence that provides the experience that informs attitudes towards freedom and democracy. Celebrate childishness, immunise youngsters from challenging intellectual experiences, treat undergraduates as school pupils and they will never leave home or, for that matter, really embrace democracy.

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