My daughter is 12. In two years’ time, at the age of 14, she will be eligible to become a member of the Labour Party or the Nationalist Party. This is because both political parties have reduced their minimum membership age from 16 to 14; a catch-’em-young, bend-in-the-rules, stemming from the fact that the voting age has been lowered to 16.
It is highly unlikely that my daughter will be waiting, form in hand, ready to sign up to a political party. Like her elder stepbrothers, she knows first-hand the grief of political life and would probably rather run a mile away. But still, the option is there, and I ask myself, is becoming a fully-fledged member of a party in Ħamrun or Pietà at the age of 14 a good idea?
“Whatever next? Toddlers forum?” wrote a friend of mine on Twitter. I kept imagining my daughter and her friends in a room with the portraits of politicians staring down at them, while being told how great the party they joined is. It’s a rather bleak visual.
Affiliating a child to one particular mind-set does look every inch like the first step towards indoctrination, and certainly the opposite step towards the nurturing of thinking minds.
Already as things are, we are failing our 16-plus teens. Look at the pathetic situation we have at Junior College, Mcast and the University of Malta, where student councils are run by mini versions of the two main political parties, concerned only with their little campus bubble and securing votes.
Obviously, I am not saying that children should be wrapped up in cotton wool and live in La La Disneyland. It is crucially important, because they too are citizens of the world, that children are politically aware of the happenings around them, and that parents encourage them to think critically and to express their points of view. But this should start at age four, not 14.
We need to ask ourselves what is the best way for 14-year-olds to engage and contribute to the debate about the present and the future of their country?
As things are, the only place where Maltese children can discuss politics is at home – where often it’s more a case of partisan brainwashing passed on from one generation to the next, than healthy discussions. Maltese children do not have the opportunity to acquire political knowledge, skills and experience outside the house. But is political party membership the way to go?
The only place Maltese children can discuss politics is at home – where often it’s more a case of partisan brainwashing
The other day The Washington Post ran a good piece about how to engage children in politics – and it was not by luring them to political membership at the age of 14. One of the things it suggested was to make good use of screen time.
On iCivics.org, for example, young children and parents can play a simulation game in which players take on the role of a county commissioner and learn how local governments impact citizens. The website Teaching for Democracy is also another source for building civic skills in teens and offers material to strengthen student learning about elections and informed voting.
But this is not enough. We need the backing of schools too.
At the moment, politics is off limits at schools, although of course it never is, playground chants of “Ma tagħmlu xejn ma…” whoever are par for the course – which highlights even more how we need to change the way politics is done on this island.
Politics is not about Labour and Nationalists. It’s not about parties. It’s about the things concerning the land where you live. And schools are not just there to teach students maths and science – they are meant to educate young people to become good citizens.
In the book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, authors Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy argue that being able to talk about politics is a skill that needs to be learnt. It just does not come by itself: you are either taught, or self-taught, or else you simply parrot away what the masses are saying.
How to go about this? In my view, this is a job for the European Union. It should set up a Civics Education Programme – a roving multicultural team made up of politicians, independent media journalists, historians, people who have made an impact in their communities – to tour schools in different countries and hold workshops on Citizenship Education.
History, politics and current affairs can then be talked about in a non-partisan manner, and this would include discussions on misinformation, so as to help children decipher between truthful and false information. Tasks and chores would be given out so that each student’s contribution would show how everyone’s effort can make the school better.
In these Civic Education classes (which would also include basic manners, please) children would have the space to think things through, to tap into their sense of good and evil, justice and injustice, and help them develop the confidence to stand up for themselves and others if they feel that something is unfair – even if it means going against the grain.
(I’m thinking now that perhaps the EU Commissioner responsible for the Rule of Law, Frans Timmermans, should be the first to attend these courses when he is not busy endorsing cultures of impunity.)
Most importantly, these workshops would show our kids that politics is not a game. It’s not football. It’s not about ‘siding’ with a team and registering so that you become a team member and get a free mug and T-shirt.
Politics is about being a good citizen and working to make our communal life on this island better.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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