Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Hidden in the Curriculum: Political Literacy and Education for Citizenship in Australia

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Hidden in the Curriculum: Political Literacy and Education for Citizenship in Australia

Article excerpt


For almost 30 years the concept of 'political literacy' has been the focus of academic commentary as well as providing a theoretical framework for education. The term was recently described in the United Kingdom as the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and values to support effective and informed decisions in democratic participation. Alongside community involvement and social and moral responsibility, political literacy is seen as one of the three core elements that underpin effective education for citizenship. In recent years there has been an apparent international growth of interest in the alleged disengagement of young people from conventional political processes and structures. In Australia and across many other Western democracies responding programmes of civics and citizenship education have resulted in an increased research focus upon the levels of political knowledge and participation amongst young people. With this paper I review a range of literature to explore the influence of political literacy on the direction of contemporary educational policy and practice in Australia.

Keywords: youth, political literacy, civics, citizenship, activism


The relationship between young people, education and political participation has become a focal point for academic commentary and research. In recent years an array of concepts and analytical tools have been utilised to describe and quantify the levels of interest, understanding and involvement of young people in civic and public life. (1) Across many Western-style democracies, including Australia, the acquisition of knowledge around civic structures and institutions features consistently as a pervasive goal of programmes of education for citizenship. Moreover the learning process is viewed as a stepping-stone to a broader incremental understanding of political ideas and subsequent active participation. All too often however the focus upon the political agency of young people is driven by an agenda that is more concerned with their alleged lack of knowledge and perceived disengagement. A consistent impetus for the growth of political education in the form of civics and citizenship education is a concern about worryingly low levels of knowledge and negative attitudes towards the institutions and structures of formal politics from young Australians. As Owen suggests:

   What we are witnessing in Australia at present is a policy-led
   resurgence of interest in civics and citizenship. That is, the
   Commonwealth government has identified a 'problem'--that young
   Australians are unmotivated, alienated from our structures of
   democratic governance, and displaying worryingly low levels of
   political literacy. (2)

The ongoing provision of civics and citizenship education within Australian schools and parallel community-based learning is predominantly set against a backdrop of mounting concerns surrounding a perceived 'civics deficit' presented as a latent threat to the sustainability of an effective democracy. Manning and Ryan argue that the idea of a civics deficit amongst young people has become 'a perpetual feature of the Australian landscape'. (3) Furthermore the Australian Commonwealth government is demonstrating increasing anxiety in relation to an apparent weakening of the traditional conceptions of citizenship characterised by indicators such as: a breakdown of community spirit, a lack of shared values, increasing cynicism towards traditional political structures and disengagement from the broader process of representative democracy. The result is a renewed interest in the role of education in attending to the lives and lifestyles of young people, their relationship with the institutions of the state and their roles and responsibilities as active citizens within the wider society.

In contrast to this dominant view of young Australians being or becoming alienated from the institutions and processes of representative democracy there is growing international evidence to suggest an emerging new civic culture driven by the interests and actions of young people. …

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