Nurturing Civic Optimism: Fostering Hope and Engagement in Civic Education

"Civic optimism is hard to teach, hard to test, and hard to measure, but if the next generation isn't asking how we can improve our democracy from an early age, then we'll likely be stuck in neutral." 

These powerful words from Kevin Frazier, an upcoming Assistant Professor at the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University, in a thought-provoking article, "The future of civic education," highlights the need to cultivate civic optimism as a vital component in revitalizing civic education to empower the next generation.

Understanding Civic Optimism: In 1963, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, seminal political scientists, coined the term "civic culture" to describe what they regarded as the exceptional nature of American democracy. This political culture highlighted essential features such as citizen optimism, confidence in government, generalized trust of other citizens, consensus on post-war reconstruction policies, and civil discourse between political combatants. Civic optimism, as a part of this political culture, believes in the power of citizens to make a positive difference in their communities and society.

The State of Civic Optimism: Kevin Frazier's reflection was generated after leading a students tour of the Montana Supreme Court.  He was struck by what he termed civic education grounded in cynicism. However, their focus on the present indicated a lack of understanding on how American democracy evolved. This absence of civic memory underscores the importance of instilling civic optimism—a belief in positive change and individual agency—in students. 

Contrasting Results in Australia: While the disheartening results from the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal a poor state of civic education, Australia presents a more stable picture. The 2019 National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) results demonstrate consistent student achievement since 2016. 

Other studies offer a bleaker view: a study by the Australian Electoral Commission found that only 58% of Year 12 students could correctly identify the three main branches of government. The study also found that only 38% of Year 12 students could correctly identify the role of the Prime Minister. Another study by the University of Melbourne found that only 42% of Year 12 students could correctly identify Australian citizens' four main rights and responsibilities. The study also found that only 34% of Year 12 students could correctly identify the three main ways Australians can participate in democracy.

And I note that recent surveys and studies in Australia, such as the University of Melbourne's Life Patterns research project and Deloitte's Gen Z and Millennial Survey, highlight a sense of pessimism and low levels of optimism among young Australians regarding their future, Australia's future, and the world's future. These findings suggest the need for continued efforts to foster civic optimism and engage young minds in shaping a better future.

In my own experience, having sent my son to what is a very reputable school, the preparation for the tour to Canberra was marked by a complete lack of interest or insight in the teacher cohort in contacting Members of Parliament to greet the children on arrival at the national parliament.  Another parent and I contacted both sides of politics, and the children had the privilege of meeting the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Two years later, a parent contacted me to see if their child and class could have the same experience: The teachers had not learned from the earlier experience to ensure engagement with leading political figures or the local MP who would have helped optimise the Canberra experience.  So while we had an overall good experience at the school and my son achieved very good results, there was a marked gap in civic optimism.

Empowering the Next Generation: Frazier's call for a comprehensive approach that combines civic optimism, cynicism, and memory resonates strongly. While teaching the mechanics of democracy is essential, fostering a sense of optimism and belief in the potential for positive change is equally vital. By nurturing civic optimism and encouraging critical thinking about improving democracy, we empower the next generation to break free from a neutral stance and become active participants in shaping a better future.

Conclusion: Civic optimism may be challenging to teach, test, and measure, but its importance cannot be overstated. Frazier eloquently states that if the next generation fails to ask how we can improve our democracy, we risk remaining stagnant. Therefore, let us embrace the task of nurturing civic optimism alongside teaching the mechanics of our democratic system to ensure that the next generation becomes active participants in shaping a more hopeful and engaged democratic society.

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