Two former education ministers have shot down a university academic’s suggestion of introducing politics as a subject in post-secondary schools.
Former Nationalist minister Louis Galea and former Labour minister Evarist Bartolo dismissed the idea as too simplistic and said it would hardly address a much larger and deeper problem.
They acknowledged the need for schools to foster better citizens and virtuous future politicians but insisted that introducing a new school subject could be futile and possibly divisive.
Rather, elements of politics and policy should be integrated into existing school subjects and especially designed workshops, they said.
Last month, the University’s head of the public policy department, Mario Thomas Vassallo, told Times of Malta that it is pointless granting 16-year-olds the right to vote if the education system intends to continue shunning politics in the classroom out of fear of labels or controversy.
He blamed the declining voter turnout and young people’s reluctance to engage in politics and their desire to leave the country on the lack of political education in schools.
Vassallo is pushing to introduce the subject at Junior College and all other sixth-form institutions. Just like any other subject, politics would teach students political science and philosophy, how to draft policies and laws, critical thinking, decision-making, negotiation techniques, how to campaign, debate, lobby for particular interests and win an election.
The idea created a wave of support, with many believing it is the path towards fomenting critical thinking and resolving political tribalism.
But when contacted for a reaction, Galea and Bartolo had other views.
All of the country’s problems seem to always be dumped on the education system, the former Labour minister said.
“We tend to believe that the education system must solve all problems – from drugs to swearing and bad driving – but that is not fair, because formal education is only part of children’s formation,” Bartolo said.
“Studies show that even when it performs at its best, the educational system contributes just 33 per cent to children’s formation. Children get the rest of their influences from their families and society. So, shouldn’t the others do their part as well in political education?”
The education system should integrate elements of politics in many fields
He said he attempted to integrate a political element in classrooms during his tenure as minister – through an ethics programme and a campaign in the run-up for the introduction of ‘vote-16’.
“But if we really want to fix politics we could start by changing party financing laws and regulating relations between politicians and business people. We could begin to change the electoral system to address the dominating culture of clientelism, and we could improve conditions for politicians,” he said.
Political parties should have their own political schools as well, he said, because it makes no sense for a country to require a qualification for every job, but not for the job that influences all the others.
‘What subject are we going to remove?’
“Rather than introduce one new subject, the education system should integrate elements of politics in many fields – like social studies, religion, science and ethics – and classrooms could take time to discuss politics seriously within these subjects.
“But creating a new subject would be a mistake. Because there’s another problem – what subject are we going to remove to make time for the politics subject” Bartolo asked.
Bartolo said the idea reminds him of the healthy eating policies instituted in schools some years back. Children eat and drink healthily in school, he said, only to eat all the unhealthy stuff the moment they walk out of school.
“If we change the culture in school without changing the culture outside of it, we cannot expect anything to change, and it would be unfair to expect schools to change reality,” he said.
Former PN education minister Louis Galea said Vassallo’s idea misses the wood for the trees and argued it does not fully address the system’s needs.
He also said he is very doubtful how many students would opt for the subject if it was not compulsory.
“I would prefer to integrate objective, formative and informative dialogue based on real-life experiences, and maybe even workshops discussing politics,” he said, adding that if instituted badly, the subject could be even more divisive.
“We must understand that teachers who would teach this subject would come with their own baggage, and so do 16-year-olds.
“I’m sceptical because our political environment itself is not very conducive to this type of formation,” he said.
He did, however, acknowledge that the education system leaves much to be desired.
“Despite all our efforts and reforms, we’re not managing to help children become good citizens as much as we should. Our students know how to read, but not how to understand and critically analyse the material they consume,” he said.
Society, he said, needs critical citizens informed about public issues and the world – citizens who are able to take responsibility for the family, community, work and national environments.
“Education’s first job is not the moulding of students into workers ready for the different jobs on the market, but their empowerment imbued with the proper educational values,” he said.
“We continuously need to ask how schools can prepare students to be informed citizens, nurture a civic responsibility and engagement, teach them to be self-reflective about public issues and the world. All this needs to be woven in the national curriculum and the syllabus of the various subjects.”
Discussions on skills development
Education Minister Clifton Grima was not too keen on introducing politics as a subject either.He referred to the compulsory subject Systems of Knowledge as one that teaches more than just “blue and red” politics but looks at the concept of democracy as a whole.
Discussion on the curriculum of politics needs to be seen from a broader angle, he said.
“Right now, a group of professionals is meeting not simply to discuss if politics should be introduced but about what is relevant for our students to develop the right skills. That development includes finding their place in society.”
Asked to clarify the discussions, Grima said politics is one of a number of skills he believes needs to be addressed at school.
“Internal discussions include more than just one topic, but politics is not excluded from this process.”
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