Political education can be defined as the process by which people come to form political judgments – how they evaluate different political parties and issues of public policy, basically. The primary context of political education is the family. It is in this environment that people are first exposed to political judgments and inculcated with political values. It should come as no surprise that, as a result, many (if not most) people remain faithful to their parents’ political orientations, as research in political sociology often reports. Fortunately, though, political education is not reducible to family transmission. As they grow up, kids become more and more exposed to different political views, be it in school or within their social network, and they can be influenced by all sorts of people and events in this process. It remains true, however, that in the absence of a strong countervailing educational process, families are the main driver of political education in most if not all countries. Should we be happy with this situation?
Family political education is deficient in many respects. The most fundamental flaw is that the main driver of political education, within families, is irrational: it is a form of mimetism. Children inherit irrationally from their parents’ prejudices and dismissive attitudes towards political opponents. Arguably, some parents make efforts to justify their political judgments by providing reasons supporting them and sometimes even try to present opposing views in a way that allows their children to understand where they come from, why other people see things differently. Nevertheless, this kind of heroic political education is unlikely to be widespread. Most of the time, political attitudes are transmitted involuntarily, typically by short comments that parents make on politicians, parties and policy debates. Hence, the larger slice of political education will not be based on reasons.
Besides being largely based on unreflective mimetism, family political education is likely to be highly one-sided. Unless parents have differing political views and do not mind exposing and explaining their disagreements, most children will lack exposition to counter-arguments and countervailing reasons. This might be somewhat mitigated by the presence, in family political discussions, of older siblings who have been exposed to different views outside the family circle. Yet we would still be very far from the ideal of deliberative democracy. And the problem is reinforced by the lack of sociological diversity within families. Some relevant social perspectives will inevitably remain excluded from family discussions.
This brings us to a third problem: families are not an appropriate environment for political deliberation. A survey conducted in 2018 by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research of the University of Chicago found 64% of people saying they discussed politics in their family at least once a month. This may sound promising, but among them, 53% agree on most issues (lack of diversity), 9% change the subject quickly to avoid disagreements and 5% fight. This leaves us with only 32% of the 64% having political discussions who “debate things diplomatically”. You might think it’s not that bad, but it means that a large majority of people are deprived of the important benefits of genuine political deliberation.
Schools are ideally placed to address this problem. They are usually more ideologically diverse than families (although much more could be done to promote social mix in schools). They have the mission to develop children’s competencies (among which could be included the capacity to form considered political judgments). Teachers are ideally placed to play a role of moderators of peaceful and respectful political debates. They can also play a role of informants when pupils miss factual information, and of devil’s advocate when ideological diversity is lacking and the risk of group polarization is high. Hence, there are many reasons to see it as a fundamental mission of schools to develop children’s capacity for considered political judgment and to thereby create the conditions for a healthier democracy.
The main reason why public authorities (and families!) are usually reluctant to entrust schools with such a mission is the fear of political indoctrination. I don’t have the space to give due consideration to this important problem here, but a few points seem worth mentioning. Teachers’ training programs usually already include a dimension of educational ethics inviting them to avoid taking firm positions on controversial issues and to respect their pupils’ autonomy. This form of teacher neutrality or restraint is fully compatible with a political education whose aims would be to help future citizens understand the intellectual roots of political conflicts and build their own judgments on policy issues. Obviously, teachers’ ideological views are likely to influence the way they present the different positions to their pupils. However, they are much more likely than parents to do this in a balanced way, because they are trained for it, have professional incentives to do it properly, and are monitored to some extent. Hence, to the extent that parents care about their children’s political autonomy, they should be strongly in favor of such public political education.
The problem is of course that many parents, in spite of what they would publicly affirm, care more about transmitting their own values than about promoting their children’s autonomy. What it means, however, is that a publicly defendable argument can be made to justify taking political education partly out of families and to develop it more than is usually the case within schools.