Civic Education in Schools

GONG is currently working on training teachers to acquire the skills to teach students about civic engagement and participation in policy making. Because GONG believes in civic participation, it included an “Education for Citizenship Literacy” module in its curriculum to educate teachers about political decision-making processes and civic engagement. Workshops on these topics were held for professional teachers in Sisak and Pazin in March and Rijeka in April. In June, the workshops are planned for teachers in Primorsko-goranska County and Osijek.

Education for Civic Literacy

The objective of the educational module is to introduce teachers to basic concepts important for understanding and analyzing contemporary political processes from local to national point of view. Throughout the training, the participants are getting familiar with concepts like politics, democracy, populism, political parties, political culture, political socialization, civil society, alternative models of democracy, etc. More specifically, special attention is drawn to the notion of democratic political cultures and processes, exploring how such a political culture is created, transposed and transformed.

The methods used during the training consist in transferring knowledge by means of presentation, discussions, reading, viewing and listening, as well as introducing and analyzing existing mechanisms of civic participation including participation of young people. The participants are introduced to some basic concepts related to politics, democracy, political processes and civic participation, and they develop competences for teaching students about active citizenship and political processes.

During the training, participants critically analyze local, national, European and wider global impacts and political actors. They explore policy making processes and opportunities for civic participation in solving community problems. In addition, they reflect on the various influences of policy-related decisions and describe the role of citizens to hold governments accountable to make objective decisions. The shortest duration of the program is 15 hours, and longer version of the program takes up to 25 hours. The longer version includes discussions that revolve around topics like social capital, the action of civil society and populism and its role.

Additionally, GONG has developed an online educational module called Citizen – and not a subject! that includes presentations and animated videos and quizzes on civic engagement. The content is available through GONG’s bank of materials and through the GOOD initiative. Students, teachers and parents interested in the democratization of schools can also benefit from the online content and we highly recommend they do so.

Learning about Contemporary Democracies

Democracy, unlike autocracy and aristocracy, is a form of government in which the people take part in decision making and governance. Therefore it is a fundamental democratic principle that all those involved in a decision should be able to take part in making a decision.

The classic Athenian democracy consisted in the citizen’s direct participation in the management of all public affairs. The decisions made through this democracy were the result of the citizens’ discussions because the “demos “ or people were the ones who ruled during that time. However, many social groups were excluded from that democracy. The right to participate in the assembly, or the right of citizenship, was only available to “free” or non-slave Athenian men over the age of 20. That implies that all women, slaves and free immigrants were excluded from participation. Such a form of narrow-minded rule today certainly would not be considered as democratic per se. Moreover, some analysts argued that the political participation of free citizens was only a way to insure that men could exploit women’s and slaves’ work. Women and slaves represented the core of the workforce and acted in most of the economic activities in Athens.

There are two major differences between classical Athenian democracy and contemporary democracies. The first concerns those who have the right to participate in the management of a particular community. Unlike in the Athenian democracy, modern democracies are inclusive of all. The right to participate in a democracy is given to all adult members of a political community, regardless of their gender, age, class, property status, ethnicity, etc.

In contemporary democracies, the right to participate in decision-making on public affairs has thus expanded to be inclusive of all adults instead of discriminating demographics like women and lower class workers.

A prevailing idea that struggles for obtaining voting rights are a thing of distant past doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. In some democratic states, the women’ right to vote was only introduced during the second half of the 20th century. For instance, in Switzerland the right to vote was granted to women in 1971 and in Liechtenstein only in 1984.

Today, people think about possibly allowing younger voters to take part in democracy. In most European democracies, the right to vote, or the right to be involved in a democracy, is acquired from the age of 18. Over the past decade, a growing number of democratic states have been arguing that the right to vote should be acquired from the age of 16. In 2007, Austria made it its top priority to allow citizens the age of 16 or older to vote. In some European countries (Germany and Switzerland), 16 year old citizens can vote but only in local elections. In Croatia, this issue was quite neglected although in the past years. Nowadays, many serious discussions about lowering the eligible age for voting are taking place. Interesting discussions on the reasons why the age limit should be lowered to 16 years can be found on the Youth Rights website.

The second important difference pertains to the fact that all contemporary democracies are representative. This means that citizens do not directly manage public matter issues, but they vote representatives to manage and decide for them.

Over time, state budgets grew and reached sums of many millions of dollars; it became almost impossible for citizens to manage such funds directly. Therefore, having an elected politician to represent the interests of a given territory came across like the most viable and efficient form of democracy at the time. This means that all modern democracies are mediation democracies since people are not directly governed but they are governed through politicians they chose. Elected representatives decide on the most important issues, and their decisions are binding for the entire community. The idea is that the existence of periodic choices and the possibility that the government is overthrown forces the representatives to take into account the interests of their community. In representative democracies, the governance does not consist of direct management, but rather of the control of elected representatives.

Modern democracies are liberal. The liberal term comes from the Latin word libertas, which means freedom. Consequently, the term liberal democracy refers to a type of democracy where decisions are made through the rule of law and citizens are granted protection and freedom. That suggests that citizens living within the liberal democracy frameworks are automatically granted rights (the right to live, the right to be free, etc.) and that these rights should not be revoked. The power of the authorities to legislate is limited by the existence of these rights that are built into constitutions to protect the citizens. In a democratic context, these rights and freedoms represent the limit to which the will of the majority can be carried out at the expense of minority rights. Citizens have at their disposal a whole range of freedoms and rights (freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of association, etc.), through which they can influence the conduct of political processes in their community. In contemporary democracies citizens decide themselves about their destiny.

The crisis of democracy and greater civic involvement as a way out of the crisis

Growing dissatisfaction with democracy can trigger its advancement, but also opens the floor to some unrealistic or undemocratic forms. Alternative models can improve the quality of democracy and ensure a greater involvement of citizens. Direct democracy strengthens citizens’ engagement through referendums and civic initiatives, but at lower levels and through other vectors like plenums. Deliberative democracies develop a dialogue culture in which people are more open to conversate and therefore more likely to change their opinions. In such a type of democracy, the quality of the discussion and the arguments presented are more important than the speed of decision-making. In brief, participative democracies promote new areas of civic participation while associative democracies encourage jointly organized civic action.

Today, in most democracies, there is this idea that elections are the only important form of civic participation. However, most democratic states are trying to broaden possibilities for citizen to take part in politics. We are now witnessing the implementation of elements of direct democracy like referendums and civic initiatives. In the case of referendums, citizens vote on a specific issue, and politicians are theoretically supposed to act accordingly.

There are other ways people can be politically involved, such as through membership in a political party, electoral campaigns, signing petitions, participating in protests or strikes. Civic participation can also take place in civic society organizations. Civil societies are voluntary and spontaneous association of citizens who strive to achieve different goals (political, economic, cultural, educational, sports, etc.). Civil society organizations have very different goals, but all provide a space to hear citizens express their desires, needs and interests.

The development and implementation of educational programs was financially supported by the National Foundation for Civil Society Development through the Knowledge Centers for Social Development Program. In 2017, the Program was supported by the European Union through the Erasmus+ program GEAR (Global Education and Active Response for Protection of Human Rights, Inclusion and Democratic Values ​​in Intercultural Societies). In 2018 these organizations continued to support it through the Europe for Citizens Program.

We are implementing programs in local and regional self-government units (Rijeka, Sisak and Istarska County) and are supported by Open Society Foundations Network and the National Foundation for Civil Society Development through the Knowledge Center for Social Development. The implementation is jointly organized by the Center for Peace Studies, the Forum for Freedom of Education and GONG through co-operation within the GOOD Initiative for Systematic and Quality Inclusion of Education and Human Rights and Democratic Citizenship in the Educational System.