Learning to be a citizen: what young people think of civic education


Present in the processions of the demonstration or blocking their establishment for the day, high school students and students wanted to show their opposition to the pension reform project on January 19. In the evening, 13,000 people followed the political program Backseat by Jean Massiet on Twitch, of which 40% of the community is between 15 and 24 years old , and in which he received Philippe Martinez , secretary general of the CGT.

These indicators remind us that young people are much less interested in politics than we would like to claim. Their interest even appears from childhood, during the first confrontations with the news, in the family, in the media or on social networks. However, at school, it would seem that they are not given the tools to decipher the political world. We would even avoid talking about it.

This observation is all in all surprising since, since the 19th century and the school of Jules Ferry , the programs provide for civic education to be delivered in class to train students to become informed and committed citizens. So what is it really?

The results presented here come from a thesis on learning citizenship at school. The survey, combining observations and in-depth interviews, was conducted between 2016 and 2021 in seven schools in the Ile-de-France region, three of which were in a priority education network.

At the heart of the democratic challenge

If civic education has survived the decades, it is because it is conceived as a pillar of Western democracies. It is established to strengthen a nascent democracy; we reform it to revive a system in crisis . Faced with growing political and social tensions, it has even been the subject of European and international valorization for the past twenty years. Civic competence is defined by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union as one of the eight key competences to be developed in young people, in particular to promote “active citizenship” and “social integration”.

At the same time, this postulate that the acquisition of minimal political competence by young people is essential to the advent of enlightened and participating citizens is beginning to gain consensus among Anglo-Saxon and French researchers after several decades of debate.

It is in this context and following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks that France decided in 2015 to introduce a new compulsory discipline throughout the school curriculum: moral education. and Civics (EMC).

Although the reform of the EMC is elevated to the rank of political priority of the executive, the discipline is in fact granted limited resources and retains a very secondary status. The EMC is grafted onto another or even two other subjects in the case of history-geography at the end of elementary and middle school, which risks making it an adjustment variable. In addition, no evaluation of teachers is officially defined since the specialty “Moral and civic education” does not exist in the inspection bodies.

In the same way, the instructions for evaluating students are minor and there is no separate test in the national examinations. And the great pedagogical freedom offered to teachers for this teaching actually hides a lack of support resources.

Among teachers, the EMC then conveys the image of a discipline that “everyone gives a damn” without exception: the Ministry of National Education, heads of establishments, unions and parents. Added to this negative perception are multiple professional constraints that keep them from embarking on this teaching.

Due to a lack of training and resources, teachers do not feel competent on civic subjects. They consider that they have to invest a lot of personal time, which they lack, to be able to approach them in class. In addition, the participatory pedagogies recommended for EMC require specific material equipment (computer tools, Internet connection, large rooms, etc.) which they do not have or which are outdated. Doing CME also means restricting the possibilities of finishing the heavy program of the main discipline with which it is associated.

Consequently, as since the middle of the XXᵉ century , citizenship education remains in the state of speeches and programs without becoming a real practice in the daily life of the classes. The relegation to the background of the discipline is perpetuated. The EMC is little taught, its hours are sacrificed for the benefit of the main discipline (history, geography, etc.) or other teaching priorities (remedial courses, outings, evaluations, etc.).

“It concerns us all”

However, children and adolescents express a strong interest in this school discipline which is different from the others, both in its form and in its substance, and this is nothing new. Already in the 1970s, Madeleine Grawitz showed that more than 80% of pupils had a positive opinion of civic education.

Students first link their appetite for EMC to its informal nature, ie with more flexible school rules and an important place given to their participation and their opinion. Discipline is like breathing in a routine and formal school setting. This does not mean that they find civic education simple. A second-year student sums it up in a few words:
“Even before an [EMC course], I tell myself ‘it’s cool, we’re going to talk, we’re going to give our opinion, we’re going to learn new things’. »

What makes young people curious about citizenship education is also the subjects that are studied there: “it concerns us all”, they say. First, the EMC sheds light on omnipresent news in their daily lives, through television but also through their digital hyperconnection (smartphone, tablet, social networks). Then, they want to be prepared in these courses to become citizens.

For those furthest from the political world, they say they want to become “good adults”. For the others, they feel concerned by learning how to vote and understanding local and national political life. They want to be able to “take over” in the public space, according to the expression of a pupil of CM2.

The interest of school visits

When civic education is offered to them, young people actually take it up. For all of the 48 students questioned, the effects of the courses are positive with regard to their familiarization with the political world. For many of them, these courses increase their appeal for political and civic subjects and develop a feeling of closeness to the institutional universe. They also allow them to acquire technical knowledge and sharpen their critical thinking, but the observed effect is less pronounced.

To increase these cognitive effects of civic education, certain pedagogical practices are particularly appreciated and effective. The screening of documentary films, such as that of Raymond Depardon, 10ᵉ chambre. Instants d’audience , on the functioning of judicial institutions, is an example. The school visit to a public institution is another and not the least. It is the pedagogy that elicits the most precise and lasting memories.

Town hall, National Assembly, courthouse: pupils who have visited one of these institutions find it easy to remember their name and use a specific vocabulary to recount their experience of the visit. Beyond the description of concrete memories, the pupils manage to restore more abstract institutional mechanisms, such as the actions of the people sitting within the institution, and have the feeling of having learned “many things”. Moreover, these memories remain vivid over time.

Thus, through civic education, the school participates in developing the political competence and curiosity of young people. Faced with these various findings, moving from the marginalization of CME to its rehabilitation, both in official directives and in class practices, could prove to be appropriate.

Author Bio: Camille Amilhat is a Teacher-Researcher in education and training sciences at CY Cergy Paris University