Revitalising political engagement among youth

The youth are growing accustomed, if not sick, of the narrative that we are the future of our country.

It is a narrative tainted with hypocrisy, a mantra embroidered with patronisation and sprinkled with corrosive insults to our intelligence.

To sustain this harsh claim, look at headlines on ‘youth’. Our ministers claim that we are important, unique and influential, that our creativity matters. All is well when young people exhibit artistic talents, when they act on stage, play musical instruments or participate in sports.

But when it came to deciding on spring hunting, the same politicians decided that we young citizens lacked the intellectual capacity. We were told we were too immature to think for ourselves. The Vote 16 agenda was bagged and kept for future use as a red herring when it would it is time to pull out a progressive rabbit out of the hat.

There is no such thing as a youth policy. The future of our nation is in the hands of youth, so they should be involved in decisions more than anyone else. The obvious rebuttal would be that the youth are a lazy bunch, apathetic about current affairs and unwilling to move out of their way to participate in our democracy. This is not an intrinsic characteristic of youth. If young people are disillusioned by politics, there is someone to blame.

The political climate in Malta is toxic. Politics, the education system and the media are three intimately linked components for healthy political engagement. An educated population is well-informed when it critically consumes media. It should be very easy to point to what’s wrong in all three spheres.

Very little distinction exists between political parties and the media. A climate of red and blue means that criticism cannot be directed outside the partisan sphere. This rabid tribalism not only tires any productivity out of politics, but it serves as a warning to energetic youth. Politics is taboo; keep away.

To combat apathy, a revolution within our schools is required. With limited resources available to them our educators are already overburdened with ensuring a decent education is delivered. A lot is wrong with our system but there is an aspect that has been long neglected.

Teachers not only have students in their classrooms, but citizens. There is a feeble attempt at teaching citizenship which comes in the form of Systems of Knowledge, widely viewed as an anachronism and rendered utterly useless by fact-based learning.

It should be a platform to equip our youth with the tools to engage with our institutions, to lift the taboo off political debate and provide an understanding of the democratic process of our country.

Teaching citizenship has been a challenge for many States. Norway holds debates in classrooms. In Malta, the closest we get to political engagement comes in the form of student organisations but this is the exact opposite of what Malta needs.

Sometimes, it embodies what non-partisan politics should be (productive, mostly fruitful and inclusive) but separates it from engagement on the national stage. It can reflect Malta’s staunch bipolarisation. For the majority of students, this is repulsive, ensuring that young talent would not touch politics with a barge-pole.

How then should students be expected to engage in such a climate? The closest we get to engaging might be a Lovin’ Malta video of Labour backbencher Glenn Bedingfield slobbering insults in the most inappropriate manner for Parliament. This behaviour should be condemned.

First, schools should support critical thinking. If the syllabus makes no room for this, then compulsory creative writing should be combined with sessions on argumentation. Students should be trained to write coherently.

Next, debate clubs should be established informally starting from secondary schools. Not only would this increase self-esteem, but it would make students more conscious of constructing logical arguments and introduce them to a more lateral way of thinking.

This, in turn, would lead to spaces for more acute discussion on current matters later on in life. Hopefully, this will increase capacity for analysis in citizens for a more wholesome understanding of the political world. because it is a necessary part of our daily lives. We are entitled to have a say in it without being labelled as members of the two political tribes and attacked personally for daring to point out what we disagree with, or what we think should be done better. Students should no longer be taught to keep their head down; they should be given the confidence to engage.

As it stands, young Maltese citizens refuse to read up on current affairs – they fear doing so will have repercussions on their image, but they also see the Maltese State as one being beyond repair. There is no reasonable belief that anything we do will lead to positive change. If this fatalism is not steadily diverted, Malta’s future looks bleak.

                           
                               
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