Education Quandary

'If voters in the US had our kind of citizenship education when they were at school, would the outcome of the presidential election have been different?'
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Hilary's Advice

Hilary's Advice

There are two huge misconceptions in this question. The first is that American students don't get this kind of education. They do. The syllabus will vary from state to state - there is no national curriculum in the US - but most pupils spend time exploring issues of government, law, civic duties and moral dilemmas.

Which leads on to the second big misconception: that citizenship education is about shaping political values. It isn't. The subject is, or should be, about encouraging young people to think for themselves. It explains and explores a citizen's rights and duties in any society, and since a prime duty of a citizen in a democracy is to vote, and since voter turn-out for this year's Presidential election was at an all-time high, you can argue that Americans are doing fine in this department and need no lessons from us about what should go on in their schools.

But of course education shapes people's political opinions. Basic values tend to come from family background, but these are inevitably refined and adjusted by what is taught in schools. Lessons on healthy eating, a school culture which emphasises racial equality, and a geography curriculum which looks at climate change are all examples that spring to mind when thinking about how schools might shape young minds.

The big problem with what American children are taught in schools, at least from our perspective, is that it is so inward-looking. Pupils focus almost exclusively on American history, geography, politics and literature, leading not only to an ignorance about the wider world but, more scarily, to a deep disinterest in it. Which, in turn makes it worryingly easy to translate a complex and subtle (but very distant) reality into a simple good-and-evil scenario - and vote accordingly.

And, just in case this thought makes us feel smug and complacent about how well we educate our children to be citizens of the world, think about this: China is even now roaring into life as the next global superpower, but how much are our schools teaching children about that part of the world?

Readers' Advice

Perhaps it is not only lessons in citizenship that Americans need. Theirs is a country where most 14-year-olds can't find the US on a globe; where banks don't accept foreign passports ("Can't you show us a US one?") or change foreign travellers' cheques ("How would we know how many dollars to give you for your pounds?"); where a graduate can admit without shame that he doesn't know the Canadian capital. Some lessons in geography might have helped them, and their president, to realise that most of the Middle East is not just an indistinguishable mass of fanatics, unanimously supporting al-Qa'ida.
Jane Darwin, London SW7

Who knows whether US voters would have voted differently had they experienced British-style citizenship education? There is probably data on both sides of the Atlantic linking voting preference and educational attainment, but it would need to be approached with caution. US schools had a citizenship curriculum many years before we did. And it didn't stop them voting in Nixon and Reagan.
Malcolm Preston, Cwm, South Wales

The arrogance of the question is breath-taking, implying that more than half the people in the US did not know why they voted for Bush.

There are many logical reasons for it. Bush is a strong leader, with a strong faith, who wants to preserve family values and create a good climate for business. Just because you don't agree with his policies does not make them wrong. That is what democracy is about and what children should be taught in school.
Jay Sykes, Crawley

Next week's quandary

Why do schools not teach times tables by rote any more? My granddaughter's school does not seem to do it at all, but instead seems to expect children to do complicated numerical manoeuvres in their heads, yet I remember all my children loving the process of chanting them out, and they still remember them today. Surely this is a vital skill for life?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 22 November, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser