To boost activism beyond Red Nose Day, we need political education in schools

What are the roots of British social apathy?

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The Independent Online

“830 million people are chronically undernourished, 1.1 billion do not have safe drinking water and 2.6 billion lack access to basic sanitation.” Our lecturer pauses to look up at a silent auditorium.

But the silence is not a stunned one.

The hungover international relations student, staring blankly at an attractive girl four rows above him, just about epitomises the level of interest around the room.

“Roughly one third of all human deaths - around 18 million per year - are due to poverty-related causes,” she continues.

There's a muffled sigh nearby; Facebook miraculously appears on a number of Apple laptop screens; whilst another student deliberates over whether his Jack Wills polo shirt collar really should remain upturned.

The response to these revelations? Most simply don't care.

That might sound like a harsh assessment, considering the substantial and excellent work worldwide, but look around: do ordinary people have any interest in, or solutions to, major global problems?

Comic Relief suggests they do, but the interest is fleeting.

The truth is, through whatever combination of overexposure and apathy, we have become desensitised to the suffering of others: another African crisis or another 50 deaths in Syria is most often met by tuts towards the nation's television screens.

If a room of politically aware students aren’t jolted by such shocking statistics, the wider trend must be truly appalling.

Yet this is not due to the 'moral decline' fairytale the Right might have you believe. For centuries youths have been blamed for degrading standards. Even in 800 BC, a claim attributed to Hesiod stated: “(there is) no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the youth of today.” If this continual slide were anything other than fantasy, we would probably have already witnessed some sort of self-inflicted human extinction about three centuries ago.

Back in a less hyperbolic reality, widespread political engagement has always been relatively limited. The current increase in British apathy has its roots in social factors: the lack of a vehicle for social change, the widely held belief that politicians are “all the same”, and – in fairness – some satisfaction amongst the middle classes with their comfortable living standards.

It is a difficult trend to buck, particularly when the precedent of inactivity has been set. But what could change that is political education. Why is it compulsory to learn about shape theorems, textiles and gymnastics, but not the political system under which we live? Secondary school pupils leave education without formal teaching in such basic things as how the British political system operates, an overview of mainstream ideologies - alongside their (apparently) corresponding UK parties, and the mechanics of different voting systems. If Michael Gove could make another U-turn - on his entire, misguided agenda - and introduce this one simple initiative, he might find that in ten years’ time genuine political interest would have increased.

Currently, the vast majority of people do not think they can change global poverty and they do not believe that voting in a by-election will bring any change to their own lives. This can be seen as apathy, but can also be qualified as rational apathy. Whilst there is vast scope to increase interest, such measurements do not represent the potential for a political response from the public, nor their despair at the state of politics.

As was seen in the student protests of 2010, the anger and desperation currently simmering beneath the surface can morph into more conventional political resistance, if people's lives are directly impacted. Calls for change would become ever louder if only a viable mouthpiece was found; especially when the cuts hit and hit and hit again.

Once such a movement has been created and some progress made, people will realise that even in today's world, change can be exacted from below. Once that truth is realised, perhaps then we will see a real reaction to poverty and global problems on a wider scale. But to have any chance of eradicating it entirely, education, motivation and organisation are first essential.