I grew up with my grandfather’s incessant stories about the Second World War. The War, as he called it. He would go on for hours talking about how, when he was ten or so, he would jump on running trains to steal soap and women tights. He lived in Milan’s suburbs and the load of those trains was destined to the fascist elite – the only ones who could afford it in a time of poverty. He would tell me the story of a friend of his family, who had been whipped by the police for helping the Resistance movement, and came home “with the skin coming off from his bones”.
After populist parties Five Star movement and The League won the 4 March election in Italy, and with populism on the rise across Europe, I found myself thinking of my own political passion and where it came from.
My grandfather’s stories were the first thing that came to my mind. I recall his deep voice explaining to me that, after the Resistance fighters finally killed Mussolini, they exposed his body hanging upside down in Piazzale Loreto, in the city centre of Milan. My great-grandfather had been a fighter himself and faced great dangers to help bringing the dictatorship down – but, as his son recalled with pride, he refused to take part in that public humiliation.
Thanks to those stories, politics was always a very real thing to me. Democracy mattered, and was something that had to be fought hard for. I had it very clear in my mind why it was important to go and vote on the election day – so much that I actually remember lecturing my father on the topic way before I was old enough to vote myself.
But I most certainly did not learn all that at school. History teachers were expected to dedicate perhaps one hour in a whole year to explain what the Parliament looked like, and that was it. Politics in Italian schools is part of a potentially enormous subject called “civic education” that good-willing teachers are expected to somehow squeeze in the year’s overloaded programme.
Italy is not an isolated case across Europe, though things are perhaps going to change. In France, a “moral and civic teaching” that encompasses a variety of topics has been enhanced after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack. In the UK, the idea of allowing 16 and 17-years-old to vote is becoming increasingly popular and a bill has been discussed in the Parliament that includes introducing political education in schools.
Turning politics into a proper school subject is of course a challenging task. Most of all, teachers will have to struggle to maintain balance and not turn political education into propaganda. But it is a battle worth fighting.
Why should young people care about politics if they were never taught why it matters? In Italy, the Five Star movement has been extremely successful among young people. The Five Star have been bragging that they do not belong either to the left or to the right, and it seems like that is one of the reasons of their success. It is not surprising, considering that the historical difference between the left and the right is a well kept secret in Italian schools.
Even fifteen years ago, when I was at school, not every children had a family of politics junkies surrounding them. Now, the chances that a teenager has a relative who was alive during the Second World War and willing to tell stories about it are even lower. The memory of the fight against dictatorship that characterized the Forties is fading away quickly while its protagonists grow old and die – and education is doing nothing to keep it alive.
Obviously, there will always be young people who are genuinely interested in politics. Teenagers who can explain the difference between a presidential and a parliamentary republic better than I do. Or that have a perfect knowledge of the functioning of the European Parliament. But democracy is not about exceptions, it is about giving power of decision to everyone.
European education systems should start taking the responsibility to teach children what they need to know years before they actually start voting. Otherwise, we will not have the right to be surprised if turnout keeps falling. Of if we do not like who they are voting for.