Let them speak out! Social studies as an integral part of citizenship education

The promotion of social awareness as a core issue in healthy democracy

It is beyond dispute that every generation faces new social problems and phenomena. Educators, teachers, philosophers, sociologists and parents are looking for the answer what kind of education children need to maintain a healthy and strong democracy. Hanna Arendt warned us against indoctrination, Theodor Adorno was searching for the education after Auschwitz, John Dewey fought for the democratic values and Paolo Freire defended us against the banking model of education. Today these voices still need to be heard but new problems emerged, including consumption, globalization, terrorism, environmental devastation and so on. The contemporary society is often described in terms of fear (see Furedi) and human’s anxieties and insecurities are sustained and whipped up by the media. How to create responsible and reasonable citizens in the age of fear, consumption and the new media seems to be a great challenge for educators and policymakers.

We need to have in mind that democracy is not a given; it is susceptible and fragile. Many societies of the European countries (and the US too) confirm the thesis that democracy is in crisis and the elite are desperately looking for the cure. How to stop populism and the threat of authoritarianism in Europe (and elsewhere)? How to prevent the disintegration of the project called Europe?

Diagnosis gone wrong

The millennials are the best educated generation ever (see Economist). Perhaps, the longest period of peace at the old continent (Pax Europaea) and economic stability confirm the thesis about education and reasonable citizens. On the other hand – paradoxically – many young people vote and support populist and xenophobic parties and their leaders. Something went wrong, then. Maybe contemporary generation are the brainiest, brightest and educated ever, but is it enough? Let me elaborate on the possible sources of the gap(s) in education:

  • Schools are disconnected from the reality – this argument is widely used especially by scholars. The problem lies, inter alia, in the social acceleration. Schools and their actors are not able to keep the track of changes, especially in the new media and IT. Reforms are frequently out of date because the reality develops faster than the policymakers act.
  • Examination-oriented approach dominates in schools – the debate on this issue is well documented. It is obvious that students’ and teachers’ achievements must be measured somehow. However, education is something more than exams and scores.
  • Schools teach how to use IT but not enough media literacy. Internet and new media offer an incredible opportunity for learning, discovering and exploring the world. At the same time people are overwhelmed with large amount of information. Students and teachers have to learn which source is credible and which not. It is necessary to equip them with the skills of media literacy.
  • Schools professionals together with influential, social groups maintain the image of lazy and ignorant adolescents. Times have changed. Young people spend most of the time in the Internet and they take actions there. Citizenship participation is still regarded through the lens of conventional activities, such as voting, meeting with politicians, writing petitions, belonging to a party, etc. There is necessity to go beyond this old image of social participation and to understand that young people are active in the virtual sphere. Facebook or Twitter are the powerful tools in exchanging information, sharing opinions and information. Moreover, young people are interested in the problems which are close to them, e.g. education, job market, crime, environment. Their interests may be different from the interests of older generation, but it does not mean that they are not interested in politics. On the other hand, it is not common practice to create opportunities for young people to speak or to consider their opinion. It is not surprise then, that they are not interested in the conventional politics when someone else decides for them. No wonder that they do not take the actions when someone else does it better for them.

I now come to the matter of social studies and citizenship education in Poland. The Polish society is characterized by low social capital, low level of trust and low social participation.  Despite the fact that many school curricula reforms were introduced after 1989, most school leavers are ignorant in the field of contemporary, social problems.

Citizenship education or social studies is known in Poland as “knowledge about society” (Polish abbreviation WOS). By the time of September 2017 students have started WOS classes in the secondary school. In the lower level of secondary education (gymnasium) curriculum consisted of citizenship and economic problems as well as the family concerns. In the upper secondary schools, students can take WOS exam at Matura (secondary school leaving exam). In the wake of introduced school reform WOS was moved on the last year of elementary school. In practice one year of social studies is missed because the reform resulted in extension of elementary school and shutdown of lower secondary education – gymnasium.

The school curricula are crowded and there is no room to discuss the current global and national issues. Moreover, most of the topics are sensitive and teachers are not well prepared to deal with these problems. As a result, school leavers have simplistic and stereotypical vision of the world.  It must also be noted that the WOS has a weak status in schools. It seems that most people do not treat it seriously. Thus, young people learn that the current and urgent problems are not important and they should not care.

The gap in civic and social knowledge is visible in the poor results of “Knowledge and society” exam at Matura 2016 and 2017. Poor social skills and insufficient knowledge are also well documented in research reports. For instance, the results of the study of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland are not optimistic and confirm the thesis that current issues are neglected in the school curricula.  Young people demonstrate the closing attitude towards the “others” (including ethnical and religious minorities). Students do not welcome refugees or asylum-seekers, especially Muslims. The report quotes some statements expressed by students:  “Muslims are not predicable, you never know what they can do on the street”, “they can attack a passer-by with a knife”, or “blow up themselves”. The results also indicate that young people demonstrate homophobic attitude. Many of them perceive homosexualism as a disease and only few students are tolerant of homosexual people.

According to a study, young people have pro-European Union attitudes. Most of the Polish citizens have the same orientation towards the EU (about 70%). It is worth noting that school curricula promote positive image of the EU (see Hejwosz-Gromkowska). The aforementioned study shows that only 4 in 396 students would want Polexit.

Although young people are not interested in conventional political participation, they enjoy helping others. They are involved in actions supporting the elderly, they help younger students in their homework, and they are raising money for good causes.

According to the report, students repeat what they have heard from the media and adults rather than expressing their own statements and judgments about the situation in Poland and Europe. They stay away from the traditional media, only keeping track of the headlines. The information about the crucial events and problems is superficial, shattered and fragmented. The deeper meaning is obscured. Moreover students admit that they check the credibility of news by comparing several sources. Many are watching YouTube and see it as source of credible information.

There is a cure, but there is no doctor

The humanities and exact sciences are important in school curricula. Why social studies are not?  Educating good, reasonable and virtuous citizens is not possible without exploring the social world. If students are capable to study how the cell looks like, how bacteria is breeding or how the electrons move, then they need to know how society works. Underestimating the role of social studies in school curricula is essential in the super complex world.

Apparently, it should not be so hard to sit down together with students and talk with them about the politics, today’s headlines, economy and local or global problems. It happens all the time during family or friend gatherings. Apparently, teachers delivering social studies or citizenship classes need to study, explore, discover, understand and explain new social problems and phenomena all the time. It requires time, knowledge, passion, self-discipline and money. Moreover, they cannot transmit knowledge; they must be a master and partner at the same time and create knowledge and skills together with students. Regrettably, few teachers take the challenge.

It is obvious that more discussions with students about current social, cultural, economic, legal problems are necessary not only in school curricula or programs, but both in in-class and out-of-class activities. We also need to change the language we speak about social problems. In the public debate, leaders, media representatives, teachers, scholars, experts and politicians should avoid using emotional and stereotypical statements. Policymakers should understand that social studies are just as important as exact sciences and the humanities are. This could be a remedy for the failing democracy, especially in Poland. Maybe the cure is for the asking but there is no doctor. If we educate the best and the brightest generation ever – let them speak out! There is no alternative.


F. Furedi, Culture of fear, Continuum International Publishing Group, London- New York 2002/ 2006;
Furedi F., The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself, “Spiked” online, 7.04.2007;

Generetion Uphill, Special Report, The Economist, January 2016, https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21688591-millennials-are-brainiest-best-educated-generation-ever-yet-their-elders-often

Hejwosz-Gromkowska D., The ways of thinking about European education – between Euroenthusiasm and Euroscepticism – the experiences from the United Kingdom and Poland , [w:] Double reunification through the European Union’s Education Policy , red. B. Przybylska-Maszner, M. Musiał-Karg, T. Brańka, Faculty of Political Science and Journalism Adam Mickiewicz University Poznań 2016.

Daria Hejwosz-Gromkowska is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Educational Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University. Cooperates with Liberté! magazine. She is interested in the current problems of higher education and citizenship education. In 2009, she completed a PhD thesis exploring the relationship between the most selective universities in the world and rising elites, which was published with IMPULS in 2010 and received the award at ACADEMIA Books Fair in 2010.