Not a vote of confidence
We are considering a quote from a senior British politician, the shadow home secretary, when it occurs to me that my students - mostly twentysomethings preparing for university courses - might not actually know what a shadow minister is.
"What do you think `shadow' means in this context?" I ask. Blank faces. "All right, think about it. What could it mean?"
"Is it someone following them around, like on work experience?"
"Not quite, but nice try. Let me give you another one. What do you think the home secretary does? What is he or she responsible for?"
More blank looks. "Something to do with the government?" ventures one young woman.
"Yes, OK, but can you be a little more precise?" She can't. And neither can any of the others.
What is more alarming is that, when I probe further, it becomes clear that my students know very little about the political process. They hear the terminology in the news every day - Parliament, parties, ministers and majorities - but it all floats before them like some impenetrable political fog.
This is a problem that is near universal in the developing world. My students have opinions on political issues - mainly conventional ones that define all politicians as venal and self-serving - but very little knowledge. To me this does not seem like a good combination. Nor does it to those who have thought more deeply on the issue.
According to one charity set up to promote young people's citizenship skills, our democracy needs "active.and responsible citizens" who are "informed about the social and political world". Such capacities "do not develop unaided. They have to be learned."
Citizenship has been part of the curriculum in England since 2002, so in theory almost all my students have been exposed to citizenship classes during their secondary education. But perhaps their political ignorance is not entirely their fault. In an educational landscape dominated by exam grades, there is little enthusiasm for airy-fairy stuff about the democratic process.
Picking up on the charity's requirement to be active, I ask my students how many of them have voted in parliamentary or local elections. Two, possibly three, raise their hands. One of them remembers voting for something once, but on reflection it might have been to do with evictions from the Big Brother house. The reason for their civic inactivity will be depressingly familiar to anyone who knows teenagers in the West: whoever they vote for, they say, it won't make any difference.
Am I expecting too much? What did I know of the mechanisms of government when I was their age? Well, somewhat more than them. At my secondary school, the subject was ignored, but six days a week a newspaper dropped through our letter box and I read it avidly. I remember electoral battles from my youth and my annoyance that I was too young to be able to vote.
Was I typical of my generation? And, more to the point, are my students typical of theirs?
Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London.