Reclaiming Europe from the EU

The EU sees European history as a source of shame. It is wrong.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

Every now and again, the European Union goes through the motions of trying to overcome the political and cultural distance between it and the people of Europe. Last week, the European Parliament discussed the Learning EU at School report, written by the Romanian MEP Damian Drăghici. The report calls on member states to promote the EU ideal in schools and emphasises the ‘importance and the potential of a European approach to the teaching of history’. As far as Drăghici is concerned, the reason people don’t love the EU is because they don’t understand its valuable role and function. He claims that ignorance of its ‘concrete added-value’ has contributed to ‘perception of a democratic deficit’ and led to ‘widespread Euroscepticism in member states and candidate countries’.

When asked if linking the growth of Euroscepticism to public ignorance was not an oversimplification of the problem, he responded in the negative:

‘I don’t think so. According to a survey, 44 per cent of Europeans don’t understand how the EU works and many feel they don’t have a voice in the European Union, so I believe that if I was a young adolescent, I would want to know my rights, I would want to know not only my history, the European history, but how I could get involved in creating a better European Union and a better European project, especially in this time when Euroscepticism is growing enormously.’

This is not the first time that EU technocrats have tried to use propaganda in schools to gain legitimacy. Yet the EU has proved singularly incapable of helping young people develop a sense of European history.

What history?

It is far easier to create a European Union than to make people feel European. It is often said that one of the main reasons European identity is so feeble is the upsurge in national sentiment across Europe. Despite the periodic success of nationalist-populist political parties, the EU has not been overwhelmed by an upsurge in nationalism. On the contrary, numerous societies in Europe – Belgium, Britain, France and Holland, to name a few – are confused about the meaning of their own national identities. If EU citizens lack a strong attachment to Europe it is not because they possess a powerful national identity. There are, of course, many reasons for the relative weakness of a European identity. However, one of the principal reasons is that Europe as an idea, as an important constituent of our culture, has little meaning for the children that Drăghici is trying to influence.

It is worth noting that educational initiatives designed to promote Europe tend to have an institutional and propagandistic character. Take, for example, The EU Explained: A Toolkit for Teachers, published by the Hansard Society. This toolkit is entirely focused on providing pupils with an understanding of the EU’s institutional framework. Its underlying objective is to outline the pragmatic reasons for being in the EU. It offers no insight into what it means to be a European, and contains only one very short paragraph that touches on the historical legacy of the continent:

‘After the Second World War, the countries of Europe were left devastated and they were determined not to let such destruction happen again. Europe began thinking of ways in which future conflict could be prevented.’

A review of other educational resources on the EU shows that The EU Explained reflects a tendency to discuss Europe outside of any historical, philosophical or intellectual context. It is as if Europe was born in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Why the kids aren’t interested

Education has many dimensions, but it is most usefully understood not simply as the act of teaching or learning, but as the process through which we initiate the younger generation into the ways of the world. Through education, adult society attempts to introduce children to the world as it is, and provide them with the knowledge through which they can understand it. This generational dynamic is central to education. It is through education that adults demonstrate their responsibility to the new generation, by introducing young people to the world as it is understood.

Serious thinkers from across the left-right divide recognise that education is a transaction between generations. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker, wrote that ‘in reality each generation educates the new generation’. Writing from a conservative perspective, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott concluded that ‘education in its most general significance may be recognised as a specific transaction which may go on between the generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they inhabit’ (2). The liberal political philosopher Hannah Arendt regarded the ‘realm of education’ as a site governed by the ‘relations between grown-ups and children’, and she took the view that this relationship was far too important to be ‘turned over to the special science of pedagogy’ (3).

One of the tasks of education is to teach children about the world as it is. Although society is continually subject to forces of change, education needs to acquaint young people with the legacy of the past. ‘Since the world is old, always older than they themselves, learning inevitably turns towards the past, no matter how much living will spend itself in the present’, observed Arendt (4). The term ‘learning from the past’ is often used as a platitude. Yet it is impossible to engage with the future unless people draw on the insights and knowledge gained through centuries of human experience. The transition from one generation to another requires education to transmit an understanding of the lessons learned by humanity throughout the ages. One of the main tasks of education is to preserve the past so that young people have the cultural and intellectual resources they need to deal with the challenges they face.

As I have argued elsewhere, education in Western societies no longer communicates the legacy of the past to young children (5). This problem has, if anything, become more complicated in the context of the EU. Why? Because EU projects dealing with the historical past – such as the much-discussed House of European History – are designed by social engineers rather than people who are genuinely interested in history. Social engineering underpins Drăghici’s report, which praises ‘the importance and the potential of a European approach to the teaching of history’. If one were to ask ‘potential for what?’, the answer would be the ‘potential for legitimising the EU’.

Drăghici’s plan will fail to realise its objective for the very simple reason that the EU is not open to a genuine exploration of the European past. EU politicians regard the past as a source of tension and conflict, and believe Europe’s disunited history is an embarrassment rather than an inspiration. Consequently, when the House of European History was proposed, its designers decided that 1946 should serve as the point of departure for the EU’s history. By settling on 1946 as Europe’s Year Zero, the EU political elite sought to free itself from a history that it neither appreciates nor understands. A political culture that appears to be so embarrassed by its past is unlikely to succeed in communicating its cultural legacy to the younger generation.

For the EU educational establishment, the history of the continent before 1946 is alien, if not hostile, territory. Of course, European history contains its fair share of depressing and horrific episodes. And it is entirely understandable that many enlightened Europeans wish to do everything they can to eliminate the regressive influences of aggressive nationalism and xenophobia. But, like it or not, Europe is stuck with its past and it cannot go forward unless it reckons with it.

Nor is Europe’s history solely something of which to be ashamed. Ancient Greece was responsible for acquainting humanity with the spirit of philosophy, and opening us to the promise of science. From Judaism and Christianity, Europe gained moral principles that are upheld as ideals to this day. From the Romans we inherited an appreciation of the law and a legal system that provides security and order.

Europe’s history has been an important intellectual resource for revitalising our thinking. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were genuinely history-making European events: they drew on the experiences of the Ancients to call into question prevailing assumptions and prejudices. Europeans today will need to draw on their past to revitalise their societies and develop the intellectual resources necessary to face the future. The past matters. What Europe needs is not commission-sponsored mission statements about artificially constructed values, but an appreciation of its historical legacy. Paradoxically, the best antidote to petty national rivalries is a dose of historical memory. History provides Europe with experiences that transcend national boundaries, constituting a genuine transnational sensibility.

Sadly, the reluctance to look into the past beyond Europe’s Year Zero is reflected in schooling across Western Europe. Important but tricky questions about Europe are evaded. In such circumstances, Europe mutates into the EU, and, instead of providing the next generation with an opportunity to acquaint themselves with their cultural legacy, educationalists instruct children in the mechanics of an institution.

The EU’s cult of the new

The Year Zero approach to education reflects the tendency to regard the past as having little relevance for the present and even less for the future. A review of educational policy documents indicates a one-sided obsession with novelty and change. Change is frequently represented as an omnipotent force that, by its very nature, renders prevailing forms of knowledge and schooling redundant. In such circumstances, it is claimed that education has no choice but to transform itself to keep up with the times. From this perspective educational policies can only be justified if they can keep up or adapt to change. Since they are likely to be swiftly overtaken by events, such policies, by definition, have a short-term and provisional status. So one report, Improving Competences for the 21st Century: An Agenda for European Cooperation on Schools, argues that the world is changing so fast that young people will ‘work in jobs that do not yet exist’. It warns that ‘technology will continue to change the world in ways we cannot imagine’.

Constant change is not merely portrayed as a fact of life that educationalists need to live with – it is also presented as a decisive influence on the school curriculum. This presentation of change renders the past wholly irrelevant. If we really do continually move from one ‘new age’ to another, then the institutions and practices of the past have little relevance for today. The reconfiguration of education around novelty, innovation and adaptability lends it an unstable and short-termist character.

The EU education establishment often asserts that what children and young people learn in school cannot educate them for their lives as adults. Those who uphold the authority of the new assert that since knowledge swiftly becomes obsolete, schools should place great emphasis on flexibility and adaptability. One policy document argues that ‘challenges such as climate change will require radical adaptation’. It claims that schools should focus on helping their pupils become flexible rather than burdening them with soon-to-be-outdated knowledge. ‘In this increasingly complex world, creativity and the ability to continue to learn and to innovate will count as much as, if not more than, specific areas of knowledge liable to become obsolete’, it states.

European policy statements on education present change in a dramatic and mechanistic manner and exaggerate the novelty of the present moment. Educationalists frequently adopt the rhetoric of breaks and ruptures and maintain that nothing is as it was and that the present has been decoupled from the past. Their outlook is shaped by an imagination that is so overwhelmed by the displacement of the old by the new that it often overlooks important dimensions of historical experience that may still be relevant to our lives. The discussion of the relationship between education and change is frequently overwhelmed by the fad of the new, and the relatively superficial symptoms of new developments. It is often distracted from acknowledging the fact that the fundamental educational needs of students do not alter every time a new technology impacts on people’s lives. And certainly the questions raised by Greek philosophy, Renaissance poetry, Enlightenment science or the novels of Balzac continue to be relevant for students in our time and not just to the period that preceded the Digital Age.

If what we know today might soon become outdated, as we’re always told, then it is difficult to take seriously any knowledge that is focused on the past. In such circumstances, the legacy of 3,000 years of European culture is unlikely to have a place in a curriculum oriented towards novelty. If all that counts is providing skills that foster adaptability to an uncertain future, then the legacy of Europe becomes an irrelevance, confined to providing material for the nostalgia industry and museums.

So what’s the way forward?

For some time, many Western societies have found it difficult to forge a consensus through which they might affirm their past and the basic values they uphold. Traditional symbols and conventions have lost much of their power to enthuse and inspire; in some cases they have become irrevocably damaged. This is strikingly illustrated in the constant controversy that surrounds the teaching of history. When the leading generation senses that the stories and ideals it was brought up on have ‘lost their relevance’ in our changed world, it finds it very difficult to transmit those stories and ideals with conviction to its children. Bitter disputes about historical rights and wrongs really reflect competing claims about interests and identities.

How to hold an intergenerational conversation in these circumstances is a question that society is unwilling to pose, never mind try to answer. Nevertheless, policymakers and educators intuitively recognise that this question needs to be addressed, somehow, and they are frequently forced to respond to the demand for values and traditions that can be imparted to children. Yet the provision of ‘relevant’ values, on demand, rarely succeeds – because unlike the conventions that were organically linked to the past, these values tend to be artificial, if well-meaning, constructs that are open to challenge. Unlike customs and conventions that are held sacred, constructed values must be regularly justified. That’s one reason why EU-sponsored values and mission statements rarely inspire or motivate young people.

Putting history back into Europe requires schools to take the intellectual development of children more seriously. It is important that the question of conceptualising the role of Europe in a school curriculum is not seen as a distinct problem, separate from thinking about how children should learn about their national cultural heritage. Once Europe is taught as an add-on, in the manner of The EU Explained, it ceases to have an organic relationship to children’s lives. Europe is not separate from the culture and community life of its citizens. What makes people European is the capacity to interpret their shared experiences according to a mutually comprehensible narrative.

There are various different ways that the ideal of Europe can be conceptualised. Time and again, Europeans have rediscovered the ideas of liberty and freedom as fundamental principles that shape their existence. It was in Europe that the idea of toleration took hold, and in which the freedom of individual belief and of individual conscience enlarged society’s capacity to be open to new ideas and experiences. The cultivation of a separate sphere of individual conscience and belief created the foundation for the distinction between public and private life. The emergence of these two separate spheres and the value placed on privacy accorded the individual affirmation and respect. One of the important legacies of the European Enlightenment is the ideal of individual moral autonomy and the attendant recognition of the importance of individual choice. Today’s celebration of self-realisation and self-actualisation would be unthinkable without the ascendancy of the 16th-century ideal of individual conscience.

The combined contribution of the Ancients (Greeks and Romans), Christian philosophy, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment helped to consolidate an openness to experimentation leading to the growing influence of reasoning and science. As a result, European culture has always taken ideas very seriously. Typically, religious, philosophical and scientific movements have transcended cultural and national boundaries and have always been expressions of a genuinely European imagination. The experience of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is as a testimony to the fact that important expressions of culture and science were, from the outset, genuine European events. So regardless of the reality of nation states, citizens of different cultures were able to collaborate on a legacy that transcended their communities.

History provides Europe with experiences that both transcend national boundaries and constitute a genuine transnational sensibility. It is this sensibility that we need to cultivate among our children. To do this we need to place a greater emphasis on the classics – including the teaching of Greek and Latin – not because of an elitist addiction to an irrelevant obsession, but because many of the questions raised in the past continue to haunt us today. It is precisely because the historical experience and legacy of Europe matters so much that those who are genuinely committed to it must direct the education of the young. Putting history back into Europe may require that we take our leave of the EU.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon UK.)

(1) These points are developed in Wasted; Why Education Is Not Educating, by Frank Furedi, Continuum Press, 2009

(2) The Voice Of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, by N Oakeshott, Yale University Press, 1989, p.65.

(3) Between Past and Future, by Hannah Arendt, Faber & Faber, 2006, pp118-189

(4) Between Past and Future, by Hannah Arendt, Faber & Faber, 2006, p192

(5) Wasted; Why Education Is Not Educating, by Frank Furedi, Continuum Press, 2009

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Topics World


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