The pandemic has reinforced the need for citizenship education, so individuals are equipped to cope with its global challenges—and all the others.
Reacting to the horrific murder of Samuel Paty, the history teacher killed on the outskirts of Paris on October 16th, the president of the European Commission tweeted her condolences to all teachers in France and throughout Europe, recalling that ‘without teachers, there are no citizens, and without citizens, there is no democracy’. Ursula von der Leyen’s words were well-founded, historically and sociologically, and the thoughts of millions of citizens across the continent no doubt turned to those teachers who—inside or outside school—had made a fundamental difference to their lives, the way they came to conceive of themselves and their relationships with others.
Whether or not we would put it in these terms, remembering such teachers is to recall how they contributed to shaping us as citizens—their role in our citizenship education, understood in its broadest sense as the fostering of capacities and dispositions to participate in society and democracy. In addition to the debate on violent extremism, its causes and the role of education in preventing it—which follows each terrorist act of barbarity—these sentiments remind us that education has a much more all-encompassing role in our societies. The citizenship education a society gives itself is an image of the world it seeks to create.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also been a moment to reflect on the role of education generally, and citizenship education more specifically. It draws attention to the vital importance of several capacities of citizens in democracies, which good-quality citizenship education seeks to promote: governments have called on citizens to understand how their own actions can have implications for others and have relied on citizens to deal with uncertainty, to understand the social pertinence of scientific information and to think critically, so as to distinguish the reliable from the misinformation.
All of these competences of citizens are also essential for addressing any of the 21st-century political challenges which cross borders and require transnational thinking, awareness and co-operation. First among these challenges is climate change and environmental degradation but they encompass the changing shape of the world economy and its exacerbated inequalities, geopolitical conflict and the consequences of population movements. Twenty-twenty has shown again the importance of democratic dispositions for protecting human rights and the rule of law from authoritarianism in unsettled times.
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For all these reasons, this year ought to be a watershed moment for citizenship education in Europe: it is not a ‘nice-to-have’ addition to literacy and numeracy skills but an integral part of all education and the way democratic society reproduces itself. Citizenship education can be done with more or less care—with more or less concern for empowerment, critical capacities, solidarity and the reinforcement of human rights; with an emancipatory ethos or the retrenching of privileges and exclusions—but it is always implicitly present in the way the next generation is educated and socialised.
It is regrettable, then, that the concept of citizenship education has until now been the great absentee from the debate on the relaunch of Europe for the next generation. This has focused on the economic relaunch of the continent but has yet to address directly how to foster the democratic capacities of the citizenry essential for living together with social resilience and adaptability while aspiring to equal dignity and freedom.
Education is largely a national competence of the member states of the European Union. They have each signed up to the 2010 Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education and subsequent declarations, European Council conclusions and recommendations—all asserting the importance of quality citizenship education. Yet every major study shows significant implementation gaps and territorial inequalities in all member states, when it comes to the delivery and quality of citizenship education, and many show deterioration in recent years.
As political controversy grows in our complex and interconnected world, there is an overwhelming case for prioritising the training of all teachers in fostering democratic learning environments and promoting active citizenship. What is more, during schooling and afterwards, governments need to prioritise education for digital citizenship, for all ages, given its growing place in our social and political lives. And the EU could do more, to hold European governments to their commitments, to promote pilot schemes and to encourage mutual learning among European countries.
The European Education Area which the commission is committed to building by 2025 provides a framework in which the union could prioritise citizenship education. The Council of the EU has identified active citizenship as one of the pillars of the European Education Area, but as yet the commission has not made proposals for reinforcing this key competence of lifelong learning.
Nearly 30 years after the introduction of European citizenship in the Maastricht treaty, now is the time to give substance to these formal rights with the European citizenship education that makes them come alive. As the EU evolves and its democracies and societies become more interdependent, citizenship education is ever more important to prepare citizens to participate fully in European democracy.
As a first step, the commission could enable a hub of excellence around citizenship education—not a new, bureaucratic, top-down structure but a pooling of practitioner and academic knowledge of best practices, with resources on the European dimension of citizenship education specifically. Acknowledging that citizenship education is a core element of the green transition to global sustainability and of ensuring democracy in a digital society, such a hub could develop learning materials and practices in each of these areas where Europe seeks to be at the forefront.
Furthermore, the delayed Conference on the Future of Europe, which had been announced as part of a ‘new push for European democracy’, could be treated as a massive exercise in citizenship education and participation, showing that European democracy can reinvent itself and emerge stronger through change. The EU could use the conference and the recovery fund together to reaffirm its commitment to protecting and promoting the political participation of the rich and diverse tissue of civil-society organisations, across the continent, which provide the opportunities for citizens to learn and exercise their democratic capacities on a daily basis.
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There is no doubt 2020 will be remembered as a year the world changed—when almost every domain of human social activity had to adapt its way of doing things, under global public-health imperatives. The declaration published by the NECE Network of European Citizenship Educators in advance of its annual conference this week asserts that this is a watershed moment for citizenship education in Europe. The declaration provides a vehicle for practitioners, academics, policy-makers and citizens to ensure the experience of 2020 can contribute to our collective learning, to global solidarity and to the reinforcement of democracy and human rights.
The European Commission, Parliament, member states, cities, teachers and practitioners can each play their role in renewing European citizenship education for democracy and sustainability. The declaration is accompanied by statements from similar networks in eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Africa. All are affirming that assuring quality citizenship education is among the best investments we can make in our future—and it is never too soon to take brave policy initiatives.
Niccolò Milanese is director of European Alternatives and a member of the advisory board of Networking European Citizenship Education (NECE).