European countries are pinning hopes on civic education to integrate young migrants, but it can only deliver under the right conditions
BRUSSELS — Amid neighbourhood ethnic tensions and terrorist attacks in a number of major European cities, governments across Europe have renewed their interest in civic education programmes to foster a sense of social responsibility and common values in young people, with the aim of protecting them from alienation and radicalisation.
Civic education dates as far back as the French Revolution. It is seeing a revival in integration policymaking as the potential solution to numerous societal challenges—from political apathy and youth unemployment to the need to acculturate newly arrived immigrant and refugee youth. The models and forms of civic education vary widely across countries, localities and schools, as a new Migration Policy Institute Europe report finds, with varying results.
In Designing Diverse Civic Education for Diverse Societies: Models, tradeoffs and outcomes, authors Per Mouritsen and Astrid Jaeger focus on models in Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, for instance, civic education has been linked to the idea of Britishness and the anti-extremism agenda, with mixed reception from minority groups. In Germany, by contrast, civic education focuses on liberal democratic norms and principles and avoids overt discussion of identity. The methods for delivering civic education also vary widely, from those that focus on practical skills and community engagement, to ones that seek to stimulate dialogue and debate, and those that focus on learning a country’s specific constitutional history.
Policymakers face a range of tradeoffs when designing and implementing such programmes, the report notes. Among them: Whether to focus on teaching a body of formal knowledge or on developing individual skills (e.g., critical thinking and empathy); if teachers should seek to cultivate a sense of national loyalty and belonging, or allow students to criticise their country of residence; whether the goal is to prepare young people to thrive as individuals or become good citizens; and how to respect individual identities while empowering youth to reflect on and even transcend their cultural heritage.
Evaluations of civic education find that it improves personal efficacy, political participation and tolerance. But much of what shapes its effectiveness is outside the control of those designing curricula, and depends on broader features of the school system. For instance, civic education works best when it brings people from different social groups together and encourages them to debate their differences. But this cannot occur if schools and classrooms themselves are segregated. Moreover, one of the overarching risks of civic education is that it can seem disingenuous to pupils if the values and principles they learn about on paper do not cohere with their lived experience.
‘In light of increased immigration and a range of long-term social trends, civic education in Europe is being asked to perform a patchwork of shifting, and occasionally competing, functions’, the authors find.
‘Politicians, though they may come under pressure from this or that segment of the public, should accept the need to be somewhat hands-off. The best strategy may be to lay out broad goals and guidelines while allowing schools and individual educators the flexibility to sort out what works best for their students and which issues are particularly pertinent in a local area’.
The report was produced for MPI Europe’s recently established Integration Futures Working Group. Supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation, the Working Group is seeking to develop a fresh agenda for integration policy in Europe by bringing together senior integration policymakers and experts, civil-society officials and private-sector leaders to create a platform for long-term strategic and creative thinking.
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MPI Europe provides authoritative research and practical policy design to governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders who seek more effective management of immigration, immigrant integration and asylum systems, as well as better outcomes for newcomers, families of immigrant background and receiving communities throughout Europe. MPI Europe also provides a forum for the exchange of information on migration and immigrant integration practices within the European Union and Europe more generally. For more, visit www.mpieurope.org.