Civic education rests on the idea that citizens should comprehend the critical political choices of their society and actively shape them in a rational manner. Many objectives of the European Union and its national authorities would be only achieved on paper if its people do not share them in practice. Yannis Karamitsios addresses this is issue here and asks if there is a new way of thinking for what could be a very important aspect of the future of democracy.
Is the European public ready to support the idea of a liberal, cosmopolitan and federal Europe, contrary to the narrative of xenophobic, illiberal, racist, protectionist or nationalist populism. We would answer: yes. Τo a significant degree the ground is fertile for such a step.
On the other hand, we have to acknowledge that a sizeable segment of European society – impossible to quantify with precision – is still indifferent, suspicious or hostile to liberal ideas or what is commonly acknowledged as ‘European values’. Many people remain prone to xenophobia, irrationality, superstition, prejudice and negative stereotypes against certain groups of people. They oppose secularism. They are indifferent to the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. They are receptive to fake news, irrational explanations of events and outrageous conspiracy theories. They vote for populist and/or nationalistic political parties. They are only sensitive to human rights abuses if these are committed against an affiliated group (e.g. against nation X), while being indifferent or even supportive of abuses when committed against presumably hostile groups (e.g. against religion Y or minority Z). They reject the difficult policy choices necessary for society’s long-term benefit (e.g. moderation in public spending) and accuse instead Europe’s “elites” or “oligarchy” for making such choices. Their decisions and emotions are dominated by irrationality, self-interest and prejudice versus reason and values.
Those people are not necessarily poorly educated. Many of them belong to the elites. Many of them are intellectuals, wealthy and privileged. Sometimes we ourselves behave or think in this way, without even realising it. The roots of such behaviour run deeper. It is in human nature to think along the lines of tribal instinct and stereotypes, to mistrust what is alien – perhaps this is one of our evolutionary features for survival. Such attitudes can be further traced to the education and values received from families, schools, media and social circles. Those instincts must be harnessed, however. We thus believe that a prime task of the EU and its member states should be the civic education of the members of its society, with the aim of fostering consensual decisions, rational thinking, values of mutual respect and a healthy democracy.
Definition and topics of civic education
According to one definition, civic education in a democracy is education in self-government. It needs to promote a reasoned commitment to the values and principles of democracy. According to Margaret Stimmann Branson, “A message of importance is that politics need not be a zero-sum game. The idea that ‘winner takes all’ has no place in a democracy, because if losers lose all they will opt out of the democratic game. Sharing is essential in a democratic society – the sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of effecting social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills and the will to bring it about. That knowledge, those skills and the will or necessary traits of private and public character are the products of a good civic education.”
We subscribe to that view. We also believe that civic education must focus on the ideas of shared values, rights and responsibilities. This is the raw material of a progressive and vibrant society. We have thus identified several basic subjects that should form the pillars of basic civic education, with which all European citizens should be well acquainted. These are the following:
– the institutions of the EU and its national member states, their mode of governance and the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial power,
– basic elements of human rights, tolerance, non-discrimination and anti-racism,
– the possibilities to participate in local, regional and national governance,
– the principles of secularism,
– the rational reception of news against prejudice, hate-speech and conspiracy theories,
– the basic principles of sustainable development, with a focus on everyday matters such as recycling, reduction of fossil fuel consumption and air pollution, and energy efficiency,
– the basic principles of solidarity: how to respect the rights and freedoms of other citizens and how to offer support to the weak and dispossessed,
– the values of volunteerism, civil society, civil initiatives and self-organisation,
– the rationale of fiscal and economic policies: why are taxes imposed on citizens and how are they spent?
Civic education is not a process that only happens once and is then considered completed. It is something that follows people’s lives and needs. It evolves together with society. We would first split it in two pillars: civic education as part of basic school education, and civic education as a life-long process.
Civic education as part of the basic school education
The first and most important step would be the inclusion of civic education in the curriculum of basic school education. For more on this subject, see our proposal for a common European curriculum in a text published here.
All these elements listed above should be taught in simple terms to children of all ages. Basic school education should engage children in acts of civil participation and teach them the value of volunteerism, public participation and a rational filtering of what they hear, see or read. During each year of their school life, children should learn about how and why we have moved from the EEC to the EU, and also about the core values of their nations’ constitutions and what they mean for our daily lives. As a separate teaching subject, civic education should be taught by specially trained teachers.
Civic education as a life-long process for adults
Civic education for adults would be more complicated. They are exposed to many different sources of information and opinion-making, including media, as well as their own readings, professional, social and civil activities. Thus, the EU and its member states would need a synergistic program involving government, public administration, civil society and media.
Governmental institutions should communicate their policies in a transparent and simple manner. Hard choices need to be explained with honesty so that people understand and accept them. If an austerity measure is adopted, public authorities should clarify in a simple manner why is it needed, and what policy areas is it going to serve. People need to understand the need and purpose of certain sacrifices in order to accept them.
The Ministries of the EU government should explain in a few simple words their mission and the basics of their policies. Some examples: The website of the Ministries of Justice should inform citizens about the basic legal procedures: civil, criminal and administrative. Why are they separated and what purpose does each of them serve? What is the role of the public prosecutor or the investigating judge? What are the basic principles of family law or civil law? The Ministries of Environment should offer the most rational and documented information about climate change, our responsibility to tackle it, the value of recycling, how best to do it, how to save energy, how to protect the forests, how to contribute to cleaner urban air, and so on.
The EU- and national parliaments should clearly inform people about their mission, their committees, how they work and what their basic tasks are. How can a citizen contact a member of his/her parliament? How can citizens submit petitions? How do the parliaments control the other branches of the governing system?
The EU and national banks should educate the public about the basics of financial and monetary policy. What is inflation? What is the central interest rate, and when does it go up or down? What is quantitative easing? Why do the banks need capital buffers, which may sometimes restrict their lending potential?
We could cite many more examples in all areas of public administration.
Media bear a huge responsibility – perhaps the greatest – in educating the public not only about current events but also the “why” and context. A code of conduct should be adopted by European media and social media platforms on how to engage in citizens’ education about their most important rights, obligations and the functioning of democracy. Media should also lead by example in the elimination of hate speech, racism and mistreatment of minorities. We know, of course, that this is easy to state but difficult to implement: freedom of speech and information inevitably include some rotten apples, and they always will. NGOs, trade unions and all forms of citizen associations would bear their share of responsibility. They could, for instance, inform their members and the wider public about possibilities for charities, engagement in environmental activities, rights of workers or pensioners, initiatives for healthier life and so on. The examples are endless.
An exercise worth the effort
All the above discussion indicates that life-long civic education is a complex exercise. It would require the engagement of many different actors who themselves might have a different understanding of its content and purpose. We also have to acknowledge that it could, in part, be a futile exercise: despite billions of euros invested, and thousands of experts, websites and working hours dedicated to civic education, many people would still remain mired in ignorance, tribalism and prejudice, simply because they find it easier and more comforting. This is human nature. However, the overall effort would be worth it.