What citizenship education for what democracy? Some inspirations from our conference

Olivier Lamon and Zoé Kergomard

From November 25th to November 27th, we had the delight of organizing an international online conference exploring citizenship education from the 19th to the 21st centuries in a transnational perspective. This was a special moment for both of us on many accounts – and we will soon post some further reflections on what it meant to have this conference online in the current covid-19 situation. But first, we would like to draw some conclusions from our rich and dense debates, which will of course be coloured by our own perspective as historians. The conference definitely gave us a lot to think about and we hope to keep this conversation going!

What does it bring to go “transnational”?

With our call for papers, our aim was to open a discussion on citizenship education beyond the usual boundaries of scholarship: disciplines (pedagogy, history, philosophy, political science, sociology, anthropology…) but also beyond national or linguistic academic spheres. This is why we ambitioned a transnational approach. Of course, “transnational” might seem a trendy buzzword, at best; and at worst, a new research must-do that standardizes approaches and hides variations and power imbalances. Our call suggested an opening of perspectives rather than just a shift towards the transnational. We certainly wanted to look beyond the school-centred and national-state context, but instead of ignoring its importance, the idea was to look at the interplay between concepts, practices, spaces and actors of citizenship education from the local to the global.

In the propositions we received, the nation-state context was certainly present, even just as a key point of comparison to think about citizenship education in history. For instance, contributions theorizing the promise of a transnational and/or European citizenship education drew parallels to citizenship education in the nation-state context since the 19th century. Julian Culp argued that a citizenship education centring on the nation-state as a main sphere of political debate and mobilisation could not be an answer to the multifold crisis of democracy today, whereas citizenship education should enable young people to relate to and engage with politics at the transnational level. For Johannes Drerup, critiques of European citizenship education as an indoctrination project forget that this has always also been an issue of “national” citizenship education. Could it not be equally feasible to justify a European citizenship education by centring on key democratic values in the European context?

Looking at concrete experiences in this field can yet be sobering: Gaetano Morese showed both the accomplishments and the institutional limitations of the European Youth Forum in its project to represent, educate and mobilize young people throughout the continent. Looking back in time, the absence of older projects of a global citizenship education in collective memory is puzzling, as the short-lived experiment of “children’s republics” after World War 2 studied by Samuel Boussion shows. His analysis highlighted the concrete constraints of educative spaces: how can citizenship education work in the closed environments of children’s homes? Starting at the local level can also be fascinating to see how old and new, local, national and global understandings of citizenship are being entangled and constantly negotiated, as Mohand Mechaour and Djamel Chikh showed in the case of Kabylian village associations.

Throughout the conference, the accent was also set on national case studies, but transnational dimensions were never far away. Speaking with such a diverse group led each of us to think differently about our case studies and most importantly, about the concepts and wordings of citizenship education. Education philosophers have long discussed whether or not education concepts could be universal. Wolfgang Sander thus argued that beyond divergent understandings of democracy and citizenship, there is a core understanding of education as an effort to think reflexively in many cultural traditions. Of course, concepts used to describe citizenship education may differ (civic, citizenship, political education/instruction or even social studies in Italy as mentioned by Luigi Cajani; references to “democracy” or “République”), but they can also cross national and linguistic borders, as Wim de Jong showed between Germany and the Netherlands.

Indeed, the representations and practices of citizenship education have always been affected by transnational circulations. This concerned intellectual writings, as Massimiliano Vaghi showed in the case of the Italian intellectual Matteo Galdi; pedagogical concepts of course – John Dewey or the networks of Education nouvelle were mentioned several times for the 20th century; or even lifestyles and representations carried by the transnationally connected European bourgeoisie, as Carola Groppe showed for the turn to the 20th century. In recent decades of course, citizenship education has received impulses from supranational institutions such as UNESCO, OECD or the European Union, either through policy recommendations or already through their funding strategy. Showing these entanglements also often means to look at diverse actors beyond the school context, as our call invited to do. Franziska Rehlinghaus thus looked at adults’ education to show how German economic actors first endorsed OECD-led initiatives for a life-long learning, and later used it as a political tool to counter the political representations and language blooming after 1968.

And even when looking at nation-state building, parallel developments are striking. Anne Heyer thus showed how the politicization of education issues in 19th-Century Germany, Britain and the Netherlands in the wave of mass suffrage contributed to forming the first mass democratic organizations in these countries. Closer to us, Emma Fiedler discussed recent programmes of citizenship education for migrants in the Netherlands, Germany and France as a (rather paternalistic and potentially counter-productive) answer to contemporary tensions around migration and national identity in these countries. From one case to the other, the scope of the conference thus allowed to identify recurring patterns but also differences.

Questioning self-congratulary narratives of citizenship education?

A clear limitation of our conference (and probably already of our call) is that we mainly focused on Western Europe. There was yet a common ambition to take distance with Western-centric and linear narratives of citizenship education as a natural gateway towards successful democratization. Many contributions thus highlighted challenges, contradictions and failures in citizenship education projects. Jolin Diekmann shed new light on the post-war roots of the often mythologised German “politische Bildung” by studying short-lived projects of a re-education towards a moral “reflexion” (Besinnung) in South-West Germany. Reform projects, as innovative as they could be, could fail to be implemented in reality, as Nathalie Dahn-Singh illustrated in the case of citizenship education programs for girls in 19th century Switzerland. But even doomed processes of transformation can help identify the actors trying to renegotiate the boundaries of citizenship and even of “politics”, such as the Swiss bourgeois women promoting girls’ civic and moral education.

From one case to the other, we could see how knowledge forms did not circulate well in time and space, were not accumulated but how actors seemed to constantly reinvent what they meant to do. This was particularly the case when citizenship education was clearly utilised by political actors as a supposedly magical response to any kind of identified crisis – in democracy, in society or in youth itself, as Wim de Jong, Luigi Cajani, Aurélie de Mestral and Jean-Charles Buttier showed regarding post-war Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and France.

Chances and challenges of an interdisciplinary discussion

We really enjoyed having so many disciplines around and consequently very different approaches. A challenge, but also an asset of the conference was the links we could make between theoretical discussions on the one side, concrete measures and practices on the other. This was yet also linked to a major difference between our disciplines, namely the question of normativity: while philosophers and education scholars reflect on what constitutes a valuable citizenship education, historians, anthropologists and sociologists were often reluctant to take such stances during the conference, i.e. to assess the quality of the citizenship education practices they were studying. Yet we always came back to normative questions, not least when trying to analyse contradictions and failures of citizenship education projects, or when assessing whether or not they were intended for everyone – inclusion and exclusion along the lines of social class, gender and race in particular was a key question throughout the conference.

As historians working on the 19th and 20th century it really made us aware of how difficult (and perhaps not even advisable?) it is to aim at neutrality when speaking about such a political topic with strong echoes to contemporary debates. Sometimes these questions are already ingrained in the sources and objects of citizenship education: we regularly discussed citizenship education manuals (or catechisms in a not so distant past), which condense a certain consensus on what pupils should learn in a given time and space, but also constantly questioned by pedagogues and teachers since they would lead to approach education as a vertical transmission of democratic values and knowledge (i.e. on institutions). Many questions led us to the old paradox of paternalism in citizenship education, as Wim de Jong underlined: who decides who gets to be educated and how? Projects centring around participation possibilities for young people are a good example in that regard: Jean-Charles Buttier et Aurélie De Mestral thus showed how projects in Swiss schools started from the assumption that young people had to be “activated”, while ignoring (and sometimes sanctioning) participation practices outside schools (such as the recent climate strike). Youth organizations have also long been sensitive to the issue of token participation1. In this vein, a difficult question to study remains how people react to citizenship education projects, from active participation to disinterest or more or less explicit resistance.  

Cite this blog post
Olivier Lamon (2020, December 22). What citizenship education for what democracy? Some inspirations from our conference. Can We Learn Democracy? Retrieved June 12, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/nfxn

  1. See Roger A. Hart’s 1992 report for the UNICEF, Children’s Participation: From tokenism to citizenship []

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