Civic education in Europe is being asked to perform a patchwork of shifting, and occasionally competing, functions. Though hardly a new feature in European education systems—dating back in some countries to the 19th century—policymakers and publics have turned with renewed interest to such programs to solve a range of modern challenges, from lagging political participation and youth unemployment, to the integration of newly arrived immigrants and refugees, and the need to protect pupils against the sway of alienation and radicalization.
While many of these challenges are shared across Europe, the civic education initiatives they inspire take a variety of forms, often depending on each country’s cultures, institutions, and traditions of what it means to be a “good citizen.” This variation begs important questions about what program models work best in increasingly diverse European societies.
This report examines the evolution of civic education in five countries—Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—and highlights the goals and pedagogical choices inherent to different approaches. When designing and implementing such programs, policymakers and educators face a number of tradeoffs, including whether to focus on imparting formal knowledge versus developing individual capabilities (e.g., critical thinking and empathy); demanding national loyalty versus empowering individual citizens though open discussion; fostering collective versus individual virtues; and encouraging rational criticism versus respect for all cultures.
As debates rage on about which of these elements deserve the most focus, one thing is certain: a lot is riding on the success of such programs, both for individual students and the societies in which they live.