Educating Europe

Education has played a big part in healing Europe's divisions. Four decades ago, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer approved the creation of new textbooks that children in both countries would use to help heal the century-long Franco-German antagonism.

Today's challenges call for such a dynamic use of educational policy. With the May accession of the ten central, eastern, and southern European candidate states, the European Union will be more politically, economically, and socially diverse than ever. This entails new opportunities, no doubt, but also new risks. Because an enlarged Union will become a reality in just two months, it is imperative to develop concepts for cultural understanding that contribute to the successful integration of the new members.

Some values, long espoused by the Union, should be relatively easy to convey. A decade ago, with the Maastricht Treaty, EU members agreed to respect the history, culture, and traditions of all of their constituent peoples. The draft constitution that recently failed to gain acceptance in the first round of negotiations not only promises to respect cultural heritage; it obliges the Union actively to protect, maintain, and develop the wealth of Europe's cultural and linguistic diversity.

But Europe can succeed in this task only if its various constituent cultures do not seal themselves off from one another. Within a mobile and open Europe, there can be no fencing off of foreign cultures; contact cannot be avoided. Diversity has to be lived, which means establishing one's own uniqueness and learning to cope in and with other regions and mindsets. Goethe already spoke of this in his play "Torquato Tasso," when he cried out: "Compare yourself! Discover what you are!"

Indeed, Europeans will only succeed in building the wider Europe if they are open to what is foreign to them. Xenophobia is a sign of education gone wrong - an expression of narrow-mindedness and the inability to put oneself in the position of others. So, rather than embarking on a search for a European identity, we should agree on mutual educational objectives to increase the awareness of all Europeans of the "others" who are their brethren in Europe.

A thirst for knowledge, a delight in engaging with the world, and empathy with people from different cultures are qualities that can ensure diversity in unity, and unity in diversity. The same is true for the virtue of tolerance and for multilingualism. Only those who are familiar with European history and who engage in discussion with the candidate countries about what Europe is and should be will be able to bridge the gap between different cultures and religions.

This implies critical faculties and the ability to tolerate criticism. Moreover, the current EU member states will not only have to be able to tolerate the criticism by central, eastern, and southern Europeans of western civilization, but also to take such criticism into consideration as they ponder policy.

A successful education teaches us to treat others with dignity, regardless of religion, race, origin, or gender. A significant element of a successful education is the willingness to be tolerant of others. Psychologically, this virtue implies the ability to put oneself in others' position.

Communication between members of different cultures fails so often because we know too little about one another. Travel broadens the mind, they say, but for that to happen, more is required than merely frequent changes of location. To acquire an insight into how people from other cultures perceive the world, what is required is knowledge of how they live and experience life.

A newer insight would be: multilingualism broadens the mind. Language is not just a means of communication. Language is culture. The very question of which states of mind, characteristics, and circumstances a language has words for tells us something about cultural peculiarities.

For the German language, let me point here to Weltschmerz , Weltgeist , Zeitgeist , Schadenfreude , Realpolitik , or Bildung - all of them words for which other languages often lack precise equivalents. Moreover, by learning a foreign language, one acquires a new understanding of one's own. Most importantly, though, language provides access to the other culture. Calls for attendance in a foreign school - if possible for at least one year - as part of a future European curriculum should be heard and seriously considered.

Of course, multilingualism, empathy, tolerance, and the acquisition of knowledge about foreign cultures cannot be decreed like taxes. But the state can and should organize a good ethical and political education that affords young people the opportunity to interact with others and recognize and accept their equality. Liberal democracy, in its search for civic-mindedness, depends on people and institutions that can guide the way by their example, beliefs, or worldview.

Time and again throughout the course of our lives, we must bring ourselves to tolerate opinions and behaviours that seem contrary to our own. In this effort, we are sustained only by education. The actor and writer Peter Ustinov found a graphic image for this: "Education is important, especially when it comes to dismantling prejudices. You can't help being a prisoner within your own mind, but the least you can do is ensure that the cell is decently furnished."