The politics of education suffers from a paradox. Education systems are among the institutions that shape individual lives and wider society most profoundly, yet they remain neglected as a subject of political debate and reflection. Though rarely the subject of front-page news or late-night international negotiations, education is one of the most powerful tools that modern societies have to shape their present and future, and to make sense of their past.
The sheer size and complexity of education systems can partially account for this. Institutional juggernauts, their time horizons extend well beyond electoral cycles. The consequences of reforms and investment can take years to materialise. As the everyday struggles of teachers and educators show, education can find itself relegated to the “second-order” activities of care and social reproduction that are wrongly taken for granted, despite its critical role in shaping individual and collective wellbeing and values [Cherici and Ambrosini].
Far from an area of life sheltered from the great challenges of our times – inequality, the fate of democracy, wars, and pandemics – the world’s many ongoing crises are played out in education systems everywhere. This edition sets out to uncover the politics of education in Europe. It seeks to understand how the stresses of a changing world are reflected in Europe’s classrooms, lecture halls, and workshops, and argues for education’s role in bringing about the more sustainable, just, and free society that Green and progressive movements fight for.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Europe set itself the objective of becoming a knowledge society. This goal turned out to be more rhetoric than substance (it soon marched in step with precarity and austerity), but the aspiration for a well-educated society in which all have the opportunity to learn, master, and develop their passions is a noble one. After all, a society of individuals empowered by knowledge and learning that shares common references, values, and understandings can only be achieved through education [Göpel].
Today that ideal is some way off. We live in an era of multiple inequalities, a fact vividly reflected in education systems. In many places, cuts and underinvestment chipped away at the possibilities for education offered by welfare states and parallel private systems emerged to fill the gaps. Education became a driver of inequality rather than a tool to fight against it. For many, especially the displaced, simply accessing education is a struggle [Spinelli]. In other places, a quality universal education system is yet to emerge to replace institutions built under totalitarianism [Banach].
The world has changed profoundly since modern education systems were first built. Career and life paths are more varied and unpredictable. European societies are increasingly intertwined with one another through integration, migration, and exchange. In turn, they form just a small part of a wider global community connected by culture, communication, and trade.
The task of education in the digital age is more complex than ever. Amid a digital revolution comparable to the invention of the printing press, teachers and students must today navigate an information system that is dense, convoluted, and contested [Von Reppert-Bismarck]. But a more fundamental problem is that today’s education systems operate amid a wider crisis of legitimacy and meaning. Cast in national moulds, schools, training institutions, and universities expanded throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to prepare people for the battlefield, the factory, and the state apparatus. As the narratives of that era become unstuck – most starkly that of steady material development based on destroying the natural world – so too do the foundations on which education systems were built.
Any idea that education can be politically neutral should be dispelled. In recent years, education has borne the brunt of neoliberalism through sweeping reforms and cuts in many countries. This project puts public education systems under pressure, starving them of resources and converting educational attainment into an asset class [Ventura]. Nationalism and nation-building have always been at the heart of modern public education. In the hands of the far right, this educational project risks leaving pupils with an idealised and reduced version of the past, wherein nations are the predetermined units of history and conservative values are naturalised [Dziergowska]. In times when bridge-building and peace are more important than ever, the danger that education is used to reinforce divides [McKeown Jones & Čehajić-Clancy] and even lay the ground for conflict cannot be overlooked [Besliu].
What then can the Greens provide as an alternative for Europe’s education systems? As this edition explores, seeds of resistance and change are already being sown. From the introduction of new approaches to sustainability in the classroom [Fioramonti] to determining the skills needed for the green transition [Suárez], there are growing efforts to put ecology at the heart of education. With forms of knowledge and authority changing, empowering people in their autonomy is just as crucial, whether that means liberating the mind from the distracting influence of technology [Bell] or entrusting teachers with both the freedom and resources to educate and inspire [Jürimäe]. In pluralist societies where previously marginalised voices and experiences are increasingly being heard, it is also essential to formulate curricula that reflect this diversity [Soiresse Njall] and allow the academic community to confront society and its ideas free from stigma, pressure, or constraint [Fassin and Pető]. Green education should equip future citizens to grasp the changes of a world in flux. This means emphasising approaches that inspire people to understand the world and its interrelated mechanisms in all their complexity through unlocking each and everyone’s innate capacity to learn independently [Di Stefano] as well as nurturing their impulse to discover [Klein].
For a political tradition that is so connected to science and knowledge with so many activists and supporters drawn from education, we can ask whether Green politics has paid enough attention to its own politics of education. To win support across society, Greens will have to do more than show the strengths of their technical solutions or convince voters that the green transition can be a source of security and prosperity, critical as those points are. They will also need to tap into the deep power of cultural change [Gaudot].
More than a stepping stone to employment or a means to define an exclusive community, Green politics should therefore set out a radical and expansive vision of why and how we should learn. This vision should link education to today’s great challenges: facing a mounting ecological crisis, dismantling structures of injustice and oppression, and building the basis for democracy and peace. By introducing the spark of change into education systems and building on the positive steps already undertaken, it can help define a renewed and inclusive form of citizenship beyond the nation and open up learning beyond the walls of the classroom in an exchange with the wider world.
Any project of building a different society goes hand in hand with reimagining education. A precondition for change is the capacity to see the world differently. For the Greens, it is a potential too precious to pass up.