Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues.
The idea and practice of neutrality – that is, not expressing views or avoiding political discussions – in the Western education system is seen as self-evident and rarely questioned. However, education has always been shaped by the socio-cultural realities and political ideologies of the day. Political ideas about how a society should be organized have informed school textbooks, educational policies, and teacher trainings, affecting not only what is taught but also what is not taught in schools.
Following the post 1980’s resurgence of far-right parties and populism in European politics, a right-wing ethnocentric worldview has gained prominence in political and administrative institutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such political growth has also led to populist views gaining ground in European educational systems, too. Despite this, there has been little research into the potential effects of the far right’s effect on education in Europe, although recent research has identified how the far right aims to impact educational policy and acts as an educational actor.
In Italy, this is exemplified by the far-right League Party’s plan to diminish university attendance rates among high-schoolers, limiting their exposure to leftist views at universities. League also demanded an academic book be removedfrom the reading list of a course at the University of Bologna. Similar actions have been observed across Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is asking for the re-design of history subjects, simultaneously advocating for teaching students about their German roots while engaging in acts that downplay the history of the Holocaust. In France, educational policy is not one of the main populist strategies of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally, although the party supports patriotic moral education and teaching national history as a defence against multiculturalism. The populist discourse and practices employed by National Rally impact the strategies and policies of centre-right parties in councils and in the parliament. The councils run by Le Pen’s party ban school canteens from serving pork-free menus, discriminating against Muslim and Jewish students. On French university campuses, Collectif Marianne, Assas Patriote, and Action française étudiante work to advance the cause of far-right ideologies, primarily through university councils.
The increasing political influence of the European far-right also impacts the discourses and actions of parties in power. In northern Belgium, Flanders, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (NVA) party has pressed a proposal to establish a Flemish Canon, which will be taught to pupils at schools, as well as newcomers. The canon is described as follows: “In order to promote the sense of identity of the younger generation, we are following the example of the Netherlands in drawing up a Flemish canon, a list of anchor points from our Flemish culture and history, which characterize Flanders as a European nation.” Turkey is another example of how populists in power impact the educational agenda. In Turkey, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been removed from the biology textbooks used in high schools. This decision was based on the argument that the theory is controversial and difficult to comprehend.
The aforementioned far-right strategies focus on a monolithic understanding of society, showcasing the far right’s refusal to accept multicultural identities and cosmopolitanism. The strategy of imposing a national identity and moral code through the education system is crystalized in the debate over students from immigrant backgrounds. The far right views these students as the main problem in schools. They are emblematic of decadence, illiteracy, and violence. Given the power of education in reaching and influencing large groups and shaping society, it’s not surprising that different political actors and forces, including the contemporary far right, aim to instil their social and political values into educational institutions. At a time when teachers and students are displaying authoritarian tendencies, how best to push against the harmful far-right narratives seeking to shatter the values of democracy in European education? There is undoubtedly more than one answer to this question. We will, however, focus on one pedagogical approach that could be adopted in schools to curb the harmful effects of populist rhetoric. That approach is culturally relevant pedagogy.
Gloria Ladson-Billings is an American pedagogical theorist who, after a decade teaching in American public schools, wondered why Black students were less successful than their white peers. While getting her Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education, her research revealed how Black students were viewed as deficient and deviant by teachers, administrators, and students and treated as problematic. In order to challenge this “deficiency” narrative, she began to ask questions about teachers and their classrooms, which eventually led to the development of culturally relevant pedagogy in the 1990s.
Based on her research with successful teachers of African American students, Ladson-Billings advocates a focus on students’ academic success, cultural competence, and socio-political or critical consciousness. The first component might seem obvious for educational institutions typically characterized by their commitment to ensuring the academic success of their students. However, Ladson-Billings centralizes student learning and stresses the role of teachers in engaging students to develop tools for critical thinking. As part of this process, teachers must have high expectations for their students. It is only when students are learning that they can have the desired academic outcomes and succeed on examinations.
The second tenet, cultural competence, refers to the recognition that students show up in school with their own culture, language, norms, and ideas, all of which can impact a student’s learning experiences. Given the increasingly diversifying cultural make-up of many industrialized societies, schools are increasingly populated by more multiracial and multi-ethnic students. However, the far right’s emphasis on the distinctive culture, values, and identity of the national group risks marginalizing students from minority backgrounds while prioritizing the culture and interests of the majority group. Moreover, exclusionary national identities are often reinforced by polarizing narratives that frame immigrants – especially those from Africa and the Middle East – as a threat to the Western way of life.
In response to these populist discourses, teachers need to work on empowering all students, offering them the tools to examine critically their own position in society. Recognizing and valuing the knowledge and experiences of students of different genders, faiths, cultures, languages, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities is critical to support positive identity development and facilitating access to different cultures. By being mindful of who they are teaching and what the students’ specific needs are, teachers can help all students to cultivate multicultural competencies. In other words, teachers should utilize students’ cultural backgrounds as a critical learning resource that can help them make sense of an increasingly globalized world.
The third and perhaps most important component of culturally relevant pedagogy is the development of students’ socio-political or critical consciousness in this hyper-polarized political climate. The goal of this tenet is to help students to develop the necessary skills to question social inequities in society and to not just consume knowledge, but to be critical of it. This approach has certain similarities with citizenship education, which stresses helping youth develop the tools to recognize and solve problems in society and promotes the democratic values of freedom and non-discrimination. While this aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is vital to the development of students’ skills as democratic citizens, it is often ignored in schools due to the “neutrality” narrative that dismisses discussions about political issues in classrooms.
This aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is not about teachers pushing their own political agendas in the classroom. If they’re not able to ask complex questions about societal issues, students are denied the space to expose anti-democratic and populist narratives and form their own counter-narratives informed by critical reasoning. Avoiding or suppressing conversations about controversial topics could actually create more room for authoritarian views to gain popularity among students. Alternatively, encouraging students to elaborate on ideas and issues that they find meaningful or that affect their everyday realities could support their understanding and critical awareness of their social context and position within it.
Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues. This can be achieved by the transformation of teacher training programs. In fact, teachers should be taught that “one of the most effective ways to affect democracy is through the classroom.” By teaching their students the tools to think critically, teachers prepare them to understand their role and position in multicultural societies and to assess the implications of the far right’s growing influence on democratic values, such as equity, freedom, and justice.