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Deep Dive: Youth and Education Policy at the service of “Never Again”

25/01/2023

Robin Sclafani, CEJI Director

Youth today are often associated in the headlines as part of devastating statistics about mental health or unemployment. They are also leading the fights against existential threats to our future on Earth: climate change, racism and totalitarianism, amongst others.

In this week marking the International Day of Education (24th of January) and the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance (27th of January), CEJI is deep diving into the current educational policy framework which is crucial to the present and future of the European Union.

The first assumption which must be made explicit is the fact that youth, with all their diversity, are co-creators and co-actors in society. They have inherited the many crises which have been created by generations before. The European Commission declared 2022 as the European Year of Youth, highlighting the opportunities and structural challenges which must be faced in the implementation of the Youth Strategy and in the field of education.

The European Commission, together with the Member States, collected young Europeans voices that led to 11 European youth goals. These goals provide a roadmap towards their vision of a Europe that enables youth to reach their full and unique potential, all in the construction of inclusive and equitable societies. Such a vision gives us something to strive for, but we must face the truth that many young people continue to face multiple and intersectional discrimination.

The LGBTI Survey developed by FRA in 2019 determined that young people (aged 15-24) experience some of the highest levels of discrimination across all age groups as well as higher rates of hate-motivated violence. Another survey carried out by FRA shows that 45% of young Jews, or one young Jew out of two, have experienced antisemitism. That is more than all age groups in the Jewish community. 

The impact of inequalities must be taken seriously as a threat to social and economic advancement. It asks us to be more than “allies” and to do more than educate young people to be “allies.” It asks us to recognise the severity of the risks posed by social polarisation and to own these challenges as our own, for the sake of all our safety and security, and in particular for the sake and safety of the younger generations of today and tomorrow. As the main stakeholders in facing these challenges, youth must be involved in decision-making and implementation of the 11 priority goals in the Youth Strategy as well other EC equality strategies such as the Action Plan against racism and the Strategy on combatting antisemitism and fostering Jewish life.

How can we talk about fostering any culture in the present and future without engaging those who have the most to gain, or to lose, and have the most to contribute to these efforts now and in the decades to come?  

The role of education policy cannot be underestimated and should no longer be undervalued. It is education which will make or break the future of fully functioning democracies, the sustainable development of our economies, and the flourishing of our pluralistic societies.  The role of education and youth policies in the European Commission Action Plan against Racism or the Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life, for example, give critical importance to educational policies as a pillar of holistic approaches that enable the structural and cultural change which is, in fact, inevitable. The result of this inevitability is, however, yet to be determined – will we find ourselves mired in conflicts between extremists, totalitarianism, inequalities and war? Or will we find our childrens’ futures defined by the extraordinary creativity and productivity which can arise from diversity and democracy?   

Discrimination cannot only be addressed simply by prohibiting it. People must be trained, properly, and have the confidence and capacity to implement non-discriminatory policies and behaviours.

The process to define and implement policies that transform racist, antisemitic, gender-normative and colonialist paradigms must demonstrate the positive potential of participatory systems. The institutionalized mechanisms put in place to facilitate participation must also be designed to mitigate the unconscious bias and structural racism which tends to render racialised voices invisible. It is high time to embrace the reality of our diversity with all its intersectional complexity. Participatory systems for designing policies and programmes must honour the diverse experiences of those most directly and immediately impacted by education and youth policies.

Looking ahead to upcoming policy-influencing opportunities, we note that the Swedish presidency has promised to focus on Youth Goal 3 on Inclusive Societies and Youth Goal 10 on a sustainable green Europe. Sweden will be responsible for the Council resolution on the midterm review of the work plan of the EU Youth Strategy 2022-2024. 

The EU Commission also created the European Education Area strategic framework to structure collaboration between European Union Member States and key stakeholders. We applause the initiative and the reforms that have come out of it, but we also want to highlight the following conclusion shared in the report “Progress towards the achievement of the European Education Area: “We see significant warning signs requiring systemic longer-term efforts to improve quality and equity in education and training”.

The EC-funded project NOA, Networks Overcoming Antisemitism, was designed to move the “fight against antisemitism” forward so that Jewish life can thrive throughout Europe. One of the NOA project activities is called National Report Cards, a research-action methodology to benchmark the current national policy landscape for addressing antisemitism. The 10 policy areas examined in the NOA National Report Cards are also relevant for other EU equality strategies, but in this case the policy areas are examined through the lens of needs defined by Jewish communities’ lived experiences of exclusion and inclusion in Europe today.[1]

With two NOA National Report Cards released in 2022 (Belgium and Hungary) and three to be released before summer 2023 (Netherlands, Austria and Italy), there are some interesting trends emerging in terms of the areas which tend to be strongest and the areas which tend to be weakest in national policy frameworks. For example, in both Belgium and Hungary, education scored the lowest of all 10 policy areas. It is also interesting to note that the areas which are consistently strongest (ie security and hate crime) are those policy areas in which the Member States are accountable to European Union legislation.  The areas which are consistently weakest are those in which the EU does not have “competence” or legal authority, albeit they may have some influence through incentives (ie funding projects). 

Education is very possibly the most neglected necessary dimension for the realisation of the European Union Dream. Given its weakness, education also offers a significant opportunity to achieve intended transformations of structural and systemic inequalities over the next 10-20 years. For those of us with grown children, we know how darn fast 20 years can go by!

In our shared anti-racist commitment, we must also be cognizant of the role that education played in colonialist paradigms presented to the public as a “civilising” project; albeit for the colonized it was often experienced as an institutionalized form of control and suppression. This is yet another reason for our government institutions to role model their own calls for greater participation and citizenship by institutionalizing frameworks that facilitate the voices of those from communities that systematically experience discrimination, marginalisation or violence in one form or another.

Questions such as these are particularly poignant in this week marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As we grieve the losses now of those who originally, miraculously, survived, we can be grateful to have gathered and digitized so many first-hand accounts of the horrors that occurred. We can be re-assured by increasing investments by the EU in Holocaust remembrance research as well as new efforts to bring forth more truth, justice and reconciliation vis a vis Europe’s past and present with racism and colonialization as well as antisemitism.

Transgenerational traumas still echo with younger generations in Europe, exacerbated by polarizing politicization of memory and identity discourse. The Shoah is a key cornerstone of the pivotal post-WWII context which ushered in the modern-day centrality of human rights paradigms and institutions. International Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to remember: those who were lost, those who survived, and what we learned and are still learning. This Day always brings public calls for more and better education, true to the values of human rights, human decency and our common humanity. The outcome of this study, which reveals that nearly one quarter of Dutch millennials and Gen Z believe the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, proves the emerging need for strengthening the educational system.    

Our common humanity implies a common identity; a sense of “we” with all our diversities; upon which our beloved European Union relies to fulfil its self-declared role as guarantor of human rights, democratic processes and economic and political sustainability. The construction of a common understanding of the “European Way of Life” will be tremendously facilitated by a minimum of shared core curricula values made operational through educational policies and cultural change.

Without education, there is no memory, and thus no learning, and a higher risk to repeat the horrors of the past.


[1] The 10 policy areas examined include: culture, education hate crime, hate speech, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, media, religious freedom, security, Shoah remembrance and sport.