Europe prides itself on its cultural diversity. Yet, rising forms of nationalism in many Member States call the effectiveness of its approach into question. ‘Othering’ is far from gone; cultural minorities thirst for recognition; and our vision of culture, cultural literacy and heritage is still profoundly ethnonationalist. The EU-funded CHIEF (Cultural Heritage and Identities of Europe's Future) project has been shedding new light on this reality. By working hand-in-hand with young people experiencing the feeling of exclusion, it hopes to enable a more encompassing definition of ‘cultural literacy’ – that is, our understanding of the traditions, activities and history of our culture. “There are different factors challenging cultural diversity and inclusion,” says Anton Popov, coordinator of the project and senior lecturer in Sociology at Aston University. “First, migrants are often seen as external to national and European cultural identities. They are treated as subjects of integration policies. Then, different cultures might be introduced through the medium of religion, or even a colonialist perspective of history. We also have very different meanings of diversity across countries, and a post-ethnic foundation of national culture. The latter has the adverse consequence of considering minorities and migrants as ‘in need of education’.”
Facing up to the challenges of European values
To break this vicious circle, CHIEF has been focusing on young Europeans as the ‘future in the making’. The project team studies their cultural practices with an innovative approach to cultural literacy: it looks both at educational settings and at a variety of informal human interactions which have often been overlooked. “We investigate how cultural knowledge, practices and identities are enacted in schools, civil society settings, heritage sites, informal peer groups, as well as in intergenerational communication in the family context. Finally, we undertake systematic reviews of cultural and educational policies and national curricula,” Popov explains. The project, which covers not only EU Member States but also post-Brexit Britain, ‘could-be Europeans’ (Turkey and Georgia) and post-colonial India, is still ongoing. But it has already resulted in interesting suggestions on how to combat growing exclusionism.
Creating true cultural literacy
CHIEF’s first and perhaps most radical recommendation is to move away from our ethnonational understanding of culture and diversity. This requires taking into account not only what we learn in official educational settings, but also family as an important source of cultural knowledge. “By doing so, we could create a more diverse and inclusive curriculum accounting for mixed culture and foregrounding the decolonisation of knowledge. The idea is that we all do culture, and that national educational policies should move away from deficiency models,” Popov adds. Beyond rethinking national identities, the project acknowledges the fact that European identity is also facing challenges of its own. The EU’s values of openness and freedom tend to clash with narratives opposing it to national and ethnic identity widespread mostly amongst older citizens. The EU is also politically loaded and therefore has been very divisive, particularly during the previous decade since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. As Popov puts it: “Europe has become obsessed with memory and history, to the point where cosmopolitan discourses about its difficult past have now become part of new forms of mainstream nationalisms.” Here, an important recommendation of the project team is to engage young people. This first means getting them onboard with the idea of Europe as a source of cultural identity championing liberal values. But the project also recommends empowering the most disadvantaged of them through more accessible forms of education and encouraging the diversity of NGOs working with young people. The project team even created a website to encourage young people to express themselves through blog posts or videos. “We are still at the data analysis and writing-up stage on a number of work packages. By October 2020, we will report on our student and school surveys, after which we will focus on cross-national comparisons and two sets of policy recommendations at national and international level,” concludes Popov. With all this highly valuable input, there is little doubt that CHIEF will contribute to a new vision of cultural literacy in Europe.
CHIEF, cultural literacy, cultural heritage, minorities, nationalism, diversity, colonialist, ethnicity, EU