Countries come to terms with their identity crises

15th November 2002 at 00:00
How is nationality defined in pluralist societies and emerging democracies, asks Diane Hofkins

A child who is three today will be at the height of his or her career in 2048, and engaged in an active retirement in 2078. In other words, their life will span the 21st century, and they will be a citizen of the world in ways hard for us to imagine.

It means that educators today have a "huge responsibility to ensure democracy is alive and healthy".

These thoughts, from Margot Brown, national co-ordinator of the Centre for Global Education in York, set the tone for a three-day conference organised by the British Council in Copenhagen. It brought together people from Britain, Denmark, Romania, and Lithuania to think about democracy and diversity in the primary school classroom.

The central question was, what defines a nation? How do you maintain a national identity while also encompassing people who do not have the traditional national characteristics?

In recent years, this has become a complicated issue in Denmark. An influx of immigrants has brought out unexpected racism and National Front-style politicians in this famously tolerant land.

Dr Ove Korsgaard, associate professor at the Danish University of Education, thought that in a multicultural society, nationality had to be defined in political terms. This, of course, is how it works in the United States, where children pledge allegiance to the flag and study the constitution.

But even in a politically-defined nation of immigrants, diversity does not make for a comfortable, harmonious society. In Britain, the struggle is exemplified by David Blunkett's idea for a citizenship test ("You'll learn to be tolerant - or else!", read a cartoon in one national newspaper).

In Denmark, the language of pluralism is still being developed - "old Dane" and "new Dane" sounds better than "real Danes" and "immigrants".

At the Hellig Kors Skola in Copenhagen, whose 415 pupils aged six to 16 come from 40 countries, the librarian runs a programme for the young ones called "mixed sweets" to symbolise the equality and variety of the student body. But so far there are not many books available in Danish showing children from different ethnicities, and she had bought some materials in England.

"It's important to develop language because conflict can develop when children don't have the words to express themselves," said the head, Klaus Mygind. The school has worked hard to combat racism and conflict in a tough part of the city, where immigrants first arrived about 25 years ago. "When things change, the way we work must change and we must change ourselves as people," said Mr Mygind.

A class of 11-year-olds included Moroccan, Vietnamese, Turkish, Somalian and Palestinian children. Teachers are sensitive to the hardships some have faced and there is much discussion about human rights. On September 11 they had a minute's silence for all those who had died in conflicts. Relationships are key, and teachers tell the pupils: "It is part of our job to make sure you have a good life."

The debate over integration versus pluralism surfaced in a number of ways. In Lithuania and Romania, where democratic society is in its infancy, they are not sure about how to educate minority groups. In Romania, where the Roma, or gypsies, are the largest minority, they are trying to involve the parents more in primary schools, but so far it seems to be on the schools' terms.

The other main minority, Hungarians, are educated in separate schools altogether. In Lithuania, a country of only 3.5 million, they are struggling with how to construct a positive national identity in the post-Communist world. But clearly, the biggest challenge for education is how to introduce democracy in countries which have only recently emerged from Communist dictatorship.

It may not be that hard for the children, who were born into a different society, but teachers had been trained in more authoritarian methods. In neither country can they take the existence of democracy for granted in the way that Western Europeans do, even if we argue over what it means.

"Democracy," Margot Brown pointed out, "is fragile." It needs constant vigilance and re-defining, and often needs to be protected in unexpected ways.

Much as Britons see their institutions as democratic, it doesn't always feel that way for children. The Euridem Project, a research study published by the Children's Rights Alliance, showed that the UK is out of step with the rest of Europe when it comes to children's rights in school. For instance, Denmark, Germany, Holland and Sweden all have pupils on governing bodies and student councils by law in every school. In British schools children are taught about citizenship, sharing and listening to others, but when it comes to the structures of the school, they don't usually have much of a voice.

Another study in England showed that pupils saw teachers as one of the least likely groups to believe in children's rights.

For Mihaela Ionescu, from Romania, Britain's struggles with democracy - not just in schools, but in society and politics as well - were alarming. "We are trying to learn good things from you but now I am hearing that democracy is under threat," she said.

Her comments pointed up the difference between a mature democracy, where the principle is taken for granted and the details can be squabbled over, and a new one where the whole concept is precarious and precious.

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