Bursting the Bubble

No Barriers

28 April 2014 | by

What does the childhood of an ordinary child look like? You are born, your parents raise you in their family, you go to your local school with the other children in the neighborhood and you get to know each other at school, at sports clubs and later on in the pub. However, not all European children grow up in this way. Some children attend bilingual schools in their own country.  While some move across international borders, accompanying their parents who work in international jobs. As these children are often unable to speak the language of their host country and thus pursue an education at a local school, they attend European and international schools.

I was one among those many children who had the privilege to attend a European School. From 2000 until 2005, I attended the European school in Luxembourg as a result of my father’s work. As last year the European School in Luxembourg, the first European School, celebrated its 60th anniversary, this article reflects upon this educational phenomenon. 

History

With the establishment of the European Community for Coal and Steel in 1951, several European countries united their industrial efforts to create a Union that would provide for a more stable and flourishing Europe. This implied that civil servants were to move across national borders and settle in other countries in order to contribute to this united European effort. Of course, their families would move with them, creating numerous options for educating their children. Ideas and efforts resulted in the establishment of the first European School in Luxembourg. Many similar schools followed and there are currently 14 schools in 7 European Member States. The main idea behind this concept was to create an equal standard of teaching across Member States for the children of EU civil servants which would result in a diploma recognized across European universities and higher education providers.

By bringing pupils from different nationalities together, a mini-European Union is established. Pupils experience what it feels like to live side-by-side and to cooperate in a multicultural environment; they are taught to cross cultural and linguistic barriers. The school is composed of different language sections enabling pupils to learn together with others from the same nationality. Apart from having classes in their mother tongue, pupils also choose a second, third and fourth (optional) language. Gradually more classes, such as history, economics and geography are taught in the second language. This results in pupils who are bilingual and who are aware of the customs and habits of other cultures.

Personal experience

Even though it is valuable to have some background information, what make it more interesting are personal experiences. In 1953, Jean Monnet stated the purpose behind the European Schools: “Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their father before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.”

This is exactly what a European School does. However, this is the bright and shiny side of it. It has been a great advantage to have spent my teenage years among people from many different cultures. I was close friends with people from Spain, Germany and Denmark, talking to each other in a language different from my own language. Apart from that, I was also still given the chance to relate to my own nationality by being in a class with Dutch and Flemish people. Together we shared our common nationality, which united us, but never restricted us in establishing relationships with people of other nationalities.

For five years I was living a European dream; going to school with people from many different countries, sharing ideas and experiences, accumulating knowledge. Never forgetting my own identity and culture.

However, going to a European School also has a dark side. A European School provides a fantastic opportunity. Most of us were raised in protected environments seeing only the positive sides of intercultural interaction. After graduation, nearly all of my classmates (including myself) went abroad to study as there were not a lot of opportunities in Luxembourg at that time. All of a sudden, we were taken out of this European bubble and put in the real world. We were forced to leave our comfort zone without being able to really go back. The only thing that we could return to was our parents who were still living in Luxembourg. It took a lot of time for most of us to get used to the fact that this European dream was not reality. Most countries still experience intercultural problems within their own borders. However, given this intercultural background, it showed us that it is possible to live together peacefully as we have experienced it ourselves.

Future

Currently it appears that the gap between identities and cultures is widening. With the opening of eastern European borders, and the subsequent stimulation of migration flows, people are becoming afraid of losing their own identity and culture. On the other hand, there is a growing group of people who are identifying themselves as Europeans rather than only referring to the nationality of their country. These people constitute the motor behind European integration. Instead of focusing on the differences between people, the European Schools teach their pupils that it would be more advantageous to consider commonalities.

Hopefully, the phenomenon of a European School and its extraordinary way of teaching will motivate other local and national schools to do the same thing; to encourage bilingual classes, intercultural cooperation, exchange programmes and the pursuit of international studies and careers. Only by motivating and encouraging new generations will we be able to secure a positive and constructive European future, carried by young and enthusiastic Europeans.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Saskja, great piece on how your personal experience relates to cultural and social movements in Europe.
    Like you I was raised in a European Environment, so I feel Italian abroad and a foreigner in my own country of birth, but at ease anywhere in Europe.
    Like you I felt the clash when leaving the EU bubble and travelling across Europe. This is why with some Eurobrats we founded a think tank on Europe 2020 to “Enlarge the number of European Actors”, which we estimated at 2% in 1995 (cumulating workers moving around multi-national ,companies, researchers moving around countries and Erasmus beneficiaries, but not tourists). One of the outcomes of this think-tank is EurActiv.com.
    Even more than you I feel like an Obelix dropping in the European potion as a kid, as my grand-parents (Italian and Polish) met in Warsaw – so I am already enlarged.

    What I miss in your piece, and is missing from many comments on the European Schools, is the missed objective of ‘Creating a model of pan-European education’. That was in Monnet’s initial objectives, but is missing from the School’s charter.
    Still, look around you if you’re in Paris, Brussels, London, Milano, Berlin or even, now, Warsaw: kids need a multicultural education, fitted to the city they live in. And national schools keep teaching the good and great of national systems, opening up to Europe and its history only in the last months before the final examination, when you start looking at the consequences of WWII. For 12 years you study how great the Britons where, resisting invasion for the last 1000 years. What Italians brought to most of their neighbours, as they were invading the country. How French fought Germans. How Germans… And only in the last 3 months you are told ‘we should be united in diversity’.
    The European Schools are like a 12 year Erasmus, starting at 6 years old. Much more European kids should benefit from the system, which should not be reserved for a privileged few Eurokids.

    • Dear Giorgio,
      Thank you very much for your interest in my article and for your reply. You are entirely correct when you suggest that we should have a pan-European educational system. Having experienced education in both the Netherlands and in Luxembourg, I have also seen both sides of the coin; European and national pride. I am a big supporter of encouraging more European education. However, I do believe that countries might not be up for it yet. I am now back in my hometown, which hosts a lot of international students and has an international school. These people are the ones who experience education across borders and boundaries. The ‘ordinary’ schools have tried bilingual systems but they seem to frighten most of the pupils and are only accessible for a select group of youngsters. I also experience that people are still a bit reluctant to accept the European Union and the pan-European ideal. We are proud of our country and even more proud of our city. The belief is that the European Union only costs money and spends money on problems which are not ours. What we do see now is that more people are discovering the Europe and the world via exchange programmes. This is the luck that has been given to people. It is my belief that it might take another generation to really promote the idea of European unity and to really step across cultural and linguistical boundaries and to strive for unity in diversity instead of clinging onto our own national identities.

What do you think?