Cultural Awareness and Expression – a key competence

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A new report with policy recommendations advises the European Union on how to teach cultural awareness and expression; essential for a free and democratic Europe.

Europe has much to gain from an increased focus on cultural awareness and expression in education; this key competence deals with many essential aspects of the societies and cultures of Europe today. In the recently published report on cultural awareness and expression, we provide a framework of positive policy recommendations on how to deal with this subject. The report, to which 50 experts from over 20 countries in Europe contributed, formulates recommendations to the EU institutions and the Member States, based on the open method of co-ordination (OMC).

In the course of the writing of the publication, which spanned almost two years, Europe has witnessed serious attacks on the idea of the open society. People have lost their lives while exercising their fundamental democratic right to freedom of speech, taking part in cultural events or just enjoying everyday life. This has made us – more than ever – aware of the values of democracy, active citizenship, positive self-awareness and intercultural dialogue. These are the themes that cultural awareness and expression deals with.

We based our work on two pillars: a forward-looking analysis of current practices in the Member States and a thorough analysis of the definition of cultural awareness and expression, provided to us by the European Parliament.

The many valuable examples of good practice made clear that cultural awareness and expression is essentially a very diverse and rich subject, thus mirroring the enormous cultural diversity in Europe. While we explicitly chose to embrace this diversity – e.g. by recognising the fact that it is a diverse and multileveled competence that can be introduced in many different ways, our analysis also strongly calls for a more strategic and long-term approach to cultural awareness and expression, both in the policy of the EU and in that of the Member States.

It was very interesting and encouraging to see that the definition of cultural awareness and expression provided to us by the European Parliament and the Council in 2006 does encompass this very diverse and multileveled field, while at the same time providing a sound semantic framework. As a whole, the experts evaluated this decade-old definition as still very valuable and useful. Of course, the world has changed since 2006. In that respect, we call for additional attention to be directed towards intercultural dialogue and the use of digital media, in the policy definition of cultural awareness and expression.

On those foundations we built our recommendations. They are threefold:

A first set deals with creating stronger and more structural links between all necessary policy levels and areas. On the one hand, we need better monitoring, collaboration and exchange in policy on an international level. Existing networks like ACEnet (Arts Education Network) and ELO (Expanded Learning Opportunities) could be useful to achieve this goal. On the other hand it is clear that, if we want to make cultural awareness and expression available to all European citizens, we need a structural collaboration between different policy areas: Culture and Education, but also Youth, Welfare and Media. While Member States have a huge responsibility in this area, these fields also come together in a very natural way at the local level. We call on Member States to make positive use of this local anchoring.

A second set focuses on education policy. In order to make it possible for all EU citizens to develop this competence, structural attention to the subject in the whole of compulsory education is needed. Therefore, we advise the Member States to integrate the subject into the curricula, didactics and evaluation schemes for primary and secondary education. The subject should be an integral part of the training and professional development of all teachers and culture professionals.

The third set deals with cultural policy. Cultural policy and practice has all to gain from a better and a more visible connection to the challenges of today’s societies. Next to innovation and accessibility, our report calls for systematic attention to participation in culture of all citizens, with a focus on young children and the underprivileged. Finally, the report calls for the design, implementation and evaluation of programmes that stimulate co-operation between schools and cultural institutions.

Cultural awareness and expression is an essential competence for a free and democratic Europe. A solid base and a structural framework for training this competence are paramount for our open and democratic societies. Now more than ever.

Jan Jaap Knol & Brecht Demeulenaere
Chairs of the OMC group on Cultural Awareness and Expression