Joining the timeline of European history: past, present and future
The Historical Archives of the European Union at the European University Institute makes Europe come alive to future generations of citizens through an innovative educational programme.
“How can we reach our citizens? What can we offer the new generations?”
These were questions the then-newly arrived Director of the Historical Archives of the European Union (HAEU) Dieter Schlenker asked himself when he took over the helm of the Archives in 2013 at the European University Institute.
By the end of that year, the HAEU had launched ‘Under a Good Star’, an innovative education programme for schoolchildren living in the Florence regional area.
Now in its eighth year, the programme is open to all school levels, welcoming more than 1,000 students to the Archives annually. It offers 15 online training programmes for teachers on the content and methodology of teaching the history of the European Union, and its network of collaborating schools and historians has expanded beyond Italy to France, Germany, Greece and Spain.
With its recent participation in the European University Institute’s edition of CIVICA Tours d’Europe, the Archives is now also building bridges with local university students.
The coordinator of the Archives’ educational programme, Dr Leslie Hernandez Nova, explains that, for young people, it is hard to place themselves on the timeline of history. “The challenge is to help the students find connections between individual experiences, and locate them within the larger narrative of Europe.”
To overcome this difficulty, the educators sometimes have students bring artefacts from home that connect them to Europe’s past. A photo of a great-grandfather in the uniform of another European country, a grandmother’s doll, an antique piece of lace. In sharing stories about such objects, the students discover connections with European history, and among themselves.
“If you can narrate something from your family, and then learn from your peers, you start to understand the connections among yourselves and with the history of Europe,” explains Dr Hernandez. For one of the participating instructors, the emotional element of storytelling made the exercise especially effective for the elementary students in her class. They understand better “their belonging to a larger family… their belonging to Europe, and to Europe in the world.”
What does it mean to be European?
Helping young people understand what it means to be European, and also what it meant for the founders and citizens engaged in building Europe in the early years, is also facilitated through the use of the audiovisual collections preserved at the HAEU, including videos, oral histories, posters and drawings.
“The visual materials give the children ideas about how to think about Europe, but also how to think about their own identity with relation to Europe,” explains historian Anne Bruch, who was involved in the teaching project in 2019.
For example, the Archives hosts a collection of drawings by art students in the early 1960s which were entries for a drawing competition organised by the European Movement. These drawings were a starting point for present-day students to illustrate their own symbolic interpretations of Europe.
Including youth in the vision of Europe
While much of the outreach of the Historical Archives concentrates on the history of Europe, the educational programme also guides students to the realisation that they, as actors, are at the same time the ‘creators’ of today’s Europe.
Indeed, capturing young people’s perspectives of Europe and their European identity, through their own art, stories and music, is among the objectives of the educational programme.
A recent example is illustrated by an online exhibit created by participating classes on the theme of the free movement of people, which was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. HAEU educators shared visual material from the Archives concerning the issue, which students then elaborated from their own points of view, in the form of written texts, drawings, and oral testimonials.
The richness of these materials has stimulated the Archives to develop a new archival collection on the European perspectives of the younger generations.
Preparing citizens with an eye to the future
Through its educational programme, the HAEU at the European University Institute has become a gateway to young students on the territory and beyond, offering opportunities to help them to understand the EU and identify with it as full members and citizens with a voice.
As such, it is a key piece of the puzzle in CIVICA’s mission to ‘give the next generations of Europeans the knowledge and tools to understand and influence an increasingly complex world.’
“The intention is to move from simply describing or explaining the past in a long-term perspective,” says Hernandez, “to proposing the concrete benefits that Europe offers for their future.”
Written by Jackie Gordon (EUI)