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Remarks on Science, Epistemology and Education in Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

Bruno Latour, in his book Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique (La Découverte 2017)/ Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Polity Press 2018), lends us a diagnosis of the Trump era, which highlights the climate debate as a war, and all other geopolitical problems as related to this war. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accords 2015 and the extensive rise of protective nationalist movements, emphasize the inertness of Modernism’s idea about Globalization and the need for geopolitics to look elsewhere in order to answer the question: What to do? Latour’s answer is to look at man’s belonging to a territory, to a ‘soil’, in order to, in the first place, describe how ‘the earthly’, the belongingness, is put together. Painstaking description necessarily precedes political action, he declares. However, what is it, exactly, that stands in need of description? From which epistemic stance can a soil be seen, and how, precisely, is the ensuing description carried out? This paper addresses these questions.

Latour argues that any effort to sustain life in the critical zone of our planet must leave behind the modern epistemologies, which both reify and partition nature and science. In order to clear the ground for a proper descriptive stance, he dismisses ‘the view from nowhere’, ‘a view from out there’ and corresponding epistemic notions like ‘naturalism’, ‘scientism’, ‘rationalism’ and ‘Galileism’.[1]

I argue that Latour’s fight against the scientific-epistemological stances he calls ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ is misguided and wrong in the details. Also, at best, it is largely irrelevant for the constructive use of science in the guidance of political action. At worst it risks to impede reaching the ultimate goal he has in mind through redescribing the earthly conditions for Mankind – the goal of landing on Earth, and, perhaps, saving our planet.

The premises

I take Latour’s premise, that a geopolitical change would be powerless considered as a philosophical idea, to be true. Indeed, isn’t this a mere truism? Ideas need to be contextualized in order to get hold of people. They need transformation in order to be recognizable as ideas important to their own particular life. A number of ideas aren’t useful anymore (if they ever were) for helping us out, or so Latour thinks. Thus, there are several respects in which we are conceptually unprepared for the present situation, according to him. As he already argued for in Facing Gaia (2017)[2], we are unprepared politically, ethically and epistemologically for the challenge of the New Climate Regime. I’d like to add ‘educationally’ as a fourth dimension of our life, along which we might not be properly prepared for this challenge. Interestingly, Latour is indeed quite dismissive with respect to a potential for the educational system to contribute in a positive way (Down to Earth, p.25), although he does not justify this claim. I have a few remarks on the educational dimension, following my analysis of Latour’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance. I leave the political and ethical dimensions pretty much untouched.

What is it then precisely Latour criticizes in Down to Earth, when it comes to epistemology and science? Latour’s earlier critiques of a number of classical perspectives in theory of science are well known. There is a long history going back to what the 1990s witnessed as the so-called ‘science wars’ between ‘realists’, who held that facts were objective, isolable and freestanding, and ‘social constructionists’, such as Latour, who argued that such facts were created by the scientific research.

These issues, however, are not at stake in Down to Earth. With respect to epistemology and science, Latour’s stance has now changed. The hot wars of science have indeed come to an end. No winners, just casualties. Latour for his part would probably say that history has proved, that he and researchers of his ilk in science and technology studies were right: With respect to, say, the new climate regime, scientific facts appear to remain robust only when supported by a culture which is trustworthy, by reliable media, and by a decent public. And nowadays there is indeed a strong acknowledgement from research communities and politicians of the social dimensions of science: dissemination of knowledge, the peer-review systems, bibliometric concerns, the importance of ‘research management’, etc.. But at the same time, most natural science pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions.

In addition to the de facto, but not declared ceasefire in the science wars, a number of particular concerns has for Latour’s part also mitigated his bellicosity and made him change direction. Hence, for the purpose of clarifying the premises for his particular critique in Down to Earth, it is useful to look into the 2004 paper ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’. In this paper the reasons for Latour’s change are made clear. Latour expresses deep concerns and worries about the threat of an equivocation between constructivism’s sceptical attitude towards the existence of ‘pure, objective, scientific facts’ and a strong, rampant, tendency to systematically distrust matters of scientific fact for ideological reasons: “[…] dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”[3]

Latour’s concern is about the argumentative pattern, which says that since evidence is never complete, we would have to distrust scientists, even when an overwhelming majority of them tell us, that, say, largely man-made pollutants cause global warming. In the light of this danger of equivocation, Latour distinguishes between ‘matters of fact’ and ‘matters of concern’. The purpose is to demonstrate the possibility of cultivating a critical, realistic stance, which doesn’t fight with empiricism (like old days’ constructivism), but instead indeed seeks to renew it, by dealing with matters of concern, not matters of freestanding facts (cf. 2004, p.231). He asks for a new powerful descriptive tool, looking back at the long tradition from Enlightenment preoccupied with matters of fact, and, on the other hand, the recent, debunking critical attitude against ‘matters of fact-realism’ so prominent during the science wars. Latour instead wants a critique which turns around and engage with ‘matters of fact’ in order ‘to protect and to care’ about those facts which really are of our concern. By adopting and developing the Ding/Gegenstand bifurcation from Martin Heidegger[4], he attempts at pointing in a new direction for a critical thinking: “What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to talk about the object of science and technology, the Gegenstand, as if it had the rich and complicated qualities of the celebrated Thing?”[5]

Although Latour in the 2004 paper is dissatisfied with Heidegger’s strict bifurcation between Gegenstände (objects) and Dinge (things) – and at one point even re-digs the war hatchet by expressing the strong anti-realistic claim that all matters of fact, in order to exist, require a bewildering variety of matters of concern[6] – Latour implicitly admits ‘matter of fact’ an independent meaning. He now worries about ‘an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases’ (2004, p.227). Hence, Latour suggests that matters of fact are considered as processes of entangled concern instead of being debunked as fictitious. In the words of Puig de la Bellacasa, who has further developed Latour’s suggestion:

The purpose of showing how things are assembled is not to dismantle things, nor undermine the reality of matters of fact with critical suspicion about the powerful (human) interests they might reflect and convey. Instead, to exhibit the concerns that attach and hold together matters of fact is to enrich and affirm their reality by adding further articulations.[7]

These considerations are part of the premises for the critique launched in Down to Earth. Thus, the very real concern for Latour in Down to Earth is of course our home, Planet Earth. This home is of primary concern when we acknowledge what we have done to it. The climate crisis now threatens the conditions for our life ‘at home’. And what is of a very real concern to Latour is the denial of the existence of a climate change, one of the phenomena he sees as a symptom of a new, historical situation: The dawning awareness, that there is not any longer any common world for Human Mankind to share (Down to Earth, pp.1-2). The bankruptcy of the idea of Globalization, the huge amounts of refugees, the rise of nationalism, the flee towards the Local, towards colonization of Mars, towards gated communities, and the idea about self-sufficient, bio-dynamical farming, are all either symptoms of this situation or exemplifications of it.

On the one hand, then, Latour in Down to Earth puts the theoretical discussions of the science wars at rest; he leaves them in epoché, because his concerns are much more pressing. As a matter of fact, we are facing a serious climate crisis, threatening to end our lives on Earth. On the other hand, he also has reservations with respect to the adequate scientific-epistemological stance along which our concerns can and should be addressed, since the tools pertaining to our Planet Earth are of a peculiar kind. The reason for this is that the very object of research is peculiar. Our conception of ‘nature’ is wrong: “We need to be able to count on the full power of the sciences, but without the ideology of “nature” that has been attached to that power. We have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.”[8]

The dichotomies between nature and culture, necessity and freedom, objective and subjective block the way to describe and understand the Terrestrial. The problem is, that in order to mold a politics, you need agents, but agents are not objects, external to society, which, according to Latour, they keep appearing as if we continue doing science from the epistemological stance which dictates that ‘to know is to know from the outside’ (Down to Earth, p.68). Thus, Latour’s main objection is against the conception of science where we gain objective knowledge by adopting, ideally, the ‘view from nowhere’ perspective.

This perspective is traced back to Galilei, who gave a mechanistic description of movement conforming to the model of falling bodies. The application of this epistemological perspective through the mechanical model of the whole universe treated the earth as just one planet among other planets in an infinite universe. In natural science, this is the outcome of a radical transition from a perspective on our closed world to one on the infinite universe.[9] Although the success of the mechanical model is undeniable, Latour thinks that it isn’t of much use as a tool in the description of the rich variety of processes taking place at our planet. He is not alone with this critique. A strong tradition in epistemology and theory of science going back to Edmund Husserl has vehemently argued against the idea that natural science gives us the ultimate basis for epistemology and the norms from which the understanding of our lifeworld must be taken. This critique against a ‘one-eyed view from nowhere’ and the invention of abstract ‘Galiean objects’, also briefly alluded to by Latour[10], found an extensive expression in Husserl’s late work Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie[11] and it has been a standard theme in orthodox phenomenology ever since.

In politics, Latour argues, we have seen a move away from the Terrestrial toward a problematic ideal of ‘Globalization’, to the extent that a one-eyed, single vision, conceived by a small elite, representing only a small number of interests, has replaced (the idea of) multiplying viewpoints ‘registering a greater number of varieties, taking into account a larger number of beings, cultures, phenomena, organisms, and people’ (Down to Earth, pp.12-13).

Latour’s worry is of a very similar sort when it comes to the scientific tools and the underlying epistemological perspective necessary to describe the Terrestrial in order to begin anew. Instead of moving away from the earth and adopt what he calls a perspective where ‘everything has to be viewed as if from Sirius’, we must adopt a much closer view, which makes it possible to see, register and acknowledge the varieties of Terrestrial life. It isn’t as if Latour does not admit the existence of the ecological movements and parties and their attempt to raise people’s interest in and concern for ‘nature’. But as long as their concept of ‘nature’ really is the ‘nature-universe’, seen from nowhere, a conception which puts neutron stars on the same level as cells of a body, it can’t seriously motivate people and mobilize any politics, he believes:

There is no point looking any further for the slow pace of mobilizations in favor of nature-as-universe. It is completely incapable of churning anything political. To make that type of beings – the Galilean objects – the model for what is going to mobilize us in geo-social conflicts is to court failure.[12]

The flipside of this critique of science and epistemology is Latour’s defense of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Only through this particular scientific approach, we shall be able to achieve a secure scientific understanding of Planet Earth that in the end can help us out, and give us a basis for a new politics, he seems to think.[13] ANT doesn’t take up much space in Down to Earth, and it is not my intention to go into a discussion of ANT here. I am only interested in putting forth the basis for Latour’s critical remarks on epistemology and science. A number of valuable remarks and considerations in Down to Earth of an ANT kind should, however, in fairness to Latour, be mentioned in order to round off my exposition of the premises of his critique of ‘the view from nowhere’ and its preoccupation with ‘Galilean objects’. Three things related to ANT stand out.

Firstly, it is important for Latour to stress, that the only relevant sciences for dealing with a new description of Planet Earth are those that fully acknowledge that the Earth system is not a system of production, but a self-regulating system of actors reacting against other actors, including against human beings, because it suffers from the actions of these. It is a question about coming to consciousness about a much richer, varied set of objects for science by adopting a new epistemic stance towards ‘nature’: “[…] if we take the model of falling bodies as the yardstick for movement in general, all the other movements, agitations, transformations, initiatives, combinations, metamorphoses, processes, entanglements, and overlaps are going to appear bizarre.”[14]

The important – and difficult – thing is to understand the role of living beings, their power to act, their agency. The overlap of themes from Latour’s earlier book Facing Gaia, his inspiration from John Lovelock’s Gaia theory, is evident. Still, however, it should be noticed, that Latour also remarks that there is no need for adopting Lovelock’s approach as such (Down to Earth, p.76). The important point is rather the possibility of a political revitalization through the reorientation of the natural sciences if (and only if) these were ‘encompassing all the activities necessary to our existence’ (Down to Earth, p.77).

Secondly, it is important ‘to try to single out the sciences that bear upon what some researchers call ‘the Critical Zone’’. This refers to a minuscule zone a few kilometers thick between the atmosphere and bedrock, of central and sine qua non concern and interest for understanding the Terrestrial and ultimately for survival – ‘a biofilm, a varnish, a skin, a few infinitely folded layers’ (Down to Earth, p.78).:

It is Earth’s permeable near-surface layer […] It is a living, breathing, constantly evolving boundary layer, where rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms interact. These complex interactions regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources, including our food production and water quality.[15]

Thirdly, a new libido sciendi is required. ‘Earthseeking emancipation’ calls for other virtues than ‘weightless emancipation’, Latour claims. This means another psychological mindset, another sensitivity required for the different, scientific task and the new politics. Latour doesn’t say much about this issue, but it is interesting in itself, and I deal with it below in relation to my critical points.

Critical remarks

The central problem with Latour’s critique of science is his ambiguity in his own reliance on science and scientific results. On the one hand, he appears to endorse the results of science, and on the other denounces the epistemological stance, which is constitutive for the scientific approach, that lends him those very results.

Let me be precise. What I have in mind here is not the epistemological outlook of ‘the new sciences’ (say ANT), and the results gained from them. Not in the first place. It is rather the ‘good old science’ (let me refer to it as ‘GOOSE’), which ‘pretty much unaffected tugs on in a traditional way: by endorsing realism in the belief that it carves nature at its joints, little by little accumulating facts and thus contributing to the extension of the set of true propositions’, as I described it above. Thus, Latour acknowledges the facts about the climate condition, all the accumulating results from statistics achieved by geophysics, meteorology, biology and so on and so forth. By means like satellite-photos, ice core samples and much else besides he indirectly acknowledges GOOSE, which brings forth these facts. Facts, that are neither more nor less than examples of ‘hard-won evidence that could save our lives’. Matters of fact – of concern. Latour undoubtedly would respond to this by pointing out, that he certainly approves the obtained GOOSE facts which helped to draw our attention to the climate crisis and which justified the assumption, that it is a man-made crisis. But he would not approve these sciences as helpful when it comes to the task of doing research in the critical zone or describing the Terrestrial conditions for human life.

If the choice is between GOOSE and ANT as the scientific approach to the actors on Planet Earth, ANT wins.

But let us look more closely at the differences between the denounced ‘view from nowhere’ and the replacing stance toward the Terrestrial, Latour is arguing for.

‘A view from nowhere’ is for all practical purposes a contradiction in terms, but occurs as a useful abstract conception of the ideally, disinterested objective description of an entity. I shall return to this purely abstract notion below. But Latour also denounces concrete points of view far away from Planet Earth. He indeed transforms the abstract idea into something very concrete: The perspective of the infinite univers – ‘from Sirius’. And from that observation site, there is pretty much about the Terrestrial, the life on Earth, you cannot see and which therefore is of no concern whatsoever. Latour is of course right about that, and makes a vivid point out of the absurdity of our interest in far-away objects in an infinite space compared to the critical condition of Planet Earth, at home, right here. But if you move from Sirius towards Planet Earth, you reach an orbit of observation sites which should be of utmost importance to Latour: This is the geostationary orbit, some 35.786 kilometers above Earth’s equator, and following the direction of Earth’s rotation, from where the critical zone and much besides on our planet can be observed by satellites. Thus, favorable observation points appear in a good distance from where earthly actors live their lives; as a matter of fact observation points for those of the earthly actors we call ‘human beings’. Whereas Heidegger could allow himself to be shocked when he saw the first pictures of the earth taken from space[16], Latour cannot and should not.  Mediated by satellites we gain valuable information about the critical zone, the important stratum for the ‘proper sciences’ dealing with the Terrestrial. Latour at one point passes by this favorability of observation points from space (Down to Earth, p.78), without noticing the mild irony of our having this important orbit of outer observation posts, considered his occupation with a Terrestrial point of view. This at least demonstrates, I believe, that it is not an easy task to draw a line between the importance and unimportance of adopting a point of view distant from the Terrestrial. It also shows that facts from GOOSE might blend in and become very useful – indeed essential – for ANT or other non-GOOSE type of sciences doing research in the critical zone. Latour would perhaps admit these points, and argue, that a view from nowhere considered as an abstract ideal makes us blind in the real world to what we experience and consequently turn actors into objects, which implies mis-describing and devaluating them:

If we swallow the usual epistemology whole, we shall find ourselves again prisoners of a conception of “nature” that is impossible to politicize since it has been invented precisely to limit human action thanks to an appeal to the laws of objective nature that cannot be questioned. […] Every time we want to count on the power to act of other actors, we’re going to encounter the same objection: “Don’t even think about it, these are mere objects, they cannot react,” the way Descartes said of animals that they cannot suffer.[17]

Whether or not Latour is right in his historical consideration about the motifs for inventing the conception of ‘objective nature’, I believe that ‘the view from nowhere’ is not only highly useful (in addition to being potentially demeaning), but indeed an inevitable epistemological element of any thinking endeavor. The ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think. I take the liberty to include Latour here. ‘Towards’, but without ultimately succeeding. We are apparently able to put our respective subjective points of view in epoché in our attempts to reach a more objective understanding in a variety of human endeavors, including science, philosophy and education. But it is our fate that we never succeed in escaping ourselves completely when reaching towards an objective understanding, and we certainly know a number of examples from the history of philosophy and science, where claims about successful ‘escapes’ are made, but eventually end up as classical, prominent examples of mistaken reductions. Some of these are certainly grandiose and keep attracting us; (probably) mistaken they nevertheless are.[18] Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere from 1986[19] has argued in detail for this epistemological ‘fate’ of human beings – a kind of ‘double vision’, since we can transcend our subjective selves – although not fully so: “Double vision is the fate of creatures with a glimpse of the view sub specie aeternitatis.”[20]

Somewhat surprisingly, Latour neither refers to Nagel nor to this influential book in Facing Gaia and Down to Earth.[21]

With respect to a strive towards objectivity, I believe that it is an essential part of our pursuits of truth – that we are able to attempt at putting ourselves to a side, including being able to acknowledge another subject’s point of view. This is neither to say that we are ever able to fully succeed, nor to say that scepticism in any easy way can be rejected.

Latour’s discussion of the genesis of the conception of ‘the view from nowhere’ through the invention of ‘Galilean objects’, gives rise to another critical point, we need to take into consideration in order to understand his use of the notions ‘point of view’ and ‘vantage point’ :

From the fact that one can, from the vantage point of the earth, grasp the planet as a falling body among other falling bodies in the infinite universe, some thinkers go on to conclude that it is necessary to occupy, virtually, the vantage point of the universe to understand what is happening on this planet. The fact that one can gain access to remote sites from the earth becomes the duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites.[22]

I do not know whom the thinkers Latour is referring to here are, and I don’t understand what he means by a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites. But notice that Latour is very concrete here in his use of ‘vantage point’. He is not thinking of vantage point in an abstract way like when we disregard the sensible properties of a physical object in order to conceive it ideally for the purpose of explaining and predicting its behavior from the laws of mechanics. However, he also remarks that: “[…] this vision from the vantage point of the universe – “the view from nowhere” – has become the new common sense to which the terms “rational” and even “scientific” find themselves durably attached.”[23]

Thus, he apparently mixes up the existence of concrete vantage points with the abstract, ideal notion of ‘a view from nowhere’. This is a mistake. He might be right, that there are points in space – e.g. the view from Sirius – that it doesn’t make sense to occupy in order to see anything of concern at Planet Earth. But the existence of an abstract view from nowhere is something differently, qua abstract – whether or not it is constitutive for our ability to think and do science. Latour thinks concretely about the vantage points, and is therefore only in a banal sense right when he claims, that even when it becomes a duty to gain access to the earth from remote sites, it will always in practice remain a contradiction in terms. Offices, labs, instruments, the entire production and validation of knowledge etc. etc. has never left the old terrestrial soil (Down to Earth, pp.67-68). Put differently, Latour’s discussion of ‘vantage points’ is not addressing the question about the genesis, power and possible constitutive role of adopting an abstract ‘view from nowhere’. He refers to Husserl as the source of the notion ‘Galilean objects’, but his discussion of these issues is consistent with the view, that Husserl’s critique of the scientific-epistemological stance ‘Galileism’ and ‘the view from nowhere’ implies a total dismissal of this stance. This is not correct, however. Husserl’s objections in Krisis were not directed against natural science adopting ‘a view from nowhere’ and the possibility of describing and explaining natural phenomena as ‘Galilean objects’, but instead and only against natural science if this is taken as the true and only epistemological basis for understanding our world and ourselves in this world.

With these remarks I have indicated where I believe Latour is mistaken with respect to his fight against certain scientific-epistemological stances. He has valuable points about our conceptions of ‘nature’, but does not succeed with the demonstration that the epistemic notion of ‘the view from nowhere’ is neither unsound nor useless. I have tentatively argued for the possibility along Nagelian lines, that the ability to form conceptions towards a view from nowhere is constitutive for being able to think and fortiori for doing science – be it GOOSE-, ANT-, or otherwise. Still, the risks of our exploitative and disparaging behavior towards nature would not be less imminent, even if my critical remarks are correct. Latour’s points about the dangers of treating actors as objects still stands.

This is where his idea about a new libido sciendi is to the point. I am not sure what he precisely means by the virtues ‘weightless emancipation’ – needed for heading toward the Global – and ‘earthseeking emancipation’, which is required if we decide to turn toward the Terrestrial. (Down to Earth, p.81) Latour probably believes, that what is needed is a different sensitivity towards those actors which before were treated as mere objects. It is a question about taking the Earth’s reactions to our actions into account (Down to Earth, ibid.). But even if we for the sake of argument grant Latour, that a redistribution of agency/actors is required, and new ‘positive bodies of knowledge’ is sought for, why should this situation involve different laboratories, instruments, and researchers (Ibid.)? What are the reasons for that? After all Latour sometimes also writes much more liberally as if many different sciences could be involved. ‘We must count on the full power of the sciences – but get rid of the ideology about ‘nature’; and ‘we have to be materialist and rational, but we have to shift these qualities onto the right grounds.’ (Down to Earth, p.65). So GOOSE and ANT can work together after all? It seems all too adventurous to call in new sciences, instruments, researchers and labs in order to address our ‘new Earth’ scientifically.

Consider a small thought experiment, in line with the idea about a redistribution of actors: Assume that plants are phenomenally conscious. Certainly, that would have an enormous effect on the discussion about the attribution of rights to them, just as much as the acknowledgement of animals’ capability for suffering and having experiences of pain had on the discussions of animal rights back in 1970s. If plants indeed have pain qualia and are capable of being consciously aware of their immediate surroundings, we will probably think very differently about what we experienced, when we went for a walk in the forest or ‘into the wild’.[24] We would think and act differently when it came to producing and consuming plant-based food and cloth, about bringing cut flowers into our sitting room etc., etc. But should we really stand in need for whole new sciences, researchers, instruments and labs? I don’t see any reasons for that.

Preparing for landing

Latour in Down to Earth is deliberately vague about what ‘an Eartly stance’ comes to. One thing is his inclinations towards ANT and the role of sciences in general. But he also, in parallel, hints at a required, new description of the multifarious ways we inhabit our soil, the conditions for the Terrestrial, for life, for living at our Earth. Latour’s tentative gesture is partially due to his invitation to the reader to co-develop this stance; to contribute in the positive, if Latour’s geopolitical diagnosis is sound. He indeed suggests the initiation of a massive, new descriptive task: “What to do? First of all, generate alternative descriptions. How could we act politically without having inventoried, surveyed, measured, centimeter by centimeter, being by being, person by person, the stuff that makes up the Earth for us?”[25]

Latour reminds the reader of an episode in the history of France, between January and May 1789, where a ledger of complaints was constructed, at the request of the king.[26] The purpose was to let the corporations, cities and estates all have a voice, all have a chance to describe their environments, conditions for living a live, their privileges, taxes etc. Latour’s idea now is that all actors in a similar way should be granted the opportunity to (in principle) define their dwelling place:

To define a dwelling place, for a terrestrial, is to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be. This holds as true for a wolf as for a bacterium, for a business enterprise as for a forest, for a divinity as for a family. What must be documented are the properties of a terrestrial – in all the senses of the word property – by which it is possessed and on which it depends, to the extent that if it were deprived of them, it would disappear.[27]

Surprisingly, Latour himself cannot refrain from coming up with his own defence of and effusive tribute to EU’s Europe as the best place, by his lights, to live right now at Planet Earth (Down to Earth, pp.100ff). This is surprising, since landing somewhere on Earth is supposed to follow after the description of the properties of an environment, the conditions for living a live, has taken place. But no attempt at drawing such a list is presented. Certainly, Latour points at moral reasons for choosing Europe as a (his?) landing site:

It is as though Europe had made a centennial pact with the potential migrants: we went to your lands without asking your permission; you will come to ours without asking. Give and take. There is no way out of this. Europe has invaded all peoples; all peoples are coming to Europe in their turn.[28]

But whether or not Europe and the European Union for historical reasons has a special moral obligation towards refugees and migrants, this is not a description of basic needs and properties of an individual actor, or of a type of actor, it is not ‘to list what it needs for its subsistence, and, consequently, what it is ready to defend, with its own life if need be’ (Down to Earth, p.95). Pointing towards EU and Europe harmonizes poorly with Latour’s conviction, that a redescription of a dwelling place unlikely coincides ‘with a classic legal, spatial, administrative, or geographic entity’ (Ibid.). His pointing appears more like a geopolitical manifestation, the first draft of a political programme – what he himself warns against: “Any politics that failed to propose redescribing the dwelling places that have become invisible would be dishonest. We cannot allow ourselves to skip the stage of description. No political lie is more brazen than proposing a program.”[29]

Another surprising fact is, that just as much Latour invites the reader to think and act, he airs a pessimism with respect to any role whatsoever for education toward raising a consciousness about the climate crisis and the motivation for a new geopolitics (cf. Down to Earth, p.25) . This is surprising, because it is very difficult to see a direction from which collective, massive mobilization should come, if not the educational system. I believe that Latour’s pessimism in this regard is locally grounded in the problems with the French school system (L’Éducation Nationale).[30] Be that as it may, he is also inconsistent in his attitude towards education. He notices a strong and long lasting tendency to see other peoples’ attitudes, myths and rituals as ‘mere vestiges of old forms of subjectivity, of archaic cultures irreversibly outstripped by the modernization front’. Accordingly, such cultural remains have been seen as belonging at the ethnographic museums. But he also remarks, that: ‘it is only today that all these practices have become precious models for learning how to survive in the future’. (Down to Earth, p.75) Learning about other ways to live Terrestrially takes place. If practices have become models for learning, there is no principled hindrance to educational institutions for transforming these models into their practices. And after all: When it comes to Latour’s critique of ‘the view from nowhere’, of ‘the Galilean objects’, of ‘the nature-as-universe’ – what else is this but an attempt in the direction of a new heuristics, a pedagogy for doing science in new ways? Perhaps Latour is right in his critique of science and epistemology. Or perhaps a massive, buildup of GOOSE, invariably addressing the climate crisis, really is what is needed.

Either way education will have a mandatory role to play through the concrete pedagogical tasks of reflecting and informing on our situation, developing models for how to address the climate situation in the classroom and for motivating geopolitical action in order to save our home, Planet Earth. Education lends us hope.

Whether or not the current global corona pandemic extinguishes this hope due to recession and ensuing depression – or on the contrary leaves us with a window that is open for a very short period, enabling Global or even Terrestrial reflection and political action – remains to be seen.


Heidegger, M. (1976). ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’, (Ein Spiegel-Gespräch mit Rudolf Augstein und Georg Wolff geführt im 1966), Der Spiegel, 23, 193-219.

Heidegger, M. (2000). ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.

Husserl, E. (1976). Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie. Hrsg. von Walter Biemel. Martinus Nijhoff, Haag. (Husserliana, bd. 6).

Koyré, A. (1957). From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Latour, B. (1996). ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381.

Latour, B. (2004). ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Latour, B. (2017). Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

Latour, B. (2017). Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique. La Découverte, Paris.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Nagel, T. (1986). The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Puig de la Bellacasa, M (2011).‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106.

Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. (With contributions by Timothy Tackett and Philip Dawson) (1998). Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.


[1] These themes are legio in Latour’s writings. In the present book, particularly chapter 14 deals with these issues.

[2] Latour, B. Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climate regime. Polity Press, Cambridge, Medford, 2017.

[3] Latour, B. (2004): ’Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30, 225-248, p. 227.

[4] The inspiration for Latour comes in particular from Martin Heidegger’s paper ‘Das Ding’, in Gesamtausgabe, 1. Abteilung: Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976. Band 7, Vorträge und Aufsätze. Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2000.

[5] Latour 2004, p.233.

[6] Op.cit., p. 247.

[7] Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2011): ‘Matters of care in Technoscience: Assembling neglected things’, Social Studies of Science, 41(1), 85-106, p. 89.

[8] Down to Earth, p.65.

[9] Latour refers the reader to Alexandre Koyré’s book From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe in which this transition is described.

[10] Down to Earth, p.67, see also note 64.

[11] Husserl, E. Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phänomenologie. Eine Einleitung in die phänomenologische Philosophie (Husserliana, bd. 6).

[12] Down to Earth, p.73.

[13] For a recent formulation of the theory, see Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005. Latour, B. (1996): ‘On actor-network theory. A few clarifications’, Soziale Welt, 47, 369-381 is an attempt to clarify the basic elements of ANT and respond to objections. An early influential presentation of ANT is Latour, B. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

[14] Down to Earth, p.76.

[15] Critical Zone Observatories/ US NSF National Program https://criticalzone.org/national/research/the-critical-zone-1national/ (retrieved April 12th, 2020).

[16] Cf. The interview with Heidegger ‘Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten’ from 1966.

[17] Down to Earth, p.65.

[18] Psychologism and biologism are examples.

[19] Nagel, T. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.

[20] The View from Nowhere, p.88.

[21] A curiously fact is, that Nagel and Latour have chosen the same cover illustration for Facing Gaia and The View from Nowhere: Caspar David Fridrich’s ‘The Large Enclosure near Dresden’, a painting from 1832.

[22] Down to Earth, p.67.

[23] Op. cit., p.68.

[24] This might sound a bit more adventurous, than it perhaps is. See e.g. this call for papers from Journal of Consciousness Studies on plant sentience and consciousness: https://philevents.org/event/show/80510 (retrieved April 21th, 2020).

[25] Op. cit., p.94.

[26] Cahiers de Doléances. See e.g. Shapiro, G. & Markoff, J. Revolutionary Demands. A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998.

[27] Down to Earth, p.95.

[28] Op. cit., p.103.

[29] Op. cit., p.94.

[30] I thank the audience at École des Arts de la Sorbonne, Université Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, on March 31st, 2019, for sharing valuable information with me on this issue.

Cyrus Rohani & Behrooz Sabet (eds.), Winds of Change: The Challenge of Modernity in the Middle East and North Africa. (London: Saqi Books, 2019)

From a Western point of view, one of the key challenges facing us is, how the Islamic MENA region can find peace, modernize and contribute positively to human life on Earth. The Arab spring brought hope for positive changes:

“The Arab spring has awakened the world to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims worldwide to democracy – inspired by western values yet infused by Islamic ideals,” writes Dr. Christopher Buck, an independent scholar and attorney from the USA, in one of his essays in Winds of Change (p. 87). Unfortunately, such legitimate aspirations have not yet been met, and the MENA region is as war-torn as ever.

Wind of Change contains 15 essays written by 11 intellectuals with the perspective that Islam’s spiritual ethic and sense of justice has something valuable to offer to the world, as it did during the “Islamic worlds flourishing sociocultural era” (750-1250) (p.8). This period is referred to as the Golden Age.

The editors, management consultant, MBA, Cyrus Rohani and Dr. Behrooz Sabet believe that changes are under way in the Middle East. Rohani writes that dictatorships relegate people “to the level of animals” which “defies the purpose of their creation” (p. 45). At the same time “our planet is suffering owing to our betrayal of the trust bestowed on us as a gift from our Creator” (p. 48). He envisions the “establishment of a planetary civilization based on organic unity of mankind” (p. 49).

Six narratives deal with timely issues such as environmental challenges, press freedom, gender inequality, interfaith dialogue, education and the Arab spring, while the others apply more historical / philosophical perspectives. The latter strive for a common ground on which the Middle East and the West can meet and work together in solving global problems. Generally, the essays are written with a deep appreciation for Islam, a critical view on traditional Middle Eastern leaders, and a taken-for-granted view on the West. The book suggests that there is a need for spirituality, materialism and science to be integrated to create a global society with human dignity, happiness and appreciation of differences.

An interesting example of the search for common ground is Dr. Ian Kluge’s discussion of reason in Islamic and Western philosophy. Kluge, who on websites are presented as Canadian Baha’i scholar, writes:

The re-appropriation of rationalism is the major goal of numerous Muslim thinkers wishing to revive the fortunes of the Islamic world in face of modern challenges. However, they want to find the basis for such changes in Islam itself without having to depend on ideas imported from, among other things, the European Enlightenment.” (p. 155)

Islam has the concept of ijtihad that, according to one Islamic tradition, implies “free debate on matters to everyone” (p. 145). Kluge quotes the Qur’an for saying: “Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are the deaf and dumb who do not use reason” (p. 146), and he compares the spirit of this text to Immanuel Kant’s answer to the question about enlightenment (p. 150).

Throughout history, Muslims have disagreed on who should be allowed to practice independent spiritual reasoning and search for truth. Some believe that “ijtihad may only be practiced by mujtahids,” while others do not agree with this limitation (p. 151). In Islam there is for example a long tradition for reasoning stemming from the Muʿtazali theology of the eight century, modernized by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Originally the philosophers drew on different sources of inspiration, including Greek philosophy such as Aristotle’s logic of deductive reasoning. However, in the 12th century, the limitations of philosophy were exposed in the book The incoherence of Philosophers (p. 161), and the value of ordinary people’s reasoning was questioned by people in power.

Kluge argues that acceptance of individual reasoning and discussions can revitalize Muslim societies. As for international cooperation, he suggests that the “considerable common ground between Kantian understanding of ‘enlightenment’ and what we find primarily in the Qur’an, and secondly, what is offered by Mu’tazalism” (p. 163) can create a shared understanding that will benefit both the MENA region and the West. However, when Muslims use reasoning, they do not necessarily consider Western scientific methods superior, because they do not share the materialistic worldview. When scientists study the material world, their results say obviously little about important spiritual issues.

Buck is the author of three analyses related to norms, ethics and law. One is about good governance, one about the possible development of a shared moral compass for Sunnis and Shi’is, and the third about testing the value of Sharia laws. In each case, the methodology is the same. Buck interprets key Islamic texts and discusses Islamic practices. For example, he interprets basic principles for good governance from a letter written by the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, Caliph Ali, who is respected by both Sunnis and Shi’is. This respect is important because his idea is to create a set of shared Islamic guidelines for good governance. He interprets the spirit of each paragraph in the letter and relate it to present-day situations.

In the two other essays the key text is the Qur’an. In one of these essays, he asks: “does Islamic law mirror Islamic ethics”? (p. 169). A Pew Research Center survey cited in his article found that most Muslims in many countries approve of executing apostates. Buck writes: “There is a clear contradiction between the sharia law of apostacy and Islamic claims to ‘freedom of religion” and to a “well-known Qur’anic verse: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion” (p. 176). Buck then discusses this difference and Islamic scholars’ writings about it.

Many of the essays in this volume can best be considered sincere and informed opinion pieces. Not all of them follow a strict academic form. But they bring fresh ideas and perspectives to important debates.

The Human Right to Freedom of Religion in the Polish Education System

Legal Guarantees for Freedom of Religion


The legal provisions in force in Poland set up standards for respecting freedom of and from religion. These provisions apply to all persons who find themselves within their territorial reach, regardless of whether they are citizens of Poland or other states or stateless persons residing in Poland. The standard of religious freedom is also not affected by the gender, ethnicity, race and age of a person. So it can be stated that the Polish national law and the international legal system serve as the basis for protecting the human right to freedom of religion and for exercising this freedom in educational settings.

The provisions of international law, to which Poland is a party, establish legal guarantees as to religious freedom, especially the freedom of worship and religious practices. Regarding the relation between education and people’s opinions about religion or in particular the lack of such; quite apart from the provisions applicable to all people regardless of their age, the regulations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and articles 14 and 24 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights are of special importance.






Fig. 1 The international legal system safeguarding the freedom of religion and from religion in Poland


The system of national law in Poland guarantees the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion, yet the analysis of the legal system leads to the conclusion that Catholicism is the religion of the majority, which brings about particular consequences and risks for the human rights sphere.

The Polish Constitution fully respects the international standards of human rights protection as regards the freedom of belief and religion. This includes prohibiting the public authorities from commanding a person to disclose their philosophy of life, religious convictions or beliefs. The right to freedom of and from religion is guaranteed by Article 53, para. 1 of the Constitution, which states that “freedom of conscience and religion shall be ensured to everyone”. As stated in para. 2 of the same article, “freedom of religion shall include the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest such religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing of rites or teaching”. What is more, according to para. 6, “no one shall be compelled to participate or not participate in religious practices” and “no one may be compelled by organs of public authority to disclose his philosophy of life, religious convictions or belief” (para. 7).

Moreover, Article 25 of the Constitution places on the public authorities the obligation to remain impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life.


Legal Regulation of Matters of Belief in the Spheres of Education and Upbringing

The Polish constitution guarantees the right of the parents to ensure their children a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions, while taking into account the freedom of conscience and belief of their children. As stated in art. 48, para. 1 of the Constitution,”Parents shall have the right to rear their children in accordance with their own convictions. Such upbringing shall respect the degree of maturity of the child as well as his freedom of conscience and belief and also his convictions”. In addition, according to Art. 53, para. 3, “Parents shall have the right to ensure their children a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions”. Parents thus have a subjective right towards the state with regard to their views on religious or lay upbringing of their children, although this right is limited and counterbalanced by the child’s right to have their religious convictions and beliefs respected.

There is, however, one provision in the Polish Constitution, which allows religion to be taught at school. According to Art. 53, para. 4, “the religion of a church or other legally recognized religious organization may be taught in schools, but other people’s freedom of religion and conscience shall not be infringed thereby”. The Catholic religion is not mentioned explicitly, but the Constitution states that the provision applies to a religion that is legally recognized. At present, there are 178 registered operational religious communities in Poland.

As follows from the case law of the courts, the right of the parents to raise children in the spirit of a particular worldview does not mean that the knowledge transmitted at school will be consistent with this worldview. Such an opinion was expressed by both the Polish Constitutional Court (Judgement of the Constitutional Court of 27 May 2003, on the provisions of section 97 paragraphs 3 and 4 of Act No. 127/2005Wyrok Trybunału Konstytucyjnego z dnia 27 maja 2003 r., ref. K 11/03, OTK-A 2003, No. 5, pos. 43) and the European Court of Human Rights (Judgement by the ECHR of 7 December 1976 in the case of Kjeldsen, Busk, Madsen and Pedersen v. Danemark application No. 5095/71, Judgement by the ECHR of 13 September 2011 in the case of Dojan and Others v. Germany, application No. 319/08). The case becomes more problematic; however, when children only learn about one religious worldview at school, something which comes close to indoctrination, or when it actually takes the form of intentional indoctrination where religious knowledge is passed on while participating in the religious practices of one particular tradition and faith.

The provisions that have significant bearing on the issue of human rights in education as regards the problem of religion at schools are mainly affected by the Concordat – an agreement signed in 1993 between the Republic of Poland and the Vatican. Poland has pledged that public schools and kindergartens will organize classes in Catholic religion and grant the Church the right to decide on its teaching programs, textbooks, and the persons teaching religion – including secular catechists, priests, monks and nuns, who have been granted permission to teach by the diocesan bishop.

The anti-discrimination provisions and the provisions securing the rights of the followers of other religions within the educational system and beyond are also in effect. Discrimination on religious grounds in Poland is forbidden according to the provisions of the Constitution and international law. However, victims of discrimination are not able to benefit from the legal measures provided by the Act implementing EU regulations, pertaining to equal treatment and the pursuit of compensation on its basis. This Act only prevents unequal treatment in education on account of race, ethnic origin or nationality (Art. 7).

It can be concluded that the Polish law introduces the standards of religious freedom, but it should be considered whether this standard is not a façade which hides the lack of equality. Because justice is not a dictate of the majority, the effectiveness of anti-discrimination instruments and the actual existence of response mechanisms for possible instances of minority discrimination need to be scrutinized and evaluated.


Dilemmas Pertaining to Teaching Religion in Public Educational Institutions

The main issue to consider when analysing the relation between education, religious matters and ethical principles is whether religion and ethics should be taught at schools and if so, how. Related questions are, first of all, whether teaching religion should also include participating in religious practices. The second question is whether the State should be neutral in terms of worldview and whether ethical issues should be taught through the lens of the legal protection of human rights. And the third question is whether religious matters should be discussed from the anthropological standpoint so that children could learn about the various belief systems that exist in the world.

It seems that these issues have long been resolved in the “old” European Union countries. Nevertheless, Poland is a peculiar state in which, after almost 30 years of teaching religion in public schools, we begin to ask these difficult questions anew. Poland is relatively uniform in terms of cultural and religious convictions and practices. There is a strong and increasingly stronger dominance of Catholic discourse in the Polish culture and public life. But the matter here is not so much about the numbers than it is about one of the most important issues in democracy. It is about honouring the rights of the minority to be respected in their beliefs and values and modes of social functioning. An analysis of the influence that religion and ethics have had on the society is difficult because everybody has a different value system. Values are part of human identity. The objective assessment of these problems is difficult in the actual circumstances. From the point of view of protecting human rights, it seems fit to evaluate the case of teaching religion in the context of law, which reflects certain universal values, developed and cultivated by the previous generations who had to find solutions to these problems before.


How Religion, Especially Catholic, entered into the Polish Education Institutions

The current regulations allow for teaching any religion that is registered in Poland, but originally the only religion taught in schools and later also in pre-schools was Catholicism, which found its way there due to pressure from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In order to fully understand the impact of the compulsory lessons in religion have had on the issue of human rights protection, the cultural and political circumstances behind the introduction of religion into the educational system need to be explained first.

Before religion became a school subject, children of the Roman Catholic faith could attend such classes at their parishes. These lessons were held in the so-called small classrooms, which looked like traditional classrooms, but were located either in the presbyteries or one of the parish buildings. Children from different religions either took non-institutional lessons or no lessons at all. Ethics was partially covered in the civic education course. But according to my experience, ethical dilemmas were discussed broadly in literature lessons while studying the Polish literary canon.

Religion was introduced into the Polish school system in September 1990, by virtue of a directive issued by the Minister of National Education on the 3rd of August 1990. At the time the act was illegal – as it would be illegal today. This was done at the express request of the bishops, who passed an official resolution regarding the matter at the Polish Bishops’ Conference and they threatened the Government to take legal action and organize social protests.

We should remember that Poland was in a very difficult situation at the time. The legislative power was held by a special constitution of the Sejm called the “contract Sejm”. It was made up in half from the Communists peacefully giving up power and in half of the Deputies chosen in a free election. The hyperinflation was raging. The Soviet Army was still stationed in Poland. The government wanted to defuse the social situation and was afraid of riots on religious grounds – even more so than in the Socialist period, the Church was heavily involved in the resistance against the Soviet Union and the Communist regime. It was at this moment the stereotype of the Polish-Catholic patriot was solidified. The Government took the opportunistic stand. They wanted to prevent further destabilization of the State and ensure a win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, so the blackmail happened to be effective.

One of the Government officials at the time, Jacek Kuroń, admitted: “I thought that we had avoided a religious war. But I was wrong. At once, critical voices were raised about trying to make Poland a religious state, which was all the more valid since we had broken the law – we, who talked so loudly about making the new Poland a state of the law!” (Kuroń and Żakowski 1997: p 182). It is often claimed that religion was sneaked into schools through the back door (e.g. Agnosiewicz 2002, Słowik and Beczek 2015). Introducing religious education classes were not approved by everybody and from the beginning it stirred many doubts related to civil liberties and human rights. This chart presents the formal stages of introducing religion into Polish schools (fig. 2 Chronology of educational curricula):


The decisions of the Government met with formal objections from the Ombudsman. Ewa Łętowska objected to the violation of the law, including the Constitution, provisions concerning the freedom of worship and laws regarding education. This was to little avail, as the Constitutional Court did not react accordingly. It stated, for example, that “the secular and neutral nature of the State” may not be a justification for teaching religion in public schools, but it also cannot be a justification for not allowing it to be taught.  Legislative measures to introduce religion into schools were undertaken in 1992. Again, the Ombudsman raised an objection, which again was dismissed by the Court. In the end, grades for religious education began to appear on the school-leaving reports.

While the actions that led to the introduction of religion into schools in 1990 could be described as a blitzkrieg because they came as a sort of shock to the society, soon afterwards a heated debate began, which continues pretty much until today. Below are some exemplary quotes from the statements made by the Church officials and their supporters. These statements maintain the belief that religion is an expression of freedom from Communism and that Catholicism is linked to patriotism. As such, they stigmatize attitudes that do not adhere to the Catholic worldview. Jacek Kuroń cites the opinion of the bishops who commented on introducing religion into the Polish schools’ curricula. (Żakowski and Kuroń 1997: p.180 – 181.) In their opinion, ”Believers have the right to learn and develop their faith and since it is not possible to separate education from upbringing, schools are the right place for religious formation”. Moreover,”Return of religion to schools means the reparation of the harm the Polish society suffered under totalitarian rule that sought to banish God from people’s lives and to deprive Poles of their national identity”. The bishops also claimed that their fidelity to Christ’s teachings obliges them to preach and remind the entire world that schools are a natural place for evangelization. The matter was also commented upon by priests; the following is a representative example: “Freemasonry and other unbelievers, under the guise of freedom and neutrality, have suspended any relations with the living God” (Bartnik 1993, see: http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434).

Different argumentswere expressed by secular circles and those concerned about the “totalitarian” character of teaching just this one religion in schools. Some of these statements were made, for example, by the members of the Polish government at the time. They draw attention to the conflict-inducing nature of such actions and the threat that they pose to the freedom of persons who do not want to participate in religious education or who will only participate in them for fear of explicit or implicit discrimination and pressure.

Even then, technical problems as to the organization of these classes are signalled, which, as it turns out, has led to actual discrimination. Jacek Kuroń pointed to the negative implications of the fact that the state will teach religion under statutory coercion and he tried to salvage the situation of non-Catholics, stating that voluntary consent has to be a positive, not negative, decision for parents and pupils. He tried to substantiate his opinion with a claim that “introducing religion into schools threatens to create tensions and conflicts in many environments, not only between adults but also children”[1]. On the other hand, the then deputy minister, Anna Radziwiłł argued that universal Christian ethics should be part of education, but religion should not be taught as a school subject, because it is something greater. The representatives of the scientific and artistic circles and journalists then sent an open letter of protest to the Polish President, Prime Minister and The Minister of National Education, against the plans to introduce compulsory religious education in schools, in which they argued that “the initiative of the Ministry is aimed at turning state schools into denominational school which is the expression of undemocratic tendencies. They claimed, and rightly, as it turned out later, that ‘the choice: religion or ethics will be a false choice, given the Polish realities’.”[2]

Since 2007, grade in religion classes is placed on the school certificate and the Church has endeavoured to make religion one of the matura subjects(see: Wiśniewska 2016, see: http://wyborcza.pl/1,75398,20126283,religia-na-maturze-mozliwa-w-2021-r-kosciol-dogadal-sie-z.html?disableRedirects=true). Maturais a Polish state exam taken at the end of secondary school giving access to the University. Long-term observation of the political scene allows to conclude that the right-wing groups promised to acknowledge religion as one the matura subjects in exchange for the Church’s support for their candidates in the election.


The Importance of Catholic Religion in Poland

To understand the Polish case, one should be aware of how important the Catholic religion is in Poland as compared to other religions or atheism and what is the status of the ecclesiastical institutions in our country. Catholicism is very popular and, in a sense endemic here, as a worldview. Which is another reason why religious education (RE) has been taught at schools for about 30 years already.

The Catholic Church has an extremely well-developed and organized administrative structure, covering the entire Polish territory with a broad network of territorial units: parishes, dioceses, archdioceses and metropolies.














Fig. 3 The administrative structure of the Catholic Church in Poland and basic statistics. The Central Statistical Office of Poland Information note prepared in partnership with the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics SAC, Warsaw, 2017 (https://stat.gov.pl/files/gfx/portalinformacyjny/pl/defaultaktualnosci/5500/7/1/1/struktura_administracyjna_kosciola_katolickiego_w_polsce.pdf)


Clearly, as far as human capital and organizational support are concerned, the organization of RE classes in public schools and kindergartens does not pose any problems to the Catholic Church, but given the situation, these classes could equally well be held at the parishes.

It is indeed difficult to assess how many Catholics there actually are in Poland, how many atheists and how many people of other beliefs. Official government statistics are based on data provided by religious associations, but other statistics are also considered. The authors of the report (cited below) observed a 3,2 million discrepancy in the number of Catholic Church followers, depending on the counting method. It should be noted that the Polish population is about 38 million.

According to the report, the statistics as of 2017 are as follows:

  • 10 248 parishes,
  • 30 925 priests.
  • 33 214 800 believers – according to the Church.
  • On average, there are 3241 followers in each parish and 1047 followers for one priest

The notion of a follower does not reflect fully the complex human relation to faith and religious duties. For this reason, the Church and public statistics do not indicate the actual number of practising followers, but rather the number of baptized persons. Thus, secular circles often allege that the official statistics, due to the opportunism of the Church officials, are highly inaccurate because they are based on the numbers provided by different religious denominations and their presentation is also not fully reliable.

In the general census, conducted in 2011,[3] 95% of respondents declared Catholic faith.  As for other beliefs, 0,44 % of respondents declared the formal membership in the Russian Orthodox Church, 0,39% in the Jehovah’s Witness Association, 0,20% in the Evangelical-Augsburg Church, 0,9% in the Greek Catholic Church, 0,8% in the Pentecostal Church,  0,03% in the Mariavite Old Catholic Church, 0,02 in the Polish-Catholic Church and 0,2% in the Baptist Church. 0,12% respondents declared belonging to other religions and 2,41% declared themselves to be non-believers. These numbers have been obtained through a census that took into account only 20% of the households in Poland. What is more, 7% of the respondents refused to answer the question and for 1,6% it was impossible to obtain data. It is thus uncertain whether these statistics reflect actual social tendencies. What is also important here is that people who have been raised in some religion or just in certain social conditions, in which the existence of a higher power is implied, may not be able to declare atheism, even if they do not practice any religion at all. “They believe just in case, because you never know how it really is, and you wouldn’t want to mess with God.”

As a result, data showing that there is so great a domination of the Catholic worldview in Poland is not fully reliable. Still, the fact that it is presented in such a manner may lead to the occurrence of a phenomenon known as the Noelle-Neuman’s spiral of silence. According to this theory, people refrain from presenting their views when they believe that these views are not in agreement with the view of the majority (Noelle-Neuman 1974: p. 43-51).

Nevertheless, Catholic religion in Poland is dominant and this is visible in all spheres of social life. Many people go to church every Sunday. Baptisms, weddings, communions and funerals according to the Catholic rite are also common. This can be seen as an element of folklore, but also as the result of the strong, position of the church in Poland, which has been built over the last decades. Catholic priests are present during many state ceremonies and they bless newly constructed public buildings. Characteristic of the Polish landscape is spontaneously erected and maintained chapels. Not only in the villages, which were commonly conceived as the bastions of the traditional approach to life and religiousness, but also in the cities (cf. below: Pic.1 On the left is a rustic chapel in Bukowina, near Kudowa, on the right, a chapel in the Grochów District in Warsaw – the capital. Photo: M. Tabernacka).








It should also be noted that the Catholic Church receives considerable support from the public authorities. This support may be financial, organizational or institutional. An interesting example of this tendency is the Polish Post, the offices of which look like a combination of a devotional shop and a little rustic store that sells socks next to rosaries. Both pictures were taken in a Wrocław post office. Books that can be seen here are quite consistent in their subject matter. Some of them describe events from the history of Poland and the Polish people, but from a rather nationalist standpoint. There are also books written by priests and culinary books written by nuns and religious literature for children. Although “The Danish Way of Parenting” can also be spotted (cf. Pic.2. Photo: M. Tabernacka).

A certain counterbalance to these tendencies is provided by people with a secular outlook and non-Catholic religious beliefs and the actions they undertake in the public sphere. One example of such actions is the “School is not Church” social campaign run by the foundation called “Freedom from Religion”,[4] whose poster (with the same inscription) is shown on the photo below (Pic. 3. Photo: M. Tabernacka 2017).


The campaign’s authors insist on the secularization of the school and they are opposed to the domination of the Catholic religion, pointing out that the ever-presence of its symbols in schools is a symbolic violence that affects students from religious and non-believer minorities during the long years of education. The same foundation also promotes the freedom of worldview and the separation between the church and the state, which is guaranteed by the art. 25 of the Polish Constitution.

Both the Polish Constitution and a separate legislation ensure the separation of church and state. However, a number of legal regulations guarantees a privileged position to the Catholic Church and teaching religion in schools is just one of its consequences. About 30 years of publicly teaching RE in Poland may be one of the key factors determining the current escalation of xenophobic attitudes among young people who hide behind a specific perspective of patriotism that is closer to nationalism and religious ethnocentrism.


What Is the Teaching Practice of Religion in Polish Schools

According to Polish provisions, children can attend RE classes in all types of primary and secondary public schools. These can be in Catholic religion or any of the minority religion classes. Those who are not willing to be educated in religion can attend ethics classes if these are organized at their schools. If these are not organized, they can attend neither of the classes, at least according to the general principles derived from the law. But it is the practice of teaching religion in Polish schools that raises doubts about the preservation of human rights.

Legal regulations in Poland guarantee the freedom of religion and non-discrimination on the ground of religion. The problem lies, however, in the manner they are executed and in the specific social climate, which makes public authorities and certain individuals more inclined to opportunism towards the aspirations of the clergy and the Catholic community.

Attending or not attending RE has important implications for the Polish learners, because it affects the assessment of their overall school performance. The following diagram illustrates the specifics of organizing RE and / or Ethics in Polish schools in relation to the grades that learners can obtain (fig. 4 Organization of RE / Classes):








The organization of RE / ethics classes are regulated by the Regulation of the Minister of National Education of 14 April 1992 (Journal of Laws No. 36, item 155, as amended, the latest amendment of 1 December) regarding conditions and methods for teaching religion in public schools and kindergartens. According to this regulation, learners attending RE / ethics can get two grades, one grade or no grade at all. These grades count in the grade average, which makes them important for the assessment of the learners’ overall performance. If either ethics or religion are chosen, presence is mandatory just as for any other classes, so it may affect the grade for conduct.

If there are 7 pupils in a school class or a kindergarten group who want to attend religion, the school or kindergarten is responsible for organizing such classes. If there are fewer than 7 pupils in a class or group, combined classes should be organized. If there are fewer than 7 pupils interested in attending RE classes in a school or kindergarten, the municipality is responsible for organizing classes for interschool or inter-kindergarten groups or at a religious education facility. The municipality is obliged to organize them even if there is just 1 such learner. The case is similar with ethics. In practice, the number of children attending ethics classes is small, even if it has increased in the last few years. The statistical data is presented below (fig. 5: Fig. 5, 2015 Annual Report of the Ombudsman. Source: M. Tabernacka):


Access to ethics classes in Poland was only taken seriously after the 2010 judgement of the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg in the case of Grzelak vs. Poland (Judgement of the ECHRights of 15 June 2010 in the case of Grzelak v. Poland, application No. 7710/02). The school authorities’ failure to organize ethics classes for a child who refused to attend RE classes was taken by the Court as an infringement of the articles 9 and 14 of the Convention. Nonetheless, even if ethics classes were formally guaranteed in schools, there were often doubtful cases from the standpoint of freedom of religion and conscience. There were some cases in Poland, where ethics classes were conducted by the same people who taught religion and on the basis of textbooks written by some Catholic priest or parents who opted for an ethics course were met with such proposals for these classes. Thus, when it comes to the actual safeguarding of human rights, the implementation of the provisions pertaining to teaching religion and ethics actually leads to the infringement of the standards for protecting human rights in Poland.

Teaching minority religions in Polish schools are, in fact, very rare. Under the current provisions in force public schools have the obligation to include the grade from any religion taught outside of the school system on the school-leaving certificate. The Ombudsman’s report showed that quite frequently the school authorities did not recognize such grades. The followers of minority religions who want to organize RE classes at schools often meet with a refusal by these authorities, their passivity or institutional obstacles, such as inconvenient hours (The 2015 RPO Report). The following chart illustrates the Polish educational practices for teaching minority religions (fig. 6):


The presence of the Catholic religion in schools goes far beyond the scope of an ordinary school subject in what regards the substance and organization.According to the law, two classes in Catholic religion should be held each week, or if it is only one, then the local bishop should give his permission. During the lessons, the pupils learn about the principles of the Catholic faith, but they also participate in religious practices, for example the classes tend to start with prayers. In fact, lessons are the combination of religious practices and theory from the textbook and workbook. This may pose a problem if schools cannot provide care or an alternative place to stay during the lessons to children who do not want to participate in RE and have to sit in class with other children. The organization of the Catholic holidays and retreats also calls for additional study breaks. The research conducted among children attending these lessons reveals that some of their contents verge on indoctrination. Children are shown propaganda videos (about miracles, conversions, etc.).

It is important to note that in Polish schools it is assumed that everyone will attend religion, but the regulations in force since 2014 (Journal of Laws of 1992 No. 36 item 155) explicitly state that religion is organized on the parents’ request or the learners’ themselves, after they have come of age, which stems from para. 1 of this regulation. The said request should be made in writing. The above chart presents the results of a study carried out by the Ombudsman in 2015.In many schools surveyed by the Ombudsman and schools which I researched, RE was simply a part of the agenda for all learners to attend by default. There was no practice of launching it on request and parents were not informed that such a request was a condition for the attendance of their children to such classes. Religion is simply placed on the class schedule, most often at a time convenient for the priest or catechist. The report that concluded the Ombudsman’s survey stated that in 70.4% of the schools surveyed, new students were automatically directed to take RE classes.If the learner didn’t want to participate, they could (or their parents could) report this orally (41.4%) or in writing (29%), 42% of principals explicitly stated that the schools they run do not inform learners and parents about the right to choose minority religion or ethics classes.

Both having a minority religion and ethics classes organized often require a great deal of determination from the learners and their parents, as these lessons often take place outside of school, in the so-called Inter-school classes and in inconvenient hours.

The law guarantees religious denominations and parents who adhere to specific beliefs the possibility to set up their own schools and such schools indeed exist. Parents representing these specific views can send their children to such schools without any obstacles, as it is also guaranteed by the law that a religious denomination can teach religion within their own structures.

The teaching of religion in Polish public schools points to numerous areas in which the right to non-discrimination and the freedom of worldview could be threatened. Economic determinants of state functioning considered in the light of the social justice principle, e.g. fair avocation of funds collected through taxes or total costs of the Polish education system are also relevant here. The law should not only safeguard certain rights but also provide mechanisms to counteract inequalities. Only such a legal standard can guarantee the protection of human rights in a given sphere. The Ombudsmanclaims that the current Polish regulations do not protect the various religious and social groups sufficiently. The persons belonging to the Roman Catholic Church have a privileged position: not so much due to legal regulations, but due to tradition, cultural practices and pragmatic considerations. The Ombudsman’s report points to the existence of hidden or passive denial of the rights of persons and groups representing religious or worldview minorities. The Ombudsman believes that legislative actions are less important than soft educational measures, appropriate mass media communication and a long-term policy for social education, which can bring about cultural changes (The 2015 RPO Report: p. 6-7).

The analysis of the legal provisions allowed me to distinguish a number of legal provisions pertaining to human rights in the field of education. They can be classified into three groups: first, freedom of religion, second, prohibition of discrimination affecting universal right to education and, third, provisions protecting the child’s mental and physical well-being. The rules in question will now be presented within the social context related to the presence of religion in the Polish public schools.


Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Thought

The principle of freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right, which obviously applies not only to adults, but also to children. It includes, among others, freedom to choose one’s religion, including the lack of it. One of the most important achievements of our civilization in the last 150 years has been the gradual refinement of the societies, which brought about the recognition of children’s subjectivity. As regards the guarantees for respecting human rights, another fundamental issue is the right of children to express and to demand respect for their views, including their religious views.

These standards are binding in secular countries with democratic systems. Any infringement of the principles regarding the freedom of worldviews and the freedom to choose one’s religion calls into question the actual secular and democratic nature of a state. Poland, according to the current Constitution, is both a secular state and a state following the model of democratic ruled by law.

It is extremely important to ensure that the prohibition against compelling anyone to participate in religious practices is complied with. This issue is related to whether RE will be taught as a school subject, whether it will aim to familiarize students with different religious systems and whether it will entail participation in religious practices. During the Religious Education lessons it may occur – and in Poland this is commonplace – that children say their prayers. Given the compulsory participation in such lessons this can be regarded as a violation of human rights.

Participation or non-participation in classes of religion in public school is an expression of a specific worldview or a particular religious or non-religious option. Even if a person who chooses one of these options does not intend to deliberately affirm anything, their choice can still become the subject of social evaluation. What is more, the consequences of making the choice and having it formally disclosed by placing the RE grade on the school certificate, are permanent, which further increases the risk of human rights infringement in the future and is already such an infringement itself. A related problem regards the assessment of the student’s participation or non-participation in RE within the context of the other classes that the school provides. According to the experts, placing a dash instead of a grade on a school certificate of a student who didn’t attend RE / ethics is regarded as illegal if ethics classes were not organized by the school. This violates the constitutional principle of not having one’s religious convictions disclosed and represents a breach of the right to privacy, guaranteed by Art. 18 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Olszewski 2010:p. 189-190).

One characteristic of teaching RE in Poland is that public education is subject to certain normative regulations that stem from a normative order that is not “public”. This also affects persons who are not willing to conform to this order. The public and legal relations of the state’s citizens should not be bound by regulations other than those provided by public law. This is one of the fundamental standards of democracy. The public law and its execution should thus not lead to the state of coercion, in which the process of performing public activities, the situation of individuals is affected by religious norms. Even if public law allows to be exempt from the operation of these norms, the actual social situation of an individual opposing the active, or even silent, will affect this individual’s right to religious freedom and freedom of convictions, which should be explored with regard to one more factor. As noted by J. S. Mill, “social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion”. According to the author, social stifling of “heretical” opinions allows to maintain the status quo of the intellectual climate, and to provide for comparative order, at least for some time. Yet, the price society has to pay for such an intellectual pacification is “the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind” (Mill 2012: p.128-129).

Freedom of religion and belief in the context of introducing religious education into schools should also be examined from the standpoint of the principle of proportionality operating in Poland by virtue of Art. 31 para. 3 of the Constitution. According to this regulation, any limitation upon the exercise of constitutional freedoms and rights may be imposed only by statute, and only when necessary in a democratic state for the protection of its security or public order, or to protect the natural environment, health or public morals, or the freedoms and rights of other persons. Such limitations shall not violate the essence of freedoms and rights. None of the conditions it outlines justifies restricting the scope of the principle of freedom of religion and belief, atheism included. Perceiving “minority” worldviews as immoral or “threatening” to the public order by the mere fact of their existence would be against the universal values expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to freedom of thought and religion, guaranteed in Art. 18.

Even more so, that the preamble of this convention frames its underlying rationale as the following: “whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Big words from the preamble, stating that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”, and that “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” should also apply to the legal obligation to ensure non-discrimination of religious minorities and persons professing no religion.


Ban on Discrimination

Discrimination related to teaching Catholic religion in Polish schools is thus a structural problem involving both specific organizational problems and organizational culture of the Polish educational establishments in general, derived from the broader social climate. This happens when the provisions create a condition in which, depending on the specifics of their implementation, discrimination will be either present or absent.

One example is the regulations of 1992 concerning the organization of RE which place the school principal in a very difficult predicament from the praxeological point of view. According to paragraph 1 of this article, lessons of religion in schools and pre-schools should be organized at the explicit request of parents or pupils, after they have reached the age of majority. But, as stated in para. 2, these lessons should be included into class schedules. Enrolment requests for school or kindergarten pupils should be made in writing. It is not technically feasible in multiple-class schools that RE will always be scheduled as the first or last lesson on a given day. These classes are often planned to take place in between other classes, which brings about serious logistical problems related to ensuring proper care to children who do not participate in them. This, in turn, causes schools to resort to measures resulting in discrimination of such children. It is also worth considering that statistical surveys conducted among both believers and non-believers conclude that the vast majority of the population (81%) thinks that RE classes should be scheduled either at the beginning or at the end of the school day so that persons who do not participate in them do not have to wait between lessons. Only one in eight persons surveyed (12%) does not endorse such a solution.[5]

An important question regarding the problem of discrimination is the question whether participation in RE is actually coerced. It emerges from my own research and the Ombudsman’s report (2015) that it is commonly “expected” in schools that all the school or kindergarten pupils will attend RE. Therefore, the catechists will commonly just enter the classroom and begin to conduct classes for all the children that are present. Also, contrary to the provisions of this Act, there are cases in which a written declaration of a child’s non-participation in RE classes is needed. At times, participation declarations ready to be signed were distributed among children at the beginning of a school year. Occasionally parents were required to hand in participation or nonparticipation declarations along with first-class admission forms. “Freedom from Religion,” foundation protested against such instances addressing the school management (e.g. the management board of the Integration Primary School No. 11 in Kielce), asking them to immediately change the first-class admission policy and remove any inquiries as to the candidates’ intention to attend or not attend RE. These inquiries were seen as having no legal footing and clearly violating Art. 53, para. 7 of the Polish Constitution as well as the provisions of educational law.[6].

The same tendency was pointed out in the RPO report (2015). On the other hand, as shown in the surveys conducted among the school principals, the practice of organizing RE classes for first graders is very routine. In 70.4% of the schools surveyed, new students were automatically directed to take Catholic religion classes. Only if the learner didn’t want to participate, could they (or their parents could) report this orally (41.4%) or in writing (29%). The active and prior, oral or written, declaration concerning the classes the student wishes to attend is taken by only one out of ten students (or their parents).  Almost half (42%) of the principals surveyed explicitly stated that the schools they run do not inform learners and parents about the right to choose minority religion or ethics classes.

The Ombudsman’s report has also uncovered other actions that bear the distinguishing features of discrimination on the grounds of religion or worldview (The 2015 ROP Report):

  • Not including the grade from minority religion classes on the school-leaving certificate. This grade is counted in the grade average, which results in unequal educational opportunities for these children.
  • No remuneration for teachers of minority religions within the education system.
  • Obstructing the organization of minority religion classes for children of the same age and insistence on creating combined groups for children. e.g. from the primary school’s year one up to six.
  • Negative reaction to the parents’, adolescents’ and children’s willingness to participate in ethics classes, including dismissal of the request, apparent acceptance, but lack of further action; making children participate in RE, e.g. by informing that participation is compulsory, when it is voluntary according to the law.

Yet the data disclosed by the foundation “Freedom from religion” suggests that religious discrimination in Polish schools takes on other forms as well. These include school employees pressuring students to take part in religious ceremonies; what is more, school celebrations contain elements of Catholic religion. Discrimination and indoctrination are also present in many educational and upbringing activities, including school decorations (e.g. the domination of religious symbols in the classrooms and corridors, a plaque in the cafeteria which equates the students’ high personal culture with praying before meals, etc.).[7]

Any discrimination of social groups or individuals is detrimental to the society’s potential as is social pressure to ensure a complete worldview uniformity. J.S. Mill draws attention to the need to ensure liberty of thought and pointed at the socially negative consequences of the “tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed”. According to the author, no nation has developed or will develop in “an atmosphere of mental slavery” (Mill 2012: p.131). The observations of R. Wilkinson and K. Picket concerning equal opportunities in society (Wilkinson and Pickett 2011: 191-211) are consistent with this line of thought and can also be linked to the social effects of discrimination arising in schools out of teaching just one (Catholic) religion there. The lack of equality brought about by favouring just one religion creates divisions and undermines trust, leading to a dysfunctional society.

The ban on discrimination on religious grounds is also related to fair participation in public finances. In the case of teaching religion in Polish schools this is also closely linked to the principle of separation of church and state expressed in Art. 25 of the Polish Constitution. Public schools are financed from public funds and run by municipalities. The salaries of the priests and catechists teaching RE are drawn from public funds, but these teachers are appointed by the church authorities. Public supervision of their teaching is limited, which will be analysed in more detail below. The catechists have a formal status equal to teachers of other subjects – in terms of wages, working conditions and pension rights.

The unequal professional standing of catechists and teachers of secular subjects is pointed out by B. Olszewski (2010: p. 186 and 193-194) as one element in the structural conflict related to teaching RE in Polish schools. The author mentions that the catechists are employed in accordance with the Teacher’s Charter – a legal regulation concerning all Polish teachers – but their legal status is also influenced by the Church regulations and the decisions made by its representatives. One example is the manner of assessing their competences to teach, e.g. the bishops deciding who can teach religion in a given school. The catechists can also become members of the Teachers’ Board and acquire early retirement rights like other teachers, but they are not fully subject to normal supervision within the general education system.

The cost of organizing the Catholic religion classes is therefore borne by all taxpayers, regardless of their beliefs. The problem of financing RE lessons in public schools has been debated since 1990s. One of the main arguments brought forward by the opponents of financing RE from public funds has been that teaching just one single worldview is financed through taxes also paid by those who do not subscribe to this worldview. The creators of the civic project under a statutory initiative “Secular school”, started in 2015, put forward the following postulates: “Religion in schools – yes, but not paid for through our taxes – let it be financed through Church funds and disappear from the class schedule. They maintain that their initiative is not anti-Catholic nor anti-religious. On the contrary, “[they] are absolutely for religion being taught in schools but after the regular classes have ended, not alongside them”.[8] Opponents of public funding often refer to the opinion expressed by T. Jefferson: that it is unacceptable “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves”. He considers this “sinful and tyrannical, and any attempt to do so threatens the religious neutrality of the state” (Agnosiewicz 2002: op.cit).

The prohibition to compel a person to disclose their convictions or belief is essential for the elimination of discrimination. However, when a particular religion is commonly taught at schools, this prohibition is actually violated, because the very fact of participating or not participating in RE classes is indicative of a certain worldview. If schools are to be neutral in terms of worldview, then religious matters could be taught in classes objectively presenting different religious and philosophical systems. What is specific about learning environments in general is that they foster frequent interactions between children who know relatively much about one another. Actively creating situations in which some of the children may feel inferior because they differ from the majority is a real discriminatory mechanism. Adolescence is a period fraught with conflicts and those who differ from others are subject to rejection and discrimination. In Poland, unfortunately, little attention has been paid to the shaping of egalitarian social attitudes, especially lately.

Any form of discrimination against learners who are the followers of minority religions or followers of no religion at all may prevent these learners from fully benefiting from their right to education. Vital aspects of this problem will be presented below, but it should be noticed that in the General Commentary to Art. 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Committee has pointed out that public education which allows for teaching of a particular religion is not compatible with this Covenant. Unless it is possible to obtain an exemption from these classes without any discrimination or alternative classes are offered, taking into account the wishes of the parents and caretakers.


Universal Right to Education and the Prior Right of Parents to Decide on their Children’s Upbringing

To pass on certain religious views to children at school could impact the right to education. This right should be implemented on an equal footing for all entitled persons. Where there is an actual breach of the principle of equality by discriminatory practices in both peer groups and in the school-pupil relations, that right is infringed. There are some important problems here.

One problem is the right of children to care and that their well-being is taken into consideration. This includes the physical security such that a child will not be left unattended as well as the psychological comfort that a child will not feel excluded and, furthermore, that it will not be affected by the negative consequences of the fact that they do not attend certain classes due to a different worldview. Another issue is related to ensuring the safety of children in educational institutions. Yet another concerns the parents’ right to raise their children in accordance to their convictions. It is also important to ensure a sufficiently high level of schooling that is uniform across the entire state.

The parents’ attitude to the declaration of their children’s participation in RE classes would be influenced by a possible threat against their children’s physical security and psychological comfort. According to one such views, the pressure from the “worldview majority” is so strong that non-believers, as they themselves declare, choose to declare their children’s participation in catechesis and other religious practices for “social reasons”. Non-believers are often worried about their children’s well-being in the face of more and more frequently reported cases of social ostracism and violence[9].

This tendency already manifested itself in the early stages where RE was introduced in the Polish public schools, that is, in the 1990s. Studies reveal (NEUTRUM 1996) that parents and students preferred to avoid open and long-term conflicts with the school. In practice, such conflicts were resolved by the child’s departure from school or muffling the conflict for the sake of peace. The conflicts were thus resolved “quietly”, as the parents were afraid that the situation might affect their child. In order to avoid repercussions or out of a sense of duty to remain loyal to the representatives of the religion that they professed, they rarely resorted to institutional settlement of conflictual situations.

The fear of being subject to aggression in a situation where the education system does not guarantee the de facto equality of different belief systems is not unfounded. As noted by Wilkinson and Pickett (2011: p. 151-152 and 161), increased inequality raises the stakes in the fight for status and is responsible for the increase in aggressive behaviours. The authors draw attention to the fact that violence is a frequent reaction to being insulted or losing one’s face. In a situation where children being educated get a hint that another person is “different”, because he or she does not attend RE and does not belong to the majority that would give them a sense belonging to the “right” people, this may lead, especially if there’s no standard of respecting differences, to treatment that is humiliating to the affronted person and may cause them to retaliate.

In the words of R. Tyrała (2014: p. 320), non-belief is a discreditable stigma. According to the author, dealing with this stigma by hiding one’s non-belief may result from the balancing of profit and loss. His research shows that non-believing parents often submit to the pressure of their family environment and send their children to RE classes, even though a relatively higher percentage of non-believers decides against such a step. Yet, due to the lack of institutional mechanisms, the pressure from peers and teachers is still present in the lives of the children whose parents are non-believers (Ibidem: p.334-335).

According to Art. 3, para. 3 of the regulations on the conditions and method of teaching religion in public schools, schools are legally obliged to “guarantee care or general educational classes during the period of religion or ethics classes for students who do not attend religious classes”.It emerges from my research that the implementation of this obligation in practice may at times be improper, resulting in both uncomfortable and dangerous situations for children as well as stigmatization and discrimination.

I have documented instances in which a child was to be chaperoned into another class for the duration of these lessons, but often he just had to wait in the school corridors. He was not taken care of properly, so he had to be moved to a different school. In another instance a child whose parents declared that he will not participate in RE classes was given a choice to either wait in a school corridor or stay in the class for the duration of RE, during which, in order not to “stand out”, he stands up for the prayer like other pupils. He does not participate in the activities but should not disturb the others.This is a stigmatizing situation, affecting the individual’s universal right to education. A study conducted in Poland soon after RE classes were first introduced[10] revealed that the opinion of the students themselves is no different. According to the respondents, when all the students finished their classes and went either home or to the parish to attend RE, their school situation was more or less equal. Upon introducing RE, the “otherness” of the children who did not attend the classes had become a problem. They have been stigmatized by being labelled with epithets that equalled not attending RE with being a member of certain religious or social groups that are perceived negatively in the society[11].

The proper standard of schooling should also be ensured by appropriate control measures. Public authorities financing a given initiative should have a degree of influence or at least supervision over its most important aspects. When teaching a subject in school, religion included, these aspects include, above all, appropriate pedagogical preparation for teaching different age groups in a manner that is adequate for their physical and mental development as well as providing an appropriate content. According to para. 4 of the regulations regarding the conditions and method of teaching religion in Poland, the RE curricula and textbooks are developed and approved by the Church authorities and only forwarded to the Minister of Education. There are no constitutional or supervisory mechanisms to oversee the content of these textbooks and curricula. The obligation to employ a catechist is not equated with influence over who will actually be employed. As stated in para. 5 of the aforementioned regulations, a catechist is employed solely on the basis of a registered referral issued by the church authority – in Catholic Church this is diocesan bishops. Similarly, professional qualifications of catechists are assessed by the Church hierarchs – the Polish Bishops Conference, specifically, but here the provisions entail acting in agreement with the Minister of National Education. Taking everything into consideration, it cannot be stated that the Polish provisions introduce a universal standard of equality in religious instruction in public schools. What is most lacking are the instruments of control and supervision over the socially important aspects of such an instruction, including curricula and staff responsible for conducting the classes.



The case regarding the introduction of RE into the Polish public education system allows the observation of certain important tendencies and evaluate them from a relatively long-time perspective of 30 years of religious education. Common religious education in public schools can highly affect the functioning of a given society. Some consequences are also visible in the manner of functioning of certain religious communities, such as the Roman-Catholic parishes in Poland.

Paprzycki (2015: p. 10) notes, while analysing the problem regarding religious markets as they are related to the competitiveness of churches, that the Catholic Church in Poland after 1989, that is, after the fall of socialism, was faced with the challenges related to its former position of a monopolist that did not have to, as the beacon of patriotism and freedom, compete with other religious orders. For these reasons, Catholic Church in Poland has difficulties in communicating with the state and the society, including its followers. The author suggests that the Church officials often depend on the state’s help, especially legislation that is favourable to them and takes the burden of convincing people about their rights and values off their shoulders. It seems that this strategy, despite its “totalitarian” character or perhaps because of it, has been quite effective, which is reflected in increasing social support for religion in schools, as confirmed by statistics below.

The data shows an upward trend in the social acceptance of teaching RE in schools as well as a decrease in the number of its opponents, which is illustrated by the chart:

Should religion be taught in public schools? Respondents’ answers by date
IX ‘91 IV ‘93 VII ‘93 I ‘94 VII ‘94 VII ‘07
Definitely yes 23% 21% 22% 20% 24% 36%
Rather yes 34% 34% 31% 37% 31% 36%
Rather not 23% 19% 18% 19% 19% 12%
Definitely not 19% 22% 25% 19% 22% 12%
Hard to say 1% 4% 4% 5% 5% 4%

Based on: Opinions about teaching religion. Research summary. Polish Public Opinion Centre (CBOS) BS/119/2007, Warszawa, Lipiec 2007 http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF


When it comes to teaching kindergarten students, the same study reveals that public opinions are rather divided.  A bit more than a half of respondents (53%) believes that religion should be taught in public kindergartens, while two fifths of them (41%) takes the opposite view.This does not change the fact that religious minorities and non-believers still need to have their rights protected.Their situation, taking into account the increasingly widespread acceptance of religion in public schools, is becoming more and more difficult.

The study also paints a picture of the content which, according to the Poles, should be taught in RE classes. More than a half of the people surveyed (57%) believes that these lessons should present knowledge about various beliefs and religions, while a bit more than one third of them (36%) thinks that the curriculum should concentrate mostly on the rules of the Catholic faith.The practitioners – teachers and scientists – are of similar opinion (Olszewski 2010: p. 194). This is also a proof for the existence of a certain cultural climate allowing for religious tolerance, which, in turn, should be used for promoting anti-xenophobic attitudes. This, however, does not translate into the respondents’ empathy regarding potential threats to the rights of those not professing the Catholic faith. The question: Can the hanging of a cross in public places, such as classrooms, be considered a violation of the freedom of non-believers? Was responded in the negative by 60% of the respondents and by only 33% in the affirmative. 7% did not give their opinion (CBOS, BS/170/2013).

Both in the 1990s, when introducing RE in schools (Kuroń and Żakowski 1997: p.182), and at present (Paprzycki 2015: p.61), attention has been called to the fact that turning religious education into a school subject that is not respected by the youth, strips it of its sacrum. Paprzycki notes that introducing RE in schools could be perceived as a kind of coercion and the result of an agreement between the church and the world of politics, which might cause teenagers to rebel. According to the author, the said changes in the education system did not bring about an explosion of religiousness among the school learners, so the present state of things turned out to be rather a manifestation of the church gaining formal influence and the state authorities’ submission rather than an evangelical success.

Besides, studies conducted in the first 5 years after introducing religion in schools, already showed that certain non-religious motivations in taking up RE, tended to prevail. There were often related to pragmatic and conformist attitudes. The influence of the family and the pro-religious climate at schools were said to be the most prominent factors. Still, the authors were concerned by the fact that every one in four students declare that non-attending RE and the subsequent lack of grades may result in troubles, which, according to the authors, proves that there exists a cultural climate in Poland that will only strengthen the conformist attitudes towards RE classes.[12] And, as may be noted, their prognosis was correct.

The Catholic priests also see certain difficulties inherent in catechesis being taught in school. Attention is being paid (Tułowiecki 2010: p. 125-127) to the weakening bond between the children and the parish and moving the religious relations from the ecclesiastical organization to the school’s grounds as well as different relations with the parents who expect to treat religion as the provision of a certain service, without making any contribution to their children’s religious upbringing. The priest formulating these opinions also views the collision between the religious reality and the reality of a dynamic youth environment within the confines of a single institution, which performs both educational and pedagogical functions, as a threat. The author writes, for example about the confrontation with modern pluralism and postmodernism in the atmosphere of axiological turmoil.

It thus can be noted that almost 30 years’ practice of teaching RE in the Polish schools has brought about a particular social situation becoming established and strengthened, but it did not eliminate all the conflicts, which, considering their nature, seems impossible.

A major threat related to the common presentation of a single worldview, especially using the authority of the state leads to the unification of attitudes and worldviews, which tends to inhibit creativity and reduce the cultural wealth of this society. The opportunism of public powers and readiness to comply with the demands of the church officials contribute to the discrimination of non-believers. Since the fundamental principles of democracy are the principle of equality and the principle of the state as the common good of all its citizens, public schools should be neutral with regard to worldviews.




Agnosiewicz M., Wprowadzenie religii do szkół, 2002, http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434

Bartnik C. S., „Słowo”, 3 VI 1993, cyt za: Agnosiewicz M., Wprowadzenie religii do szkół, 2002, http://www.racjonalista.pl/kk.php/s,434

Dostępność lekcji religii wyznań mniejszościowych i lekcji etyki w ramach systemu edukacji szkolnej. Analiza i zalecenia 2015, Biuletyn Rzecznika Praw Obywatelskich, Zasada Równego Traktowania Prawo I Praktyka Nr 17.

Kuroń J., Żakowski J. (1997), Siedmiolatka czyli kto ukradł Polskę?,Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie.

Mill J. S. 2012, Utylitaryzm. O wolności, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo naukowe PWN

Noelle-Neuman E., 1974 , The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion, Journal of Communication, vol. 24, nr.3, p. 43-51

Olszewski B.(2010), Konflikt strukturalny na przykładzie nauczania religii w szkołachin: M. Tabernacka, R. Raszewska-Skałecka (red.) Płaszczyzny konfliktów w administracji publicznej, Warszawa, Wolters Kluwer

Paprzycki J., 2015, Prawna ochrona wolności sumienia i wyznania, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo C.H.Beck

Słowik K. Beczek. W. (2015), Religię wprowadzono do szkół tylnymi drzwiami i na szybko. “Miałem telefony z episkopatu”.http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/1,114871,18941898,religie-wprowadzono-do-szkol-tylnymi-drzwiami-i-na-szybko-mialem.html

Tułowiecki D., 2010, Dwadzieścia lat religii w szkole – nadzieje, trudności, wyzwania. Próba refleksji socjologicznej, in K. R. Kotowski, D. Dziekoński (red.) Dwadzieścia lat katechezy w szkole, Warszawa-Łomża, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego w Warszawie

Tyrała R., 2014, Bez Boga na co dzień. Socjologia ateizmu i niewiary, Kraków, NOMOS

Wilkinson, K. Pickett, 2011, Duch równości. Tam gdzie panuje równość wszystkim żyje się lepiej, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca

Wiśniewska K., Religia na maturze możliwa w 2021 r.? Kościół dogadał się z rządem Beaty Szydło,2016, http://wyborcza.pl/1,75398,20126283,religia-na-maturze-mozliwa-w-2021-r-kosciol-dogadal-sie-z.html?disableRedirects=true


Authentic sources of opinions

Niesiołowski i Grodzka o religii. “Szkoła od edukacji, Kościół od katechezy” czy “im więcej religii tym lepiej”?, http://www.tvn24.pl)https://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/niesiolowski-i-grodzka-o-religii-szkola-od-edukacji-kosciol-od-katechezy-czy-im-wiecej-religii-tym-lepiej,394666.html

Społeczna kampania „Szkoła to nie kościół”

OŚWIADCZENIE, ŻE DZIECKO NIE BĘDZIE UCZĘSZCZAŁO NA RELIGIĘ WE WNIOSKU O PRZYJĘCIE DO SZKOŁY – INTERWENCJA FUNDACJI, https://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/oswiadczenie-ze-dziecko-bedzie-uczeszczalo-religie-we-wniosku-o-przyjecie-szkoly-interwencja-fundacji-2/


Religia w szkołach? “Chcemy, żeby płacił za to Kościół” http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/spor-o-finansowanie-z-budzetu-panstwa-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,526692.html



Statistics and study reports

Opinie o nauczaniu religii. Komunikat z badań. Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, BS/119/2007, Warszawa, lipiec 2007 (CBOSBS/119/2007) http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF

Religia i kościół w przestrzeni publicznej. Raport z badań. Warszawa, grudzień 2013 (CBOS BS/170/2013)


Religia w systemie edukacji. Komunikat z badań, Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, BS/136/2008. Warszawa, wrzesień 2008  (CBOS BS/136/2008)


Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport. Stowarzyszenie na rzecz Państwa Neutralnego Światopoglądowo NEUTRUM 1996, Warszawa

Struktura administracyjna Kościoła katolickiego w Polsce i podstawowe statystyki. GŁÓWNY URZĄD STATYSTYCZNY. Notatka informacyjna opracowana wspólnie z Instytutem Statystyki Kościoła Katolickiego SAC, Warszawa 2017, file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_administracyjna_kosciola_katolickiego_w_polsce%20(1).pdf

Struktura narodowo-etniczna, językowa i wyznaniowa ludności Polski. Narodowy spis powszechny ludności i mieszkań 2011, Główny Urząd Statystyczny, Warszawa 2015, file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_narodowo-etniczna.pdf



1          20 years of religion in schools, http://fakty.interia.pl/religia/news-20-lat-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,nId,886445

2          Ibidem.

3          file:///C:/Users/IM/Downloads/struktura_narodowo-etniczna.pdf

4          http://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/kampania_spoleczna_szkola_to_nie_kosciol/

5          http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2007/K_119_07.PDF

6          OŚWIADCZENIE, ŻE DZIECKO NIE BĘDZIE UCZĘSZCZAŁO NA RELIGIĘ WE WNIOSKU O PRZYJĘCIE DO SZKOŁY – INTERWENCJA FUNDACJI,https://wolnoscodreligii.pl/wp/oswiadczenie-ze-dziecko-bedzie-uczeszczalo-religie-we-wniosku-o-przyjecie-szkoly-interwencja-fundacji-2/

7          http://rownoscwszkole.pl/o-projekcie

8          http://www.tvn24.pl/wiadomosci-z-kraju,3/spor-o-finansowanie-z-budzetu-panstwa-lekcji-religii-w-szkolach,526692.html

9          http://rownoscwszkole.pl/o-projekcie

10      Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport. Stowarzyszenie na rzecz Państwa Neutralnego Światopoglądowo NEUTRUM 1996, Warszawa, p. 9-16.

11        Ibidem, p. 18.

12        Respektowanie wolności sumienia i wyznania w szkole publicznej Raport., p. 13.

Human Rights Education for Lawyers: A Case Study into Universality and Its Relativism

The 1993 World Human Rights Conference asserted “the universal nature” of human rights and identified human rights education and training as an essential tool for the promotion of universal respect for, and observance of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, in accordance with the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights.

Disagreements and even attacks on the universality of human rights, however, are widespread. The strongest argument of opponents against the universality principle is essentially the contestable claim about the universal enforcement/implementation of human rights. These opponents propose to reconcile the universality of human rights by rooting these rights in different cultural and legal traditions.

The diversity of civilizations, religions, cultures and traditions has been accepted by states via their legal obligations since they have already been reflected in the universality of human rights and thus contributed to the international normative universality. The global human rights regime has a subsidiary character and relies mainly on national implementation of the universal human rights standards. However, there is a great gap between the “high inspiration of human rights and the sobering realities on the ground”[1]. The lack of the proper national implementation has negative consequences: human rights law loses its regulatory functions and people’s trust. As a remedy, human rights education should become a driving force in their national implementation. The national judiciary, including lawyers, has a primary role in protecting human rights and providing means for their enforcement at the national and international level. This is why human rights education for lawyers is of vital importance and may serve as a means for effective conveyance of human rights knowledge, awareness and skills.

Will the process of internalization of the international norms by communities and individuals be more effective if the universal standards are translated into local culture and legal traditions via human rights lawyers as agents of change? The present article provides a case study of two educational projects for lawyers (hereafter “the Projects”) and draws conclusions on whether human rights education for lawyers may bring about reconciliation between universality and relativism by strengthening connections of domestic legal systems with international human rights standards and values.

The paper is set out in six sections. The first section presents the outlines and the relevant sources for the concepts of “universality” and “relativism”. The second section is devoted to the framework and concept of “human rights education” (HRE), and here I place special emphasis on the HRE for lawyers (HREL). The third section outlines the frameworks of the two educational projects for lawyers (the Projects) – “Electronic Human Rights Education for Lawyers” (EHREL) and “Bring International Standards Home” (BISH), which are the main subject of the case study. The next three sections explore several specific doctrines, namely, “International Human Rights Standards”, “Implementation” and its lex specialis in the human rights law –   “de facto implementation”, “Human Rights Defender”.

These concepts served as support for the education objectives of the human rights education Projects and have as such been incorporated into the curricula and educational activities of the Projects. These sections provide examples, relevant statistical data and facts on the increased learners´ educational outcomes in terms of knowledge and understanding, attitudes, values and skills in promotion and protection of human rights. The content and the outlines of the last three sections emphasize that international human rights law, when taught to lawyers properly and systematically, provides considerable space for national implementation activities in the various paths of domestic legal and cultural environments, while aiming at the same time to promote and protect universal human rights for all.

I defend the view that the universality of human rights in training for lawyers is a key principle and a tool for legal professionals. The application of the universal human rights standards in de facto implementation is effective if the awareness and understanding of the principle of universality is rooted into the national legal context and “owned” by lawyers as “providers” of legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.



Universality and Relativism: Outlines

The article does not aim to provide a broad introduction to all arguments in the adversarial debate on universalism and relativism. However, since these two concepts will often be used in the article, it is important to explain them in more detail.

For the purpose of the paper, “universalism” is defined as universal respect for, observance and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other instruments relating to human rights and international law (para 1, the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, 1993). As a departure point for the universality of human rights, I take the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948), Preamble, para 8.

The concept of “relativism” is regarded as a space for national, regional, cultural particularities and other forms of diversity and relativity (J. Donnely, 2007). The intensive study of cultural relativism was conducted under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council in 2010 and 2012 (A/HRC/16/37 and A/HRC/22/71).

Relativity has different dimensions – cultural, religious, historical, traditional, etc. For the purpose of this paper, I will refer mainly to the legal relativity, meaning particularities of national legal systems, including legislation, practice and legal culture.

The academic research on the principle of universality in light of traditional values has been studied in depth and taken into account in the analysis of the main subject of the current case study.

Human Rights Education

The global normative framework for HRE was finalized with the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training in 2011.

The Declaration defined the main objectives, principles and responsibilities of States and other stakeholders. Particularly, it specified that HRE aims at promoting universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and thus contributing, inter alia, to the prevention of human rights violations and abuses by providing persons with knowledge, skills and understanding and developing their attitudes and behaviours, to empower them to contribute to the building and promotion of a universal culture of human rights.

Later, the aims were interpreted in the Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as follows:


Human rights education and training encompass: (a) knowledge and skills – learning about human rights and human rights mechanisms and acquiring skills to apply them in practical ways in daily life; (b) Values, attitudes and behaviour – developing values and reinforcing attitudes and behaviour which uphold human rights; (c) Action – taking action to defend and promote human rights.

HRE was recognized in international law as an individual human right and as a concept much earlier.

Indeed, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) was the first international document, which shaped the right for education and made an important step in recognizing a “special” right – the right for human rights education and awareness (Preamble and Art. 26 part 2).

The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (1993) called national States to direct education towards the full development of the human personality and the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It called on all States to include “human rights education programmes” as subjects in the curricula of all learning institutions in formal and non-formal settings.

The United Nations Decade for HRE (1995-2004) was the first global program and became a predecessor of the currently on-going World Programme for Human Rights Education.

The findings and lessons learned of the UN First Decade were of interest for those who deal with HRE: “Formal education is traditionally knowledge-based, and this approach alone is not conducive to attitudinal changes which are the objective of the human rights efforts”[2]; Lack of synergy between jurists and pedagogues, as well as the lack of coordination between Governments and NGOs; No effective coordination in place at the international level; Lack of human and financial resources to implement human rights education programs; Donors’ inconsistency in supporting programs conducted by civil society organizations; Lack of political will of some authorities and unwillingness to empower population with knowledge and awareness on universally recognized normative set of rights which might be claimed by individuals, etc.

Using the experience of the first decade and results of its evaluation, international and regional institutions have developed numerous guidelines and education standards for human rights education for different professional groups and levels of education.

The international framework for human rights education for lawyers (HREL), however, is still limited to the single reference in the Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers (1990) stating that “governments, professional association of lawyers and education institutions shall ensure that lawyers have appropriate education and training and be made aware of the ideas and ethical duties of the lawyer and human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law”.

The Special Rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers in her report submitted to the UN General Assembly (2016) referred to the duty and responsibility of lawyers to “uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law” as it was stated in the UN Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers (1990). She has also reiterated that legal education and training should also include the study of international human rights at the domestic level, as well as to make use of international mechanisms, including regional mechanisms, for the protection of human rights.

During the last decade, the European initiatives – to ensure the most effective application of the European Convention of Human Rights at national level – resulted in designing and developing the pan-European training platform assisting all the member States in their action for effective integration of the Convention into the domestic legal judicial training. The aims and methodology of the HELP program based on the UN Declaration on the HRE and the World Program for HRE contribute significantly to the current landscape of HREL in many Council of Europe countries.


Bring International Standards Home and Electronic Human Rights Education for Lawyers

The case study presents the analysis of the results of the two human rights education projects: the first one, “Bring International Standards Home” (BISH, started in 2006 and ongoing), was tailored to lawyers and other professional groups from Belarus, while the second project, “Electronic Human Rights Education for Lawyers” (EHREL, 2009-2016) was designed for legal professionals of several CIS countries. Both projects have been implemented under the “International Law in advocacy” (ILIA) umbrella program of the Human Rights House Network (HRHN), which is well known in the countries participating in the Projects.

The current section describes the frameworks, conditions and features of the Projects, with references to some quantitative results. The qualitative outcomes of the training, with a focus on the universality principle, will be presented later in the sections regarding the specific concepts embedded into the curricula.

The Projects were developed by partners of the international human rights network – the Human Rights House Network – and experts who shared the common understanding of the need to improve the level of implementation of human rights obligations in the region and to provide better protection for civil society organizations, human rights defenders and the population at large. The Projects and their curricula were designed before the UN HRE Declaration was adopted. However, the international commitments and documents in the field of human rights education had been studied. Later on, the cooperation with the CoE HELP Program´s team contributed to strengthening the Projects´ outcomes. Remarkably, the Projects´ education framework implemented principles, which were very much similar to those included in the current UN HRE Declaration.

There is a good explanation for this fact, since the authors of the Projects’ curricula based them on the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the relevant human rights treaties, with a view to:

  • Raising awareness, understanding and acceptance of universal human rights standards;
  • Applying the human rights-based approach and legal standards in daily professional activities;
  • Contributing to building an environment where everyone is aware of the rights of others and promoting the conception of the individual as a responsible member of a peaceful, pluralistic and inclusive society;
  • Pursuing the “de facto implementation” of the States’ international obligations, with the knowledge and clear understanding of the opportunities and limits of the national legislation and practice and, nevertheless, drawing inspiration from the diversity of the national legal systems participating in the training;
  • Contributing to the prevention of human rights violations via the dissemination of knowledge, awareness of and skills in the international human rights standards and instruments via professional lawyers’ networks and building bridges between lawyers and human rights organizations.

The diversity of cultural and legal traditions of the selected countries was taken into consideration and enriched the joint training of lawyers from these countries. Via a comparative method, the differences between the legal traditions and specific provisions of the domestic legislation and practice were interpreted and measured by the application of the international human rights standards.

The authors of human rights education and post-educational (follow up) activities for lawyers from the above-mentioned countries took into consideration the similarities between the legal systems in the participating countries. As it is commonly known, the CIS countries reappeared as independent states due to the collapse and the dissolution of the former Soviet state. However, they still have common features, including those related to the international human rights law instruments:

  • The Constitutions and national legislation of most CIS countries declare the entitlement to invoke the international law directly as a standard for cases when it provides higher protection for human rights;
  • The extensive sets of international and regional human rights binding instruments are formally recognized by the governments of the countries;
  • Most countries follow the monistic system in respect what regards the interrelation between international law and national law;
  • The judiciaries of these countries have rather poor knowledge of and skills in direct application and interpretation of international human rights standards;
  • Human rights education programs for lawyers, both in universities and conducted by professional lawyers´ associations have not been sufficiently developed;
  • The recent assistance of the CoE HELP Program can not cover all target groups of lawyers; etc.
  • In some countries, like Belarus, participation of lawyers in human rights education programs, unless approved by the Bar Association, might cause disciplinary measures against the lawyers;
  • Generally, in all the CIS countries, bar association’s lack understanding of the need for continuing human rights education of lawyers;
  • The last but not the least important point is that the population and the lawyers show high respect for the international human rights standards and acknowledge the legitimacy of the international and regional human rights judicial and quasi-judicial bodies ensuring justice in cases of human rights violations.

New information and communication technologies have been used to create an online learning platform (http: ilia.humanrightshouse.org) available for lawyers from different countries and remote regions.

The training for lawyers have used a combination between the online format of training and offline activities most suited for professional lawyers. The methodology and formats of the training were chosen taking into consideration the specific needs and working conditions of learners and their expectations regarding the improvement of the individual level of knowledge and skills and the widening of their professional network:

  • In-person introductory seminars in each of the countries;
  • Online distance learning seminars and lectures as the core teaching method;
  • Home reading and research;
  • Online forum discussions;
  • Home assignments and online tests;
  • Consultations with experts and evaluations of their home assignments; and
  • The final international conference including a moot court.

The Project partners conducted careful planning and fundraising activities to get the necessary resources, and undertakings to follow up on the training activities and support the alumni networking, advocacy and solidarity actions. The cross-border and international activities were designed and conducted in online and offline formats.

An important note: it is very difficult to evaluate the impact of education in general, and it is a very true statement for HREL as well.  Some numbers (collected in 2015), however, may give an understanding of the quantitative results of the Projects’ alumni:

  • 4,860 consultations on human rights violations
  • 172 strategic litigation cases in the area of human rights
  • 325 people participating in the “Human Rights Lawyers as a Group at Risk” online forum run by the alumni
  • 394 alumni and experts participating in online discussion fora and knowledge sharing in the ILIA-Club
  • 27 reports and documents written or co-written by the alumni and submitted to international organizations
  • 90 % of the alumni collaborate with the Human Rights Houses within the Human Rights House Network or with other human rights organizations
  • 97 % of the alumni use the knowledge gained in ILIA in their professional activities.

While education in the field of human rights generally has the ultimate goal to increase respect for human rights leading to social changes, the evaluation of the results of HREL might be measured by identifying the changes at different levels:

  • Individual: what knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours has a participant acquired, reinforced and modified?
  • Organizational: have the participants shared their experience with their professional environment and in what way?
  • Social: changes, which have occurred to a broader community.

As mentioned above, there are difficulties with tracing the results of the changes that have taken place. At the same time, the focus of the current paper on the principle of universality of human rights and its application in the context of the national implementation allows us to present the most relevant selected data, which reflect the social and attitudinal changes in the learners in this regard.


Common (Universal) Standard(s)


Now, therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.


The term and the concept of the “Universal Human Rights Standards” or “International Human Rights Standards” (IHRS) are broadly used in political and public life. There is no definition of the term in place and, for the sake of clarity, lawyers need to understand the concept in order to use it in their professional activities. This is the main reason why the term has been presented to and studied by the learners of the two HREL Projects.

The importance of the concept in terms of its adherence to the universality of human rights was also taken into consideration:

  • After being proclaimed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the notion has been effectively used in the legal turnover both at the international and national levels.
  • By virtue of the principle of universality, the IHRS perform regulatory, control, protective, informative and educative functions regardless of whether the concrete international norms give rise to a legal obligation for a specific country.

The persistent application of the term and the expression in the legal practice has even expanded during the last two decades. International bodies “…have made remarkable progress in standard setting, institution building, and programme implementation[3]. The CIS member states reiterate that “… the observance of international standards in the field of human rights by all Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the development and fostering of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, regardless of race, sex, language, political beliefs, religion and social origin, contribute to the deepening of democratic reforms, economic and social growth and the strengthening of law and order[4].

The sustainable application of the term “International Human Rights Standards” in the CIS region plays an important role for the process of effective practical acceptance of legal sources of international law.

One should know that Article 38 of the Statute of the ICJ, generally accepted as a list of sources of international law, does not have the same importance in theory and practice of the CIS countries. Scholars and practitioners of these countries tend to apply the IHRS as a generic term for the cases where there is a need to apply a combination of different sources of international law, as well as a “mixture of hard and soft instruments”.

The challenge to define legally the term “International Human Rights Standards” has been taken by the authors of the curriculum as an opportunity to discuss with the learners some important features related to the term.

Lawyers study the process of standard setting at the international level. They start out trying to understand the principle of legal certainty (inspired by legal positivism) and further on the need for a broader perception of the rights-oriented concept (human rights as a product of “natural law”).

Since the generic term IHRS brings together different types of international instruments (such as those that are recognized sources of international law and the so-called “soft law” and “case law” instruments), the learners are invited to make a comparative study and select the “hard” and “soft” law instruments such that they will be able to combine them in their professional activities, defending victims of human rights violations and interpreting the national legislation applying the IHRS.

Discussions in forums and home assignments help the learners to understand that IHRS is a “live” concept, which combines different universal norms and serves as a tool for identifying human rights violations and applying the standards to actual situations at the domestic level.

As a result of the training, all the alumni look for the “standards” in their professional activities when they need to challenge and/or examine the national legislation and/or practice. They know that the IHRS may assist the national legislators when preparing amendments to the national legislation; they use international standards as a scale to analyse the compliance of the national law with the international obligations, they consult not only to provisions of the treaties, but also to the concluding observations and decisions of the human rights mechanisms, such as the treaty bodies and regional human rights courts.

98.2% of the alumni gave a positive response to the question, “Do you refer to the norms of the international human rights law in your professional activities?”. The following quotes illustrate the responses:

“Before my training in the project “Electronic Human Rights Education for Lawyers”, I did not use the human rights approach and international human rights law. Now, I refer to provisions of the international human rights treaties, but also to the customary rules, general principles of law and the soft law instruments. Unfortunately, in our country, the court and judges are not used to applying the international norms. Sometimes, I see a lenient or even a hostile attitude towards references to the international standards. We need to change the situation and I see my role in this as well.” (alumnus from Belarus)

“My current pleads to the courts are based on the international human rights standards. I noticed that the judges and persecutors listen to my pleads with higher attention and interest since the international human rights law is a new topic for them. My clients have trusted me even more since I started referring to the international standards. I have become more confident in my professional activities since I know that if the national courts fail to ensure justice I will be able to restore it using the international human rights regime” (alumnus from Ukraine)



Implementation – De facto implementation – Bring standards home

A wide interest to the legal concept of “implementation” and the relevant term arose after the adoption of the “post-communist” constitutions. Most of the constitutions have propositions on the monistic approach towards international law and declare human rights as the aim and the priority of the States.

However, the narrow definition of the legal concept of implementation as organizational activities undertaken by national governments and covering mainly legislative procedures still prevails. There is a need to define the broad meaning of the process of domestication of the international treaties in the national legal systems. The broader understanding of the process of implementation will stimulate manifold activities, planned and conducted by different actors and targeting the full compliance of the national legislation and practice with the international human rights standards.

Thus, the direct application of the international human rights norms in the defence of people´s rights by a wide range of actors is called by the author de facto implementation and is considered as a lex specialis of the general concept of implementation.

The first human rights training curricula of the Projects for lawyers were designed in 2005 under the long title ”De facto implementation of international obligations of the Republic of Belarus in the field of civil rights and freedoms”. Although the title clearly reflected the main idea of the human rights training for lawyers, it had a disadvantage – it was too long. The current brief name “Bring International Standards Home” suits the Project even better since it conveys the major message – the aim to train lawyers in the application of IHRS in the national practice.

Lawyers were invited to study the problem of the national implementation in depth and to discuss possibilities regard the national implementation of the universal model.

In reality, the international human rights law has designed an algorithm, which may influence the national implementation process. Lawyers have to know it. An attempt to lay out a model for the national implementation approach was made in Article 2 of the ICCPR.

  1. Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.


  1. Where not already provided for by existing legislative or other measures, each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take the necessary steps, in accordance with its constitutional processes and with the provisions of the present Covenant, to adopt such laws or other measures as may be necessary to give effect to the rights recognized in the present Covenant.


The Article, together with the interpretation provided by the UN HR Committee, constitutes a model of the national implementation process. The wording “giving effects to the rights” expresses the true meaning of the process of national implementation. Learners are provided with the knowledge of and skills in how to interpret the provisions and strengthen a claim through direct application of international human rights provisions. The authors of the BISH curriculum for training of the Belarusian lawyers included the following topics:

  • National mechanism of the implementation of international obligations, including constitutional and ordinary law provisions and safeguards for primacy of human rights and international obligations in case of their non-compliance with national legislation,
  • Interpretations of provisions of international treaties as legitimate tools and applying international provisions directly in national litigation and practice.

Later, the EHREL project also included the above-mentioned topics in the curriculum and additionally issued a comparative analysis of the national legislation regarding the implementation mechanisms in several countries prepared by national experts. The entire distance education EHREL cycle included nine separate courses; the first stage of the cycle focused on human rights doctrine, law, standards and mechanisms, while the second stage focused on the implementation of human rights at both the international and national levels.

The term and the concept of “implementation” were studied in depth. In addition to the previous clarifications, several other reasons for that should be mentioned. First of all, in the international law, there is no unified definition of the “implementation” concept. Moreover, the term overlaps with some other legal notions, such as enforcement, application, compliance, etc. The term “implementation” is furthermore avoided in the official Russian translations of the UN documents, since they would rather use the word “osuschestvlyat” that is not a legal notion and has a broad meaning closed to the word ”realisation”. As a result, the CIS national legal systems, which use the Russian language in legal transactions, have difficulties with the practical and doctrinal application of the term and the concept ”implementation”.

Since the legal mechanisms and specific legal acts on domestication of the international law often contradict each other and show signs of dualism, it is crucially important for practising lawyers to be aware of the superior role and power of the international human rights provisions in their national legal orders.

Finally, since the traditional “implementation” concept of the international public law has been significantly changed in the realm of the international human rights law, lawyers need to understand this new framework.

The application of a broad concept of implementation of the international human rights law supports the principle of universality and makes it alive. Indeed, in cases where the national legislation and/or practice fail to comply with the IHRS, lawyers may invoke the universal propositions directly on human rights and provide higher protection to a victim.

Several different methods and training activities have been used for training on the subject:

  1. The learners were invited to study the national legislation, as well the relevant reports to the international bodies, in a search for the term “implementation” and its sense of “giving effect to the rights”.
  2. The learners from all five countries had a joint discussion on the monist and dualistic approaches towards international human rights law in conjunction with the provisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, as well as the Preamble and Article 2, part 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The aim of the exercise was to show the learners that the principle of universality, embedded into the above-mentioned provisions, provides a monistic approach for the direct application of international human rights law.
  3. Finally, lawyers had a home assignment to prepare a plan of activities with aiming at implementing the recommendations given to a country within the Universal Periodic Review procedure. The task required from lawyers a good understanding of implementation as a concept and as a set of activities. It is assumed that the “de facto” implementation embraces not only legislative measures, but also a broader spectrum of activities including strategic litigation, public campaigns and dialogue with the authorities and the civil society organizations.

In the course of the training, consequently, the term “implementation” was applied in the broad meaning, i.e. it includes manifold activities which aim at ”giving effect to the rights” and are to be conducted by national governments, but motivated by other actors as well, including lawyers and individuals.

One should take into account that in the previous periods a number of publications were prepared within the Projects framework. These publications address the scope of practical aspects in the implementation concept, including those connected with the institute of individual complaints. The authors of the publications have disseminated knowledge on the interrelation between the international law and domestic law provisions and clarified the issues related to the legal force of the views of the UN treaty bodies and admissibility of individual complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee and other treaty-bodies. These publications have been distributed among and were highly popular among the Project alumni, legal professionals, human rights NGOs, students, etc.

The concept of “implementation” has become familiar and practical. Lawyers do use it with the awareness of the fact that once a national legislation was adopted as a result of the international treaty domestication process, it does not stop being scrutinized regarding its compliance with the universal human rights standards. The implementation process continues and lawyers have to play an active role in it.

According to the survey statistics, the alumni use the knowledge and skills in their professional activities: when preparing legal documents, for argumentation in pleadings, in teaching/sharing knowledge, in consultations, analytical work, to enlighten the authorities, in law making, reporting, etc.



Everyone, Individual, Human Rights Defender, Human Rights Lawyer


Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.

Declaration on human rights defenders (1998), Article 1.

The human rights law has changed several doctrines of the “classical” public international law. One of the important changes is the recognition and institutionalization of the status and role of individuals in the process of standard setting, monitoring and other activities related to the implementation of the states’ obligations in the field of human rights obligations.

In his review of the international human rights system, Thomas Burgenthal (Judge of the International Court of Justice from 2000 to 2010) writes that while previously the activities in the field of international law were related only to the activities of the states, now an individual or a group of individuals may replace or supplement the role of the states in the international legal regulation. “New technologies and growing complexity of solving global problems have increased the level of uncertainty in decision-making, contributed to the ‘blurring‘ of authority in decision-making at the international level”, “technology destroyed the state monopoly on the collection and dissemination of information”[5] all these factors have contributed even more to the process when the new actors take on some of the operational functions in contemporary international law.

The legal doctrine and university curricula of the CIS countries, for many reasons, fail to highlight these changes. As a result, lawyers, graduating from the state universities, have a limited or vague understanding of the current composition of actors and subjects in international law and still rely on the tenets and practices of the classical public law where only states are recognized as full-fledged subjects of international law.

Neither have they professional confidence in pursuing legal claims and processing claims for social changes at the national and international levels. In reality, to work on cases on alleged human rights violations, lawyers need to understand that their status, immunities and protection guarantees will be expanded to their new role as representatives of victims of human rights violations at the international level.

Among the Projects’ educational goals are those enabling lawyers to influence the standard setting process, to improve the level of the national implementation of the international standards and to raise the awareness of the civil society and professional community regarding the role of lawyers and the guaranties and immunities surrounding their work on human rights promotion and protection.

Since the training is conducted within the international network of non-governmental entities sharing the common mission – to support human rights organizations and human rights defenders – the participants are motivated to learn more about the legal mechanisms eligible to support and provide better protection for human rights work.

From the very beginning of the training, the learners are made familiar with the concept of ”Human Rights Defenders”. They study the legal framework for human right defenders’ work, starting with the “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”, often referred to as the “Declaration on Human Rights Defenders” (1998).

The issue of the role of individual and the legal representation of victims of human rights was studied during all the thematic courses included in the curriculum. Particularly, the training made the learners familiar with the procedural instruments for individual complaints in the framework of the international (UN) and the regional (CoE) mechanisms within the courses “Human rights protection system established by the UN” and ”Human rights protection system established by the European Convention on Human Rights”. The training also developed lawyers’ practical skills in preparing legal claims for submission to the international bodies. It made them understand that individual communications fill the gap, which is a result of the failure by the states to take action as parties to the human right treaties.


“The ILIA programme encouraged me to think in new ways. In Ukraine, the European Court of Human Rights is used quite frequently, but not the UN mechanisms. Sometimes they can be the right remedy. For instance, I learned about the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – and that is an important tool in my current work with refugees. Submissions to the Working Group are quite effective for prompt advocacy”. – Lawyer, Ukraine

However, the increasing numbers of individual communications to the international bodies, prepared by the Projects alumni, are not the most important indicator in the Projects’ evaluation framework. Indeed, HREL aims mostly to raise awareness of lawyers in terms of promoting and protecting the conditions in which the activities of individuals might be more efficient.

The awareness of the alumni of their human rights work as well as their knowledge and skills in advocacy, including the solidarity and promotion of human rights standards for legal professionals have also been developed during the training and follow-up activities.

Let me briefly describe an example of the alumni’s joint work on a case concerning protection, monitoring and standards setting. Lawyers studied and discussed the international set of principles and guaranties for lawyers (UN Basic Principles on the role of lawyers) during the online training. Later, at the conference “Lawyers: human rights protection and guaranties for professional activities”, the alumni discussed the problems of the status of and guaranties for lawyers in the CIS region and decided to conduct monitoring activities.

Soon after the conference, the conference moderator, Intigam Aliev – the best-known lawyer in Azerbaijan, who embodies justice in the country, and the EHREL Project expert and partner – was arrested. In 2015, he was sentenced for his work to seven and a half years in prison. In his plead to the court he said:

“My activities related to the European Court, in particular, the cases on violations of electoral rights, have played a big role in my arrest. That work irritated the authorities badly, and I was repeatedly informed about the possible unwanted consequences of that work for me and for our organization” (A quotation from the final speech of the prominent human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev in court, Baku, Azerbaijan, April 2015).


Immediately after the arrest, the alumni and experts launched online solidarity actions and sent communications to the national authorities reminding them about the international human rights guarantees and lawyers’ immunity.

In September–November 2014, lawyers, mainly the Projects’ alumni, organized an online analytical group to monitor the situation in the CIS region and to conduct an online survey (more than 100 lawyers answered questions).

In 2015, the alumni participated in the legal consultations, in the preparation of an amicus curia letter to the European Court on Human Rights. They contributed to the formulation of the legal position of attorneys defending Intigam Aliyev and other human rights defenders arrested and persecuted in Azerbaijan. The position was based on the findings of the analytical group and highlighted the special status of human rights defenders including human rights lawyers. Later their findings were reflected in the ECHR case law.

Lawyers from all five countries continue to participate in solidarity actions against repression in Azerbaijan. The report “Human Rights Lawyers at Risk” was finalized and dedicated to Intigam Aliev.

This specific example illustrates several important competences, which have been acquired by the lawyers during the training and owing to the professional cross-border networking activities:

  • Ability to critically analyse the national legislation;
  • Ability to conduct comparative analyses of practice between five countries with respect to professional standards and the implementation of international professional standards in these countries including Azerbaijan;
  • Vision and knowledge of international mechanisms on human rights defenders and readiness to contribute to the standard setting and development of the existing standards on lawyers’ professional guaranties;
  • Appreciation and readiness to start a national implementation by applying both international standards and the findings of the Report with a view to enforcing the standards at the national level;
  • Understanding the importance of joint solidarity campaign and legal assistance for special cases protecting human rights defenders and human rights lawyers
  • Rendering legal aid with the application of the international standards developed for human rights work;
  • Issuing a report, which revealed problems and indicated that lawyers who work on human rights are less able to enjoy the professional immunities and guarantees, which should protect them. The main finding of the report is as follows:


Human rights lawyers are both lawyers and human rights defenders. Guarantees and immunities for lawyers enshrined in national and international law must be implemented and respected, while human rights guarantees must extend to all who work within human rights, including human rights lawyers.

After the Report was presented at the OSCE Conference and in the CoE in 2015, the authors of the report were invited to the regional consultations with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. In August 2016, the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers was submitted to the UN General Assembly.

Among the trends and challenges highlighted by the Special Rapporteur, there are several issues, which may become newly updated universal standards – and which have been extracted from the report “Human Rights Lawyers at Risk” and the recommendations prepared by the participants of the consultations:

The right of access to clients imprisoned, even if lawyers are not members of bars that is when they represent clients before international and regional human rights courts (p. 52 of the UN SR Report); Lawyers engaging in representation of clients before international and regional courts should be awarded the same guarantees and protection as lawyers litigating in local tribunals regardless of whether they are or are not members of their national bar associations (p. 53 of the Report UN SR); Lawyers shall be regarded as human rights defenders if the work of the lawyers is closely related to the promotion and protection of human rights; Guaranties for human rights defenders shall embrace lawyers if they conduct human rights work (part 4 of the “Lawyers as human rights defenders” Report UN SR).



Normative articulation of human rights with emphasis on their universality is a great achievement of the international community, which was crowned by the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  The further development of the international human rights regime, however, was and will be challenged by practitioners, politicians and academics who point to the unsatisfactory level of national implementation of international commitments and look for ways to root common standards into local contexts.


Human rights education has a fundamental importance in contributing to promotion, protection and realization of all human rights. The international framework includes different educational and training activities, which might be tailored to specific groups. Human Rights education for lawyers is essential. International law, however, leaves it mainly to national governments and bar associations to ”ensure that lawyers receive appropriate education and training” and are ”aware of the ideals and ethical duties of the lawyer and human rights and fundamental freedoms recognized by national and international law” (UN Principles on the Rule of Lawyers). In the last decade, the CoE has started to disseminate programs and online courses for pan-European countries in order to improve levels of human rights education and decrease a flow of individual claims to the ECHR.


The case study of the two educational Projects conducted by the Human Rights House Network shows that a systematic training for lawyers might have a great potential in terms of bringing the universal human rights standards home. Evaluation of results of educational Projects on human rights for lawyers of five countries of the CIS region (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia) reveal changes at the individual level in knowledge, skills and attitudes gained during the training. Quotes of participants´ replies included into the main part of the paper demonstrate that the changes also concern the learners´ increasing awareness and respect for human rights and observance of the universal standards at the national level.


Evaluation of results also show that changes at the individual level pushed lawyers to disseminate their knowledge through professional and social activities.

The following brief overview reminds us about the impact:

97% of alumni use the knowledge gained in the Projects in their professional practice.

90% of alumni collaborate with Human Rights Houses in their countries or/and with other civil society organizations.

Most of them report that they changed their professional methods and start to apply international human rights standards in litigations, but also in other activities aiming at the transformation of their national systems: “I see the prospect in the implementation of international standards to amend national law… We have to explain to people what we need to change in our national legislation that it will be good and useful for us, and then, after these changes are made, our law will match the international standards. The way to change should come from people and their understanding, not from international bodies.” – Alumni Belarus

394 alumni and experts have regularly communicated via online channels to exchange knowledge and take part in solidarity actions. Alumni provided almost 5000 legal consultations (in 2015) to victims of human rights violations and conducted 172 strategic court cases to address acute problems with national implementation of international obligations in the field of human rights. 325 alumni have contributed to developing international standards for guaranties and immunities of human rights lawyers.


To prepare lawyers for the practical application of the principle of universality, the human rights education program shall include topics, which form lawyers´ understanding of international and national legal regimes in their interdependency.  The gained experience shows that lawyers of the CIS region often lack the knowledge on peculiarities of international human rights law which makes it different from”classical” public law. Concepts such as ”International Human Rights Standards”, ”Implementation and de facto implementation” as well as ”Status and Role of Individual/Human Rights Defender” shall be delivered to learners to ensure their understanding of the direct applicability of international human rights norms and about the eligibility of individuals in promoting and protecting human rights at the national and international levels.


After lawyers have ”appropriated” the doctrinal and practical issues on international human rights law and have restudied the national provisions with respect to the effective implementation of international standards, the lawyers will become effective actors of the two-way process facilitating “a cross-fertilization” between national law and international human rights standards.


HELP Guidebook on Human Rights training methodology for legal professionals, Council of Europe, 2016. Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/168066db63

UNGA Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. (22 August 2016), UNI Doc A/71/348, 2016. Retrieved from http://undocs.org/A/71/348

“International Law In Advocacy” (ILIA) and Projects “Bring International Standards Home” and “Electronic Human Rights Education”, Human Rights House Network (2016) Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA/index.html

Information flyer ”International Law in Advocacy”, Human Rights House Foundation, (2016)

Online educational resources with training materials, e-library, online workshops and  online courses of the ”International Law in Advocacy” Retrieved from http://ilia.humanrighsthouse.org

Human Rights Lawyers at risk, Report of the Human Rights House Network, 2015. Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/21175.html

UNGA Plan of Action for the third phase of the World Program for Human Rights Education (4 August 2014), UN Doc A/HRC/27/28.

UN HRC Workshop on traditional values of humankind. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (13 December 2010), A/HRC/16/37

UNGA ‗Draft plan of action for the second phase (2010-2014 of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (27 July 2010), UN Doc A/HRC/15/28.

OSCE Guidelines for human rights education: Guidelines on Human Rights Education for Secondary School Systems (2012), Guidelines on Human Rights Education for Health Workers(2013), Guidelines on Human Rights Education for Human Rights Activists (2012), Guidelines on Human Rights Education for Law Enforcement Officials(2012).

UN GA HRC_ Study of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind (13 December 2012). UN Doc A/HRC/22/71.

UN HRC Res 66/137: Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, adopted (19 December 2011). UN Doc A/RES/66/137

UNGA ‗Draft plan of action for the second phase (2010-2014 of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (27 July 2010), UN Doc A/HRC/15/28.

UN HRC Res 15/11: World Programme for Human Rights Education: Adoption of the Plan of Action for the Second Phase of 6 October 2010, A/HRC/RES/15/11.

UNGA ‗Revised Draft Plan of Action for the First Phase (2005–2007) of the World Programme for Human Rights Education‘ (2 March 2005) UN Doc A/59/525/Rev.1.


Human Rights Standards: Learning from Experience (2006) International Council on Human Rights Policy. Retrieved from http://www.ichrp.org/files/reports/31/120b_report_en.pdf

UN Commission on Human Rights ‗Promotion and Protection of Human Rights: Information and Education: United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995–2004): Report on Achievements and Shortcomings of the Decade and on Future United Nations Activities in This Area‘ (25 February 2004) UN Doc E/CN.4/2004/93.

UN GA Res: Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”(09 December 1998) UN Doc 53/144.

Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action‘ UN World Conference on Human Rights (25 June 1993) UN Doc A/CONF.157/23. Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993.

КОНВЕНЦИЯ СОДРУЖЕСТВА НЕЗАВИСИМЫХ ГОСУДАРСТВ О ПРАВАХ И ОСНОВНЫХ СВОБОДАХ ЧЕЛОВЕКА (26 мая 1995 года), Retrieved from http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_6966/

Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba 27 August to 7 September 1990.

CCPR General Comment. № 3 «Implementation at the national level». (Art. 2) (1981); «Reporting guidelines». CCPR General Comment. № 02 (1981); «General measures of implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child» (arts. 4, 42 and 44, para. 6) СRС. № 5 (2003); «The Obligations of States Parties under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights». CCPR General Comment. № 33 (2009) etc.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of (16 December 1966).

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UNGA Res 217 A (III) (10 December 1948) GAOR 3rd Session Part I Resolutions 71.

Report of the UN Special Rapporteur Monika Pinto Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers (2016), A/71/348 https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N16/264/93/PDF/N1626493.pdf?OpenElement.

An-Naím, A. A. (1992) Towards a Cross-Cultural Approach to Defining International Standards of Human Rights In A. An-Na’im (ed) Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Donnely, J. (2007). The Relative Universality of Human Rights, Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 29, pp. 281-306.

Nowak, M. (2009). Challenges to National Implementation of International Human Rights Standards –Background Paper WG I. Global Standards – Local Action. 15 Years Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. Eds: Benedek, Wolfgang and others. Wien-Graz, 2009.126–127.

Zwart, T. (2012) Using Local Culture to Further the Implementation of International  Human Rights: The Receptor Approach.  Human Rights Quarterly Vol. 34, Number 2. pp. 546-569

Seibert-Fohr, A. (2001)Domestic Implementation of the International Covenent on Civil and Political Rights Pursuant to its article 2 para 2, Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law, Vol. 5, pp. 399-472.

Merry, S. E. (2006), Human Right and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice, Chicago Series in Law and Society.

Ульяшина, Л.(2016) Международные стандарты и их имплементация в праве прав человека. Lambert Academic Publishing. – 485 с.

Ulyashyna, L. (2016) Human Rights Defenders – new actors in implementation.  Uniwersalne standardy ochrony praw chlowieka a funkcjonowanie systemow politycznych w dobie wyzwan globanych/red. naukowa prof. Jerzy Jaskiernia, Torun ́ pp. 416- 439

Ulyashyna, L. (2013) International Human Rights Standards: Problems of Legal Definition and Challenges by Application. Wpływ standardów międzynarodowych na rozwój demokracji i ochronę praw człowieka / red. naukowa prof. Jerzy Jaskiernia Tom 1, Wydawnictwo Sejmowe. pp.25-35.

“Свобода выражения мнения, собраний, и объединений”(2006).  Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Примеры индивидуальных обращений (2008). Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Права человека: международное Право и национальное законодательство (2011). Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Индивид v. государство: практика обращения в договорные органы ООН применительно к РБ (2012). Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Individual v. State: Practice on complaints with the United Nations treaty bodies (2014). Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Индивид v. государство:практика обращения в договорные органы ООН Том II (2016) Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html

Эффективность использования международных правозащитных механизмов в отношении Беларуси (2015). Retrieved from http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA_RU/BISH_RU/index.html


This research is results of analysing and introducing generally available data at:

http://humanrightshouse.org/Projects/ILIA/index.html; and


The quotations from interviews of alumni due to anonymity are not individually listed in the bibliography.

The Projects and the ILIA Program have been supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Matra/KAP Small Embassy Projects Programme, the Netherlands Embassy in Warsaw, The National Endowment for Democracy; the USA The German Marshall Fund of the United States, The Nordic Council of Minister’s Support Programme for NGOs in the Baltic Sea Region Council of Europe; Fritt Ord Foundation, Norway International Renaissance Foundation; Ukraine Irish Aid Konrad Adenauer Foundation Germany; ODIHR/OSCE/European Commission; Open Society Institute; France Civil Rights Defenders Department of Foreign Affairs; Trade and Development (DFATD) Canada; The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA); US Agency for International Development (USAID); German Embassy in Ukrain Khariv; Human Rights Protection Group U.S. Embassy in Ukraine; American Bar Association (ABA, Justice Defenders Program); OSCE Mission to Moldova; UN Development Programme (UNDP Moldova); Norwegian Mission of Rule of Law Advisers to Moldova (NORLAM); Stefan Batory Foundation; Poland Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Polish Aid Programme; Forum Syd.





* The author of the paper is a co-author and an acting expert of both the Projects curricula and several courses of the Projects. Since 2006 until now, I manage the ”International Law in advocacy” Program, the Human Rights House Foundation, Oslo, Norway. All examples and data used in the Report are available in open sources. Only in some cases, I used my own archives and former publications.

** In this paper, I used the terms “post-communist” countries and “CIS countries” (the Commonwealth of Independent States) as synonyms for the countries of the former Soviet Republics, reappeared during and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

*** It is worth referring to the main sources of inspiration for this paper and specifically:

  1. on the principle of universality in light of traditional values:

Jack Donnelly “The Relative Universality of Human Rights” (2007), Anja Seibert-Fohr
“Domestic Implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Pursuant to Its Article 2 Para 2” (2001), Tom Zwart “Using Local Culture to Further the Implementation of International Human Rights: The Receptor Approach” (2012),
Report: “Human Rights Standards: Learning from Experience” issued by the International Commission of Jurists & the International Service for Human Rights ICHRP, International Council on Human Rights Policy (2006), Vladimir Kartashkin
“Preliminary Study on Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values of Humankind” (2011), Sally Engle Merry “Human Right and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice” (2006), Abduhlahi Ahmed An-Naím, “Towards a Cross-Cultural Approach to Defining International Standards of Human Rights” (1992), Study on Promoting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Through a Better Understanding of Traditional Values of Humankind, UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, 2012,A/HRC/22/71;

  1. on the Role of Lawyers and human rights education:

Report “Human Rights Lawyers at Risk” (2015) issued by the Human Rights House Foundation in cooperation with several international organizations and experts, Report of the UN Special Rapporteur Monika Pinto Report of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, 2016, A/71/348.


[1] Nowak, M. «Challenges to National Implementation of International Human Rights Standards –Background Paper WG I». Global Standards – Local Action. 15 Years Vienna World Conference on Human Rights. Eds: Benedek, Wolfgang and others. Wien-Graz, 2009.126–127.

[2] United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004): Report on achievements and shortcomings of the Decade and on future United Nations activities in this area. E/CN.4/2004/93, 25 February 2004, p.25.



[5] Burgenthal, Thomas. «The Evolving International Human Rights System», in International Law: classic and contemporary readings edited by Charlotte Ku London. 2009. Р. 289–319; Charnovitz, Steve. Nongovernmental Organizations and International Law. Ibid. Р. 117–137. Mathews, J.T. «Power Shift», Foreign Affairs,76, № 1 (1997). Р. 50–66.

Exercising Empathy: Ancient Rhetorical Tools for Intercultural Communication

Can multiculturalism work? Can people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds live side by side peacefully and, even better, enrich each other? There are two ways social scientists can deal with this question. The first one, which I would label as “macro”, focuses on statistics and opinion surveys. A macro approach would, for instance, analyze the effects of an increase in religious and ethnic diversity on social indicators such as trust in neighbors, civic engagement or political participation (Bloemraad: 2006; Kesler & Bloemraad: 2010; Heath & Demireva: 2014). The second one, which I would label as “micro”, focuses on the skills citizens need for a better management of cultural diversity (Ruben: 1976; Bennett: 1986; Hammer et. al.: 2003; Walton et. al.: 2013). This paper falls into the second category and will provide support for two claims: (1) training for intercultural communication should focus first and foremost on empathy; (2) ancient rhetorical exercises offer an effective way to develop empathy.

To support the first claim, it will be argued that for a multicultural society to be peaceful, citizens need to be willing and able to use empathy when interacting with their fellow citizens of different religious, ethnic or ideological background (section I). A method to develop empathy using rhetorical exercises will then be described (section II)[1]. Finally, I present the results of an experiment to test its effectiveness with secondary school teachers (section III).




Empathy: a key skill for a better management of cultural diversity 

Intercultural communication research presents empathy as a skill, among others, that people have to master in order to manage cultural diversity[2]. I would argue that empathy plays a more fundamental role for the smooth running of a multicultural society: it is not just a component of intercultural competence, it is a necessary condition for peaceful intercultural contact.

A flaw in research on intercultural competence?

What is perceived as polite or important in one culture might be considered as rude or frivolous in another. The field of intercultural communication reflects on the means to avoid such misunderstandings (Beamer: 1992; Gudykunst: 1993; Fantani: 2009). For this purpose, several methods aim at forming effective intercultural communicators, able to be understood well while maintaining friendly interactions (Ruben 1976; Olebe & Koester: 1989; Bhawuk & Brislin: 1992; Olson & Kroeger: 2001; Deardorff: 2011; Hammer: 2012). I would, however, argue that those methods might not be relevant to meet the challenge of facilitating peaceful multiculturalism. Indeed, they were designed for and tested with people who are already willing and able to brave a multicultural world. For instance, Hammer (1984), Chen (1988), Williams (2005), Portala (2010) and Penbek (2012) conducted their experiments with international students; Ruben (1976), Graf (2004) and Hammer (2012) worked with staff members of international companies. Of course, students and professionals might need to fine-tune their intercultural competence and the above-mentioned methods are useful to this end. But the challenge of peaceful multiculturalism is of a different nature. It is not primarily about ensuring that students make the best out of their study abroad or about making sure that business expatriates are tactful enough to secure international deals. The challenge of multiculturalism is to allow people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, who happen to live side by side, to develop the willingness and the ability to interact peacefully. With regard to this challenge, empathy is the key skill.

The fate of multicultural societies depends on empathy

It has often been argued that empathy is a critical skill for peaceful intercultural contact. Indeed, several studies have demonstrated a link between empathy, the ability to mentally simulate others’ subjective experience (Decety: 2004) and altruism, that is caring for others’ wellbeing in our words and actions (Feshbach: 1975; Batson: 1981; Eisenberg & Miller: 1987; de Waal: 2008; Young & Waytz: 2013).

The way from empathy to altruism can be pictured as a Russian doll (de Wall: 2007). At the core of it lies a mechanism of emotional contagion: when we see somebody injured, sad or stressed this impacts us[3]. Emotional contagion often leads to sympathetic concern, an example of which is consolation. The upper level of empathy is an ability to perceive things from someone else’s perspective. Perspective taking relies on the lower level since emotional contagion gives us access to others’ subjectivity (Damasio: 2003; Ferrari & Gallese: 2007)[4]. But perspective taking also requires an ability to differentiate oneself from others. Empathy is thus more effortful and less immediate than sympathetic concern. Finally, altruism occurs when all levels smoothly run together: emotional contagion makes us care about others and perspective taking allows us to understand their needs. Altruism is almost automatic for people who are close to us. When dealing with people outside of our circle of care, the chain from perception of suffering to altruistic behaviors is much easier to break, especially when the target person is perceived as an outsider (Crisp & Meleady: 2012; Davidov et al.: 2013; Rhodes & Chalik: 2013). The fate of multicultural societies might thus depend on our ability to fix those empathy failures (Meier & Hinsz: 2004).

The causes of empathy failures in intergroup relations are well documented (Cikara et al: 2012). Among those causes, extreme ideologies are probably the most serious threat for peaceful multicultural societies (Pinker: 2012; Ginges & Atran: 2009). Ideologies are consistent sets of ideas that help us make sense of the events around us. Although ideologies are useful in this respect, they ultimately tend to increase empathy toward some people and to decrease empathy toward some others (Staub: 1990; Candace: 1997; Pinker: 2012; Ferry & Zagarella: 2013)[5]. During the process of indoctrination, one can even get locked in one single negative narrative about other communities (Berthoz: 2010; Costello & Hodson: 2014)[6]. A crucial challenge for multicultural societies is, therefore, to prevent those indoctrination processes by habituating citizens to take into account different points of view on events and people around them. It is especially important to start developing such a flexibility in one’s point of view’s during adolescence since the damages of indoctrination can be difficult to repair (Berthoz: 2004). This is where rhetorical exercises come into place.



The rhetorical exercise of empathy

Many scholars would agree on the importance of encouraging empathy early in citizens’ education (Nussbaum: 2010; Pinker: 2012); many of them would also propose their own method to do so (Gerdes et. al.: 2011). Why, then, use rhetorical exercises and how to do so?

Why use rhetorical exercises to develop empathy?

There are two main reasons why rhetorical exercises are especially relevant to engage development of empathy with teenagers and young adults: (1) rhetorical exercises are suitable for classroom work since they are stimulating and empowering (Heath: 2007; Woods: 2009; Ferry & Sans: 2014; Sans: 2017); (2) rhetorical exercises confront participants with the limits of empathy and help them develop the skills to overcome those limits.

It can be difficult to work on civic education with teenagers. There is always a risk that they, or their parents, will perceive the proposed activities as an attack on their values [7]. One should, therefore, think twice about the message sent to the target audience. Unfortunately, most empathy training misses that point. Indeed, many influential scholars conceive empathy training as engaging teenagers in activities (such as watching movies or listening to testimonies) aiming at triggering their empathy toward a specific group of people (Stephan & Finlay: 1999; Vescio et. al: 2003; Crisp & Turner: 2009). In those cases, the message seems to be: “we believe that the world would be a better place if you had more empathy toward group X or group Y” [8].  For the training to be effective in the long run, one has to think of a better goal to offer to the target audience. Rhetorical exercises offer this better deal: by following a rhetorical training, teenagers develop empathy as a skill that will help them to succeed in their professional life[9]. Indeed, rhetorical exercises were originally designed to help citizens win their cases in democratic institutions (Aristotle, Rhet.). The most effective way to do so is to be well aware of others’ points of view. Rhetorical training develops this awareness through the practice of twofold arguments (Pearce: 1994; Danblon: 2013; Ferry: 2013): on any issue, the apprentice is asked to find good reasons to support opposite opinions. This ability to switch between different points of view is at the core of empathy as a skill (Berthoz: 2014) and experimental studies have shown that this practice leads to greater moderation of opinions (Tuller: 2015). Moreover, a four-year field-project demonstrated that teenagers actually enjoy those exercises (Sans: 2017). Finally, in the process of finding arguments to support opposite opinions, participants will gain a better control over their empathy failures.

Although there are several existing tools to measure empathy (Davis: 1980; Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright: 2004; Favre: 2005; Jolliffe & Farrington: 2006), those tools are of little help in counteracting empathy failures. Indeed, those tools (i.e. self-report questionnaires) give participants an empathy score but no instructions on the ways they could do better. By contrast, when engaging in rhetorical exercises, participants will gain awareness of three limits of empathy: technical, ethical and situational. The technical limit comes from the fact that humans are hard wired to look for confirmations of their beliefs (Houdé: 1997; Danblon: 2002; Mecier & Sperber: 2011; Kanhman: 2011). Once one has an opinion in mind, it might be difficult to conceive that others might think differently. The ethical limit comes from the fact that humans have values. As soon as values come into place, humans tend to behave as if they were engaged in team-sport (Angenot: 2008; Haidt: 2012): they don’t want to have anything in common with those who belong to the other team. On sensitive issues, we tend to be reluctant to consider and express opinions opposite to ours[10]. Finally, situational limitations come from the fact that humans tend to switch off their empathy as soon as they perceive others as competitors (Singer et. al : 2006 ; Takahashi et. al.: 2009)[11]. Proper empathy training should focus on people’s ability and willingness to better control those limits.



How to develop empathy with rhetorical exercises?

The method is straightforward: (1) participants support opposite opinions on non-sensitive issues; (2) they do the same exercise on sensitive issues; (3) they publicly defend their judgments in front of contradictors; (4) they finally give each other feedback on their ability to display empathy in disagreement.

Exercising flexibility in points of view

Rhetorical training begins with a task in which participants are asked to find good reasons to support opposite views on controversies such as this one:

A man had a son. When he lost the boy’s mother, he married another wife. The father, the wife and the son lived happily for one year until the son fell seriously ill. The doctor explained to the father that the boy would die if he drank cold water. One day later, the boy was thirsty and his stepmother gave him cold water. He died. He was only 12 years old. The stepmother is accused of poisoning by her husband.

(From Ps-Quint., Lesser Decl., p. 350)


In this case, participants are expected to find reasons to charge the stepmother as well as reasons to exonerate her. This kind of controversy is suitable to stimulate participants’ ability to overcome the technical limit on empathy (that is, the difficulty to switch from one point of view to another because of our natural tendency to seek confirmation). To do so, participants use a rhetorical tool: the common places (Aelius Theon, Progymnasmata). The idea of these is that on any issue it is possible to draw arguments from the same “places”. For instance, when judging someone’s deeds, one might argue on intentions (did the person have good intentions), on responsibility (was the person fully responsible?), on circumstances (are there mitigating circumstances?) or on consequences (will the judgment do more good than harm?). In practice, participants are asked to fill in the following table:


Common places: Opinion A Opinion -A

Figure 1: The common places of argumentation


For instance, to exonerate the stepmother in the above controversy, one might argue on circumstances by saying: “The accident happened only one day after the doctor gave his diagnosis to the father. Maybe the father didn’t inform his wife?”  Conversely, one might use the same common place to charge the stepmother: “In a normal family, the father would make sure that the mother has all relevant information about the son’s illness.” Using such a table habituates participants to the fact that there will always be good reasons for supporting both sides of any issue. The practice of common places also habituates participants to suspend their judgments (Houdé: 1997; Danblon: 2013), inhibiting their tendency to seek confirmation of their opinions in order to perceive to good reasons to support alternative views. Participants have to master this skill before moving to sensitive issues.



Empathy on sensitive issues

The following controversies were created by school teachers from their experience in class[12]:

In a high school, a 15-year-old boy, Paul, no longer considers himself a boy. He begins to dress like a girl and asks that his teachers and classmates call him Marie. Does the school management have to accept the student’s request?

(Controversy 1: The boy who felt like a girl)

 The English teacher works with his students on the American elections. He organizes a vote on the programs of the two candidates: H. Clinton and D. Trump. Programs are presented to students anonymously. After the vote, a student realizes that he voted for Hilary Clinton. He tells the teacher that he wants to change his vote because he would never have voted for a woman knowingly. Should the teacher respect this opinion? Should the teacher sanction this opinion?

(Controversy 2: On equality between man and women)

During the biology class devoted to evolution, a student tells the professor that he doesn’t want to follow the course anymore. He explains: “The theory of evolution is a form of disbelief. One cannot say that man descends from the ape and Adam and Eve at the same time. It’s against my religion”. Can the student be allowed not to attend the class?

(Controversy 3: Science vs. Beliefs)


Such issues will lead to a clash of values. In particular, they often reveal oppositions between liberal people, who tend to value equality and care above other values, and conservative people, who tend to value authority, in-group loyalty and sanctity above other values (Graham, Haidt & Nosek: 2009). Consequently, those issues are suitable to examine ethical limits to empathy. To do so, participants are asked to fill in again the commonplaces table (fig. 1). In this process, some participants might be reluctant to consider opposite opinions. It is, therefore, important to be clear on the benefits they might gain by recalling that the most effective way to get support for our opinion is to treat others’ opinions with respect and accuracy (Perelman & Olbrecthts-Tyteca: 1969; Caldini: 1987).

 Empathy in disagreement

The next step is a real test for participants’ ability to better control their empathy. They are asked to publicly defend their judgments on a sensitive issue and to do so in a way that would be acceptable for a universal audience (Perelman & Olbrecthts-Tyteca: 1969). This requires real efforts to identify and overcome the differences of opinions. In front of the “judge”, some participants play the role of contradictors: they carefully listen to the judgment and then try to push the judge out of his/her comfort zone. The setting of this disagreement lab (Ferry: 2015) looks like this:


The Disagreement Lab

Figure 2: The disagreement lab


The more accurate and respectful the judge will be in his/her treatment of others’ opinions, the more difficult the contradictor’s job will be[13]. The soothing effect that the judgment might have offers a first empirical indication of the participant’s skill for empathy. The second empirical indication is the ability to display empathy in a situation of disagreement, that is, a situation in which one would spontaneously switch off empathy.



Evaluating empathy

In order to evaluate empathy in the disagreement situation, “observers” use a rhetorical scale (Ferry: 2016). The rhetorical scale takes into account three dimensions of communication: logos, ethos and pathos (Aristotle, Rhet.). Logos refers to the content of the speech, ethos refers to the orator’s credibility and pathos refers to the affective dimension of communication. Thanks to this rhetorical scale, it is possible to evaluate the three dimensions of empathy: cognitive, affective and behavioral (Preston & De Waal: 2002; Decety & Cowell: 2014).

The cognitive dimension refers to the accuracy with which one manages to grasp what the other has in mind (Nichols & Stich: 2003; Decety: 2004). In an interaction, the scale measures cognitive empathy as the accuracy with which one is able to refer to others’ points of view[14]. The lack of empathy in logos typically gives exchanges like:


  • So, you’re telling us that (…)
  • This is not what I said![15]


In its emotional dimension, empathy refers to the ability to understand others’ emotions (Favre et al.: 2005; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia: 2008). In interactions, the rhetorical scale measures this dimension as the awareness one demonstrates of appropriate emotions (Aristotle, Rhet, III, 7, 1408a; Micheli: 2010, Ferry & Sans: 2015)[16]. The mastery of emotional empathy appears in relevant references to the emotions one can legitimately feel (for example, “I understand that this might sound shocking”). The lack of mastery of this dimension results in emotional contagion (for example, “You calm down!”) or by rejecting others’ emotions (for example, mocking the other’s anger).

Finally, in its behavioral dimension, empathy refers to benevolence toward others[17]. Typically, one will show empathy if one is able to listen to the other and to give him/her space in the discussion. On the contrary, one will demonstrate a lack of empathy if he/she tries to fill the space for discussion with aggressive gestures, rapid speech flow and high voice volume. Here is the evaluation form[18]:



The participant refers to his/her opponents’ opinions accurately

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely


The participant shows respect for his/her opponent(s)

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely


The participant shows awareness of appropriate emotions

1                      2                     3                    4                    5

Not at all                                                                           Absolutely

Figure 3: The rhetorical scale for empathy


Thanks to this evaluation form, participants learn, session after session, to identify the practices that are likely to block or to stimulate empathy.

Does the method work?

The key-test for a pedagogical tool is whether actors of the educational system are willing to own it. Concretely, there are two main reasons why teachers would be willing to experiment a new method in their class: (1) they find it useful; (2) they find it enjoyable. This section presents the results of a first study to test whether the rhetorical training for empathy meets those criteria.

During the academic year 2016-2017, I gave 7 two-day training sessions to secondary school teachers. At the end of the training, participants had to fill an evaluation form. The items were designed to verify that the training met standards of the Belgian institute for in-service training (IFC). Among those items, two were relevant to assess the enjoyableness and the usefulness of the rhetorical training: (1) “I am satisfied with the training”, which informs on the enjoyableness of the method; (2) “The training answered my professional needs”, which informs on the usefulness of the method. Here are the participants’ answers to those questions:


(Number of participants: 83)

Strongly disagree Slightly disagree Slightly agree Strongly agree No answer
I am satisfied with the training 0



(≈ 4%)


(≈ 40%)


(≈ 54%)



The training answered my professional needs 1

(≈ 1,5%)


(≈ 7%)


(≈ 60%)


(≈ 30%)


(≈ 1,5%)


The next step is to verify whether regular rhetorical training leads to: (1) a greater convergence in participants’ judgments on good and bad empathy performances; (2) an increase in participants’ empathy scores. In this regard, the data collected so far are encouraging: the fact that participants appreciated the workshop gives confidence in the possibility of replicating it.



It is not clear yet whether multiculturalism generates more good than harm as intercultural contacts can increase prejudices as well as reduce them (Pettigrew & Tropp: 2006). Processes of ghettoization in European societies increase the risk that people lock themselves in negative narratives about other communities. What is clear, however, is that we can give citizens a better chance to make the best out off multiculturalism with a strong political commitment to equip them with skills to deal with it. The rhetorical training for empathy is a contribution to this challenge.




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[1] This method was designed during a four years fieldwork project with teenagers, secondary school teachers and university students (Danblon: 2013; Ferry & Sans: 2014; Ferry: 2015; Dainville & Sans : 2016).

[2] For instance, according to Ruben (1976), there are seven dimensions of intercultural competence: display of respect, interaction posture, orientation to knowledge, self-oriented role behaviour and empathy.

[3] This tendency to automatically match others’ states relies on our mirror neurons (Gallese : 2007 ; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia: 2008).

[4] As Ferrari & Gallese (2007) put it: “Every time we observe an action made by another individual, we are able to understand its goal because the observed action is matched on our internal representation of it”.

[5] For instance, it has been demonstrated that strongly adhering to the liberal ideology according to which one will succeed if he/she tries hard enough tend to reduce empathy toward poor people: their poverty is seen as a consequence of their laziness  (Candace: 1997).

[6] For instance, an explanation for suicide bombers’ atrocities is that the process of indoctrination destroyed all their empathy towards out-group members (Ginges & Atran: 2009).

[7] An interesting example of this happened in France, in 2014, when the ministry of education tried to implement a policy to promote equality between genders and tolerance toward homosexual and transgender people. This was perceived by some people as charge against traditional values. Some parents, alarmed by far-right political parties and islamist lobbies, protested by keeping their children one day out of school (Chetcuti: 2014; Vilchez: 2015).

[8] The risk is thus to foster competition between memories (Stora: 2007): “Why do we always talk about group X while group Y also suffered a lot?”

[9] For instance, it can be useful to be able to put oneself in the recruiter’s shoes when writing a cover letter or when preparing a job interview.

[10] I experienced this with two colleagues of mine, Emmanuelle Danblon and Loïc Nicolas, during a workshop in a summer school (2011). After giving the audience the reasons why we believed rhetorical exercises were good pedagogical tools to develop critical thinking, we proposed them to actually produce twofold arguments (dissoi logoi) on same-sex marriage. Most participants refused to do so and some of them justified their refusal arguing that they didn’t want to make “their mouth dirty” with arguments against same-sex marriage.

[11] For instance, a football fan might experience pleasure (‘Schadenfreude’) when seeing a player from the opposite team being injured.

[12] During the academic year 2016-2017, I gave a series of training sessions for secondary school teachers. In one activity, teachers had to describe a situation in which they experienced a clash of values in class and reached their tolerance threshold (Cohen-Emerique: 2011). They then had to turn those situations into controversies. For a development on how to design  good controversies, see Sans (2015).

[13] It is indeed difficult to argue against somebody who is careful and accurate in the discussion of the different opinions at stake: such a speech would not create many cognitive conflicts in the listeners’ chief. Cognitive conflicts are the starting point of argumentation (Dessales: 2008).

[14] Self-report questionnaires measure cognitive empathy with items such as : “I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they don’t understand it first time” (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright: 2004). Now, the problem with self-reported questionnaires is that they measure empathy « off-line »: they cannot predict how much empathy someone would actually display when interacting with someone else.

[15] To use a term from argumentation studies, the lack of cognitive empathy leads to the straw man fallacy (Walton & Macagno: 1996).

[16] That is, the socially awaited emotional reactions in certain situations (for example, it is embarrassing to be seized by laughter at a funeral). Self-report questionnaires measure emotional empathy with items such as : “I find it difficult to tell when my friends are afraid” (Jolliffe & Farrington: 2006).

[17] Self-report questionnaires measure this dimension with items such as: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective toward them” (Davis: 1980).

[18] In a first study to test the validity of this rhetorical scale for empathy, I assessed the inter-rater reliability. To do so, I asked 83 participants to perform two tasks: (1) evaluating the level of empathy (from 1 to 5) of debaters in three different videos (the “intuitive measure of empathy”); (2) performing the same task using the rhetorical scale for empathy (the “rhetorical measure of empathy”). I then compared the degree of agreement between raters in those two tasks using the Fleiss’ Kappa (1971). The degree of agreement was higher when using the rhetorical scale. I interpret this result as an evidence that the rhetorical scale helps participants to evaluate empathy more objectively (Ferry: 2017).

Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson, Morten Frederiksen & Jørgen Elm Larsen (eds.), The Danish Welfare State. A Sociological Investigation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

How is the welfare state transforming in an era of globalization, individualization and hence increased competition, and how are the changes seen on a macro and micro level? This is the main question raised in this book, containing 15 chapters, including a thorough introduction and a conclusion. More specifically, it explores how risk concepts and risk thinking transform the welfare state from responding to and from protecting its citizens from threats putting them at risk, to risks being seen as threats to the welfare state itself.

The book addresses a current discussion in Denmark concerning whether the welfare state, instituted to protect its citizens, is developing into a competition state, mobilizing citizens to take part in the struggle for the state to be competitive. In this picture, so-called non-productive citizens such as the unemployed, chronically ill, or newly arrived refugees, are increasingly seen as risk factors or even threats, and not primarily as humans worthy of protection. According to the editors of the book, Denmark as a modern welfare state endorsing both universal welfare and individual responsibility is an interesting case illustrating this development. Thus, they provide a frame for discussing whether it is worth ‘getting to Denmark’, as Fukuyama claimed in The Origins of Political Order (2011) as a metaphor for democracy.

The state increasingly seems to respond to macro-level threats from globalization and economic crisis with micro-level initiatives; hence the anthology focuses on risks both on a macro- and micro-level. In the opening chapter a thorough introduction is given to four sociological approaches to risk, namely risk society (Beck); risk culture/cultural theory (Douglas); risk control/governmentality (Foucault); and risk as uncertainty/managed uncertainty (Luhmann). These theorists, of whom particularly Beck and Foucault are cited in the book, claim in different ways that risks are socially founded. The explanation of this theoretical framework does not only serve a didactical purpose but also helps to underline how a social understanding of the risks of modernity can be used when analyzing welfare states like Denmark. Whereas the competition state is often associated with neoliberalism and deregulation, the social investment state is associated with reregulation, which several of the chapters analyzing policies on a micro level illustrate. Both the competition and the social investment paradigm however rely on a highly educated, healthy and productive workforce. Accordingly, policies of education, activation, and health become important. However, there may be unintended consequences of such risk management policies. As pointed out in several chapters, new risks may occur especially among the poor and poorly educated classes, who do not respond adequately to activation policies and often meet sanctions and cuts in benefits. Thus, the welfare state may end up reproducing rather than overcoming inequalities.

The book comprises three parts. The first part concerns risks at a macro level, mainly explored comparatively. Hence, in chapter 2, “Denmark from an International Perspective”, Peter Abrahamsen discusses the social investment paradigm drawing the traditional Social Democratic Denmark closer to liberal and continental models. In chapter 3, “Social Investment as Risk Management” Jon Kvist compares social investment strategies of Denmark, Germany and United Kingdom. In Chapter 4, “Employment Relations, Flexicurity, and Risk: Explaining the Risk Profile of the Danish Flexicurity Model”, Carsten Strøby Jensen explains how flexicurity presently is under pressure by cuts in unemployment benefits and decreasing support for labor unions. In chapter 5, “Precarity and Public Risk Management: Trends in Denmark across Four Decades”, Stefan Andrade shows that the Danish labor market has not yet become more precarious than in other European countries, though low- and unskilled workers have become more vulnerable to risks of poverty and unemployment. In chapter 6, “Towards a New Culture of Blame?” Morten Frederiksen shows from survey data, that Danes’ attitudes towards social assistance and unemployment surprisingly have changed very little.

The second part of the book is devoted to risk perspectives on the universal welfare state at a micro level. Thus, in chapter 7 “When Family Life Is Risky Business – Immigrant Divorce in the Women-Friendly Welfare State”, Mai Heide Ottosen and Anika Liversage discuss whether new and unintended risks of exclusion follow divorces in immigrant families. Education is the focus of chapter 8, “The Risky Business of Educational Choice in the Meritocratic Society”, where Kristian Karlson and Anders Holm demonstrate how citizens’ ability to risk management in educational decisions is related to inequality in education. Unintended inequality is also the topic in chapter 9 “Health in a Risk Perspective: The Case of Overweight”, where Nanna Mik-Meyer explores the increased focus on health problematizing an already vulnerable group. A similar tendency is seen in chapter 10, “Failing Ageing? Risk Management in the Active Ageing Society”, Tine Rostgaard explains how the Danish ‘active approach’ to elder care problematizes inactive groups unwilling or incapable of change.

The third and last part of the book stays on the micro level and explores the Danish welfare state’s approach to social problems and marginalized groups. In chapter 11, “Controlling Young People Through Treatment and Punishment”, Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson shows how the Danish system for juvenile crime is currently strengthening control influenced by ‘fears of “being soft on crime”’. In chapter 12, “Alcohol and Risk Management in a Welfare State”, Margaretha Järvinen argues that the healthcare authorities’ governmentality perspective on alcohol consumption does not reach certain alcohol consumers. In chapter 13, “The Tough and the Brittle: Calculating and Managing the Risk of Refugees” Katrine Syppli Kohl explores how Denmark’s selection of quota refugees has developed from choosing the weakest to picking those deemed most ‘capable of integration’, thus presenting the background for the Parliament’s 2016 suspension of the entire quota refugee program in Denmark. Lastly, in Chapter 14, “Cash Benefit Recipients – Vulnerable or Villains?”, Dorte Caswell, Jørgen Elm Larsen and Stella Mia Sieling-Monas examine the Danish unemployment policy including evermore severe sanctions as means of encouraging job seeking.

To sum up, the anthology offers a comprehensive overview of the Danish welfare state on a macro- and micro level, convincingly applying risk theories and discussing the social investment paradigm. In an era where publishing in journals is given priority over anthologies, this volume demonstrates that the anthology format is still justified. The volume is highly recommendable to students, scholars, and not least, decision makers.

Hans Chr. Garmann Johnsen, Stina Torjesen & Richard Ennals (eds.), Higher Education in a Sustainable Society. A Case for Mutual Competence Building (Dordrecht: Springer, 2015)

What is a sustainable society, and how can higher education help us to develop toward it? This is the question guiding the authors in this book the underlying aim of which is to explore the concept of sustainability as a much wider concept than usually referred to in terms of environamental threats. The focus is on various disciplines in higher education, and more precisely on studies pursued within the University of Agder in Norway. The approach of the book reaches though far beyond the Norwegian context and makes it relevant to every higher education institution.

The book is divided into six parts. Part I has three chapters on sustainability in “Humanistic and Cultural Perspectives”; Part II has two chapters on “Sustainability in Life Science”; Part III contains three chapters on “Sustainability in Technology and Planning Studies”; Part IV includes three chapters on “Sustainability and the Teaching of Management and Business Development”; Part V discusses in three chapters on “The Sustainable University”; and Part VI concludes with one chapter on “The Challenge of Mutual Competence Building”. I will not go into each chapter, rather I try to summarise here my learnings from the book and identify its relevance to the readers.

The content – the disciplines – is clearly not what one would relate at first instance to sustainability but Chapter 1, which is written by the editors, is very helpful to understand how the authors and the editors approach the theme of the book. This chapter provoked my interest for the whole book (and especially for my field, educational studies and teacher education) and for those who are new to this topic this chapter is vital and should not be skipped. In this chapter, the editors make it clear that they do not see sustainability as a fixed position or a well-defined concept, but rather as a framework for discussion and an opportunity to rethink our ideas about the role of universities, our disciplines and the world we live in.

A common discussion in all chapters is the issue of responsibility across disciplines, both towards particular professions but also to the wider society. In Part II, in a discussion on nursing, it is pointed out, for example, that the International Code of Ethics for Nurses states: “The nurse also shares responsibility to sustain and protect the natural environment from depletion, pollution, degradation and destruction” (p.69, cited from the International Council of Nurses). Sustainability according to environmental issues is thus seen to be an important part of the nursing profession. Should it be similar in other professions? In this chapter, it is also discussed how sustainability is a matter regarding enough or a shortage of health care workers in each country or area and the same discussion is on teacher education in Part I. Here the focus is related to sustainability and globalization and is a highly relevant discussion in rural and remote areas. In the chapter 6, on “Sustainable Diets”, the reader is confronted with the hard fact that our diets are no longer sustainable. Everything about our diets seems to have gone out of control: the usage of fossil energy for the production, of energy to produce artificial fertilisers, the transport of food, not to mention the pollution of soil, air and water. The chapter also draws our attention not only to the healthiness of our food, that has so far been the emphasis in the official guidelines to people, but also how sustainable our food is, e.g. in terms of location, transport and food categories. New generations are forced to find solutions to this problem caused be earlier generations. To me, this is one of the main contributions of this book. Universities, with their broad and diverse fields of knowledge and societal impacts, are in an ideal position to lead necessary action and changes in the world as regards moving toward a more sustainable world. It can be hard for some disciplines and professions to involve sustainability into their activity and professional cultures, if it has not been there before. This could be the case for technology and engineering, as discussed in Part III (chapter 7). The authors point out that this should not be the case, as technology and society are fundamentally interdependent and the planet really needs a change. Instead of focusing on one right answer as is normally the case in engineering, students should be taught how to be active and reflective in their learning, and learn to include several perspectives in their search for answers. This could mean that one right answer is perhaps and very likely not the point.  Actually, this is more than less the conclusion in most of the chapters, i.e. that students need to be introduced and challenged to finding a good balance between different theoretical concepts, and knowledge about how to apply them in practice (chapter 8).

I do not have actual negative comments on this book, perhaps because I found it very intriguing in many ways, both as an academic and personally. The only thing that I would like to mention is that it would have been useful to have a short summary at the end of each Part, similar to the prologue before each Part. I liked nonetheless the final section in chapter 9 (9.4.2, “The Educational Role of the University for Sustainable Planning”). There are some chapters that include too much literature on background information, which is of course important to relate the discipline to the core issue of sustainability, but they could easily have been shortened without undermining the content. If people do not want to read the whole book, but only look at certain disciplines, it is useful to read chapter 16.1.1 in any case. Entitled “Short Review of the Book”, each Part is summarised therein. Also, I would recommend to read chapter 16.3, “What is Mutual Competence Building?”. In that chapter, the editors draw together the recurring themes across the five Parts.

The prerequisite for a society to become sustainable depends on our attitudes toward the changes that need to become real and the willingness to react to a challenging situation. Here, Universities and other educational institutions have a role in educating critical individuals that can lead and influence future citizens, their actions and work. This book is a useful tool for all disciplines, academic departments and Universities to take action and communicate with individuals and the society on how to build our mutual future in a sustainable way. I encourage my workplace – the University of Akureyri – to do so.

An interview with Yasmine Samir Kelada, Deputy Director at BibAlex Visitors Department

  1. Can you describe your job at the BibAlex?

I am the Deputy Director of the Visitors’ Department of BibAlex.

The Visitors’ Department is the first place a visitor comes in contact with, once in the Library.

I’ve been working here until 2002, a week before the official inauguration; I started as a Tour Guide, then I was promoted to the Head of Tours Section and eventually to the Head of this Department.

The Library’s main complex


  1. Can you draw an outline of the aims that led to the building of the new Library in place of the mythical one?

First of all, it was decided to rebuild it very close to the ancient location: actually, the ancient library was about 200m. west to this site.

The façade of the main building is made of Assuan grey granite, round and carved with 120 inscriptions, each one in a different language.

The new Library was meant to be a revival of the ancient one, that was not  only a library at the time: indeed,  that was a centre for learning: among the other structures, there was a zoo, and all scholars came to study here from all over the world.

Grrammars and philologists were in charge of copying, noting and correcting the texts; critical editions were edited and stored: scrolls were about 490.000 in Philadelphus’ times -that is, about 120.000 volumes in actual books-  and when more space was needed  a Serapeus was built.

Therefore, the revival of a new library had to be realized in practice  with the same spirit and role of the ancient one.

We are working to perform this role and, thanks to computer science and globalization, we even succeed today in having a wider one.

The Library Wall

  1. Indeed, what is also interesting to know is what the Library represents nowadays, what it contains today that is different from the ancient times.

Today, the BibAlex actually consists of 3 main buildings: the main building of the Library, a Planetarium and a Conference center.

The main library itself is a huge building in the shape of the rising sun, to symbolize the sun rising from the sea as a symbol of a non-stop knowledge, a daily renewal of knowledge in the shape that Snowhetta, the Norwegian enterprise that  won the contest for the design, planned in 1989 ; the library itself had a reading area of 20,000 m2 , an open reading room for 2000 readers that is the widest reading area in the world; is has seven stores, resulting in a vast light-filled reading room with a glass ceiling that slopes towards the Mediterranean. Finally, it is meant to hold eight millions of books.

We increase books by acquisition and donation; we work on acquiring books on different scales: starting from Egypt and proceeding on different circles, first the Middle East, then the Mediterranean, Africa and eventually the whole world.

The second building is  the Planetarium Science Center, which is a centre  where we have a 3D room to shot scientific movies, both for adults and children. We also have a centre to encourage children to love science, where they can have all different experiments, in Physics, Science, Chemistry and this is where they start to love science, because they work it, they produce results with their hands. We have special workshops that work on special programs, in accordance with the school requests during school time, while in the summer we have  full loaded centers with hundreds and hundreds of children coming to join the summer programs.

The third building is the Conference Center, which is a huge center that has several holes for different facilities, and these holes can host different kinds of events: seminars, conferences, concerts, all equipped with the  complete facilities up to the highest international standards.

The Library’s Main Study Room



  1. What about the exibitions the BibAlex hosts?

In fact, within these three  buildings we have four museums: the Sadat Museum, the Manuscript Museum, the Antiquities Museum and the History of Science Museum.  We also host fifteen permanent exhibitons: three heritage collections – the Arab Folk Art; the Arab-Muslim Medieval Instruments of Astronomy and Science; the Bulaq Press. Three personal collections: the Awad Collection on Alexandria, the Shadi Abdel Salam Exhibition, regarding the famous Egyptian film-maker; the Arabic Calligraphy Collection. And eventually eight Exhibitions of contemporary visual artists.

Last, but not least, “Our Digital World” showcases BibAlex most exciting digital projects.

The exhibition includes projects documenting the history of modern Egypt, for example the digital archives of former presidents Naguib, Nasser and Sadat; scientific projects as the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL); digitization projects of precious books. There is also a section with computers to give the public the opportunity to explore the collection of the digital initiatives, and there are short movies on each project in different languages.

Besides, we have  several centres covering different cultural aspects, such as the Alexandrian- Mediterrranean studies, the Islamic studies, the Coptic studies, the Hellenistic studies, that are all on our website for people to look up.

The BibAlex website contains all the detalied info, and is a very user friendly website that is constantly updated and re-designed, where perspective and virtual visitors can easily plan their tour and find all the information they need.


  1. Could you highlight other outstanding aspects in which the BibAlex interacts with the city?

Of course it goes along with different ages and interests. We have models  for  different political aspects: Activities for the youth are especially wide: for example we can involve the youth to express themselves about  the problem of the Nile, or the problems we suffered after the Revolution; besides, children –apart fron the scientific field-  have their own  library.

We not only serv tourist with guided tours, but also have tours for children, and different competitions about knowing Alexandria better, or knowing the Library better.

We have special events for the very young, under 6 years; we try to educate and improve their behaviour  regarding the city, such as how to keep Alexandria clean, or to perform very simple etiquette sessions; we try to cover as wide aspects as we can, which means that even the Department  of visits is not  involved with visits only. This means we try to reach also schools with very primitive and limited facilities,  which cannot reach the BibAlex, so what we do is to take the Library there, show a presentation and a movie about the Library that  orient them about it, and we still make a presentation in cooperating with other library departments, such as the Calligraphy, so they can learn very basic elemets of calligraphy, such as the Pharaonic letters. We try to work as wide as we can to develop the young generation’s  knowledge of the past and their cultural identity.

  1. What about the aspects the BibAlex addressed to the adults, such as concerts, exhibitions – I am thinking for example of the MET broadcasting on Saturdays, and of similar events as well.

This part is  actually wide, as artists come to the BibAlex for concerts and exhibitions but also for workshops,  so the cultural part addressed to the adult public is really wholly covered under a wide range of aspects.

The Great Hall, the main auditorium, can comfortably accommodate more than 1600 persons. It is used for international conferences, symposia, meetings, seminars, concerts, presentations and performances.

The Great Hall is equipped with complete audio-visual devices.

The Small Theater, accommodates about 200 guests. It usually hosts smaller conferences, seminars ,theatrical plays and chamber music.

The Delegates Hall has 100 seats and fully equipped tables, with internet connection,  simultaneous interpretation head phones and a microphone.

The Lectures Hall has a theater-style setting with armchairs and folding tables. It is suitable for international conferences, symposia, lectures, seminars and presentations, and can host around 200 people.

Besides, there are five seminar rooms in the Conference Center, and one seminar room in the main Library building.

  1. Another area widely covered concerns congresses and meetings – I see now the Cardiology Seminar for example, and in October I personally experienced the final meeting of a two-year programme concerning Egypt Culture and Heritage, held in collaboration with the EU.

This underscores another important role the BibAlex plays, that is the link with world cultural and economical Institutions.

Yes, we basically work on the idea that the BibAlex is the window from Egypt to the world and viceversa, from the world into Egypt.

We are not closed to an area, but we have  links with libraries all over the world; the widest we can go, the better; we have a lot of agreements, with a lot of international associations that help the library in projects and funding.

The link is not only economical, but people are willing to come to work for the project itself, the documentation, the digitization.

  1. Could we say the BibAlex has an international staff?

Well it is not exactly the idea of an international staff, as people come to work on projects and then go when the project is accomplished; this develops within the different projects and it is again very wide, covering  many different nationalities and research centres. Actually we have connections all over the world with the most important libraries, mainly in terms of digitalization, but also the idea of being connected in terms of human resources is very alive –  the interest in concretely come and see, and reproduce, what the Library represents is very attractive for people abroad.

Our Library is a bench mark for people from abroad, and even working as a volunteer here means playing a great role in the library, gaining a lot of experience; I can see it in interviews from people coming to the Library, they really fancy coming here and work for this  outstanding institution, so we always look forward to having  volunteers from abroad, and even if they are not convenient on a Department we  try and succeed in finding them a suitable place.

Beacause the volunteers have a lot of energy, they are very willing to learn, and they are  extremely motivated, so we give them a chance even if it’s not particularly convenient for the BibAlex.

  1. One last question concerns the future projects planned now in the BibAlex.

Each Department in the BibAlex has  its own projects for the future; it’s impossible to identify a main one, and I would be unfair quoting one, as they are all working hard and enthusiastically about their  projects. Moreover, each project is deepening and  digging back to widen its  subject. The library is  constantly renewing and updating its subjects.

  1. Thank you Yasmine, for your time and the precious information. I am sure our audience will be interested in deepening  the  subject of BibAlex and in time  also to visit Alexandria and this  unique cultural site.

Thanks for the interest expressed! BibAlex is always  glad to spread  news about its activities, to attract new Institutions and  to start new partnerships all over the world.

The Planetarium




More details about BibAlex can be found here:





All images courtesy from:



Ulf Blossing, Gunn Imsen & Lejf Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model. ‘A School for All’ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

The Nordic countries are a special case in the global context. In a world dominated by economic criteria for all things they seem to disprove that ideology. Their economies run smoothly and are efficient, the living standards are high and yet they sustain a welfare state that provides for some of the most important needs of any citizen, such as the need for medical care in case of serious sickness, the need for education to enable the citizens to function as well informed citizens in democracies, as knowledgeable employees in their jobs and as well balanced human beings.

Continue reading Ulf Blossing, Gunn Imsen & Lejf Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model. ‘A School for All’ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

Care, socialization and play in Ancient Attica: a developmental childhood archeological approach, by Maria Sommer and Dion Sommer, is an archeological study based on a collection of material relating to childhood in ancient Attica, dating back to 480-300 B.C. It reconstructs in front of our eyes a deeply human world of care and play in ancient Attica and empirically depicts how the growing field of childhood archeology with its historical contextualization can contribute important knowledge to developmental psychology.

Continue reading Maria Sommer & Dion Sommer, Care, Socialization and Play in Ancient Attica. A Developmental Childhood Archaeological Approach (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2015)

U. Blossing, G. Imsen & L. Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model: ´A School for All´ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

This is a timely book on the clash between the Nordic welfare practice and the neo-liberal state experiment changing nations from welfare states to competitive states and their individuals from citizens to being part of a workforce, as Rasmussen and Moors put it. The book is an important contribution to the discussions of the changes being implemented in the countries which aimed at realising the ideals of democracy, social justice and prosperity by equality in education.

Continue reading U. Blossing, G. Imsen & L. Moos (eds.), The Nordic Education Model: ´A School for All´ Encounters Neo-Liberal Policy (Dordrecht: Springer, 2014)

Teaching History in a multicultural society

Trends and tendencies in Nordic schools


Perhaps the most succinct explanation of the crucial role that history plays in the life of us humans is the Ingsoc slogan from George Orwell’s novel 1984:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

We cannot, of course, control the past in itself – at least not as long as we presume that ‘the past’ has some kind of objective existence. What can be controlled, however, is how we construct and reconstruct our interpretations of the past. Which, when all is said and done, is what history is about.

The core content of Orwell’s wordings is reflected in the concept ‘Historical Consciousness’, which for the last 30 years or so has played a central part in the Scandinavian debate on history teaching and learning. Within that debate, the multi-faceted definition proposed by Karl-Ernst Jeismann in his article ‘Geschichtsbewußtsein’ (1979) has served as an obvious point of reference.


Jeismann’s definition starts with a quote from Theodor Schieder, which in itself is a definition of the concept ‘historical consciousness’ as an ever-present insight that every human being, and every form of social life, is embedded in time, i.e. has a past and a future that is neither stable nor unchanging or without conditions. He then goes on by stating what can be seen as one of the fundamental, perhaps the most fundamental, element of the concept:


More than being just knowing or taking an interest in history, historical consciousness comprises the relations between interpretations of the past, understanding of the present, and perspectives on the future (ibid. p. 42).


Linking together the past, the present and the future opens up for a corollary, namely, that history is not a mirror image of the past, but our (present) reconstruction of it. Historical consciousness, writes Jeismann, is thus a mode through which the past, as imagination and experience, is made part of our own time. This also means that the past as reconstruction is dependent on and formed by our present questions, needs, and interests. Jeismann here quotes the French philosopher Raymond Aron:


History is the reconstruction of the lives of the dead, by and for the living. The interests of times present are what make man – thinking, suffering, acting man – explore the past (Aron 1961 p.17).


If history is a reconstruction of the past that springs from the needs and interests of our time and our place – our lifeworld – it also follows that the form, the content, and the reflective depth of our historical consciousness will differ from person to person, from group to group. Historical consciousness can have the character of a cliché or watchword, or it can be reflected, thought-out, and open to new encounters and experiences. Implied is (a) that everyone has and makes use of (some kind of) historical consciousness, and (b) that one’s historical consciousness, situated in a social context, is constantly changing, added to, and passed on to others.



Jeismann finally stresses the importance of historical consciousness as shared, collective experiences – or as shared and collective stories of experiences. When elements that unite dominate over elements that divide, it will contribute to defining as a group those who share the stories. Historical consciousness as collective experiences can therefore be seen as ‘a necessary element for the creation and the upholding of human societies’ (Jeismann 1979 p. 43).


This aspect, which highlights the connection between, on the one hand, historical consciousness as an individual, personal relation to past, present, and future, and on the other hand as a collective relation, is what gives history its political and ideological charge and also explains why history has had its given place in the curriculum of the compulsory school, from the 19th century onwards. The education policy of the nation-state is one where the narrative of the ‘imagined community’ is honed, polished, and above all transferred to generation after generation of school children as part of ‘the skills and sensibilities which make them acceptable to their fellows, which fit them to assume places in society, and which “make them what they are”’ (Gellner 1983 p. 37). Through its monopoly of legitimate education the nation-state, controlling the present, has strived to control the past in order to control the future.


Intense battles over school history textbook content have recently been fought in Greece and Japan (Repoussi 2011; Ogawa & Field 2006). As late as 2013 the UK Department for Education published a proposal for a new history curriculum, aiming at ensuring that all pupils would know and understand ‘how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world’ (Department for Education 2013a p. 3). After heavy criticism from teachers’ associations and academic bodies the curriculum was rewritten and now aims at ensuring a knowledge and understanding of ‘how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’ (Department for Education 2013b). Remaining from the first proposal, however, is the idea that British history can be told as ‘a coherent, chronological narrative’ (ibid.), which, apparently, is supposed to be shared by all as ‘our history’.


The dream, so dear to education policy makers, that school history ought to assimilate young people into a unifying master narrative has, however, become more and more imaginary. As pointed out by Andreas Körber (2011), history is, inevitably, affected by contingency:


…due to their multi-dimensional plurality, humans exhibit different needs for temporal orientation. Because of the different times, societies, social groups, cultures etc. they live in, they will quite naturally be using different concepts, operations, patterns of explanation and of narrating which in turn will result in different narratives […] And as for people living and acting within the plurality of today’s societies, it becomes vitally important to (be able to) handle this contingency of narrative orientations (ibid. p. 157).


Teaching history as an assimilation project, built on a single, unifying master narrative, is no longer possible, nor is it desirable. A multi-culturalist approach – to each his or her own history, not to be questioned or criticised – may at first seem to be an attractive alternative but runs the risk of developing into what Thomas Hylland Eriksen somewhat drastically has labelled ‘apartheid with a friendly face’ (Eriksen 2005), or at least into societal fragmentation rather than cohesion. Does this also mean that we must renounce Jeismann’s idea that some kind of collective historical experience is necessary for upholding a sustainable society?


One viable alternative might be to promote a common understanding, not of what history says but what it does. Or, in other words, a collective experience of history as form rather than as content. Or, yet again, to promote a cognitive awareness of one’s own as well as other’s historical consciousness, understood both as a state (something that we have) and as a process (something we use in everyday life).


In order to achieve this, the scholars involved in the research project FUER Geschichtsbewußtsein, launched in the year 2000, have suggested that four core competencies or fields of competence are crucial for the development of a reflexive historical consciousness, namely the competencies of inquiry, methods, orientation, and subject matter (Schreiber et al. 2006; Körber 2011). The first three can be seen as related to the procedural dimension of historical thinking, the fourth to the substantive dimension of historical ‘facts’.


Starting out from the understanding that historical consciousness as a process starts with an uncertainty, a need for orientation, and a question, the first dimension of competency is the Inquiry Competence (‘Fragekompetenz’). This is described as ‘the capability to transform [a] perceived uncertainty into some processable form of historical question in order either to reconstruct a historic narrative or to analyze given historical narratives of other people for their historical questions, and to understand them’ (Körber 2011 p. 149).


The second procedural dimension, Methods Competence (‘Methodenkompetenz’) comprises the subject-specific, i.e. historical, methods used for gaining and processing knowledge:

to categorise, to put bits and pieces in their chronological order, to integrate information into a narrative structure but also to identify and de-code the structure of existing narratives. Central to this field of competence is the capability to both re-construct and de-construct historical narratives.



The third and last of the procedural dimensions, Orientation Competence (‘Orientierungskompetenz’) contains the skills and abilities needed for using the knowledge gained from the re- and de-construction of historical narratives. Here four core competencies are discernible, and they all relate to the aim of the FUER project: developing a reflexive, and also a self-reflexive, historical consciousness. They are also of utmost relevance when considering the role of history and historical narratives in a pluralist society:


the ability to revise one’s own concept of history as a field of knowledge, including concepts and categories used in historical thinking;

the ability to revise one’s concepts of the past and the present world, i.e. one’s picture of other people and/or other times;

the ability to revise one’s own relation to the past and the present, i.e. to revise one’s own identity, including one’s relation to the actions (commendable or deplorable) of one’s ancestors or members of one’s own group/culture/nation;

the ability to revise one’s own ideas of what can be done in the present and hoped for in the future (Körber 2011 p. 150).


The three procedural dimensions are all linked to a fourth, somewhat improperly named Subject Matter Competence (‘Sachkompetenz’). Contrary to what may first come to one’s mind this dimension has nothing to do with the memorising of names, dates, or particular events. The FUER project nevertheless used the label:


…on the grounds that the ‘subject matter’ of historical teaching and learning is not the past, but rather ‘thinking about the past’. Therefore, in our model, this ‘subject matter competence’ stands for the command over/ability to use and apply rather abstract first and second order concepts, categories, knowledge of procedures and methods etc (Körber 2011 p. 151).


Waltraud Schreiber and Sylvia Mebus have sketched a graphic representation of how the four fields of competence are present in the process of historical thinking:


Figure 1: Historical thinking competencies

idin article kgha

after Schreiber & Mebus 2006 p. 13.

Being in possession of these competencies means being able to scrutinise and challenge established ‘master narratives’ handed down by authoritative (or authoritarian) institutions, among them the school. It also means being able to scrutinise and challenge narratives prevalent in one’s family or peer group, and, ultimately, to scrutinise and revise one’s own ontological narrative. Being in possession of these competencies therefore means being able to exercise a certain amount of control over how history is presently written.


That history can, and should be viewed as a process rather than a well-defined body of knowledge, and that this process is present not only as a cognitive activity in the classroom or the scholar’s study but also in our everyday life, is an approach that is reflected in the history curriculum in all Nordic countries, most markedly in Denmark and Sweden where the concept ‘historical consciousness’ was introduced in the 1990’s. In the Danish curriculum, history’s crucial role in human life is described thus:


People make decisions out of their experience and knowledge of the past, their ideas about the present, and their expectations for the future. That is to say that a time frame – history – is a prerequisite for being able to understand oneself and the world as an entirety, as well as to reflect on possible actions.

History is furthermore used to establish and strengthen the consistency of real and imagined communities.

History is thus an integrated aspect of our lives. It is a basic condition of human existence that we are shaped by, as well as co-creators of, history (Undervisningsministeriet 2014 p. 3).


The resemblance with the Swedish curriculum is obvious:


Man’s understanding of the past is interwoven with beliefs about the present and perspectives of the future. In this way, the past affects both our lives today and our choices for the future. Women and men throughout the ages have created historical narratives to interpret reality and shape their surroundings. A historical perspective provides us with a set of tools to understand and shape the present we live in.


Teaching should contribute to pupils developing their understanding of how historical narratives are used in society and in everyday life. By this means, pupils should develop different perspectives of their own identities, values and beliefs, and those of others (Skolverket 2011 p. 163).


To what extent have the curriculum aims been achieved? Has school history abandoned the long-standing tradition of transferring a canonical master narrative of the nation’s past? Thanks to recent studies from Denmark and Sweden, presented at the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians in 2014, we have at least a provisional answer: history education is undoubtedly heading towards its aims – but progress is slow and there is still a long way to go.


Nanna Bøndergaard Butters (2014) has performed a study built on observations of history lessons in three classes (4th, 8th and 9th grade) in an urban Danish folkeskole (compulsory school) with 60 % plurilingual students (42 different languages were represented among the students), followed up by teacher interviews. A central part of the study was to investigate whether teachers planned for discussions around concepts such as ‘culture’ and ‘identity’. All teachers declared that they had not introduced these concepts. One teacher mentioned lack of time and the demand to reach the curriculum’s learning outcomes. Another confessed that she never had thought about these concepts as related to the history subject. A third ‘solved’ the challenge of pluralism by simply denying it:


If their histories are given room in the course, you mean? But they too are part of this history… Actually, I’ve stopped thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. For me, it’s important that no one is left behind, I am aware that they come from different places and different cultures, but a Danish home can be just as different as the home of a bilingual. I simply do not see veils, or ‘here’s a Somalian girl’ (ibid.).


More common was an approach where society’s heterogeneity and plurality were acknowledged in principle, but where a traditionally taught history of Denmark kept its role as a unifying narrative.


Butters’ results have been confirmed by Claus Haas’ findings from a nation-wide survey among History teachers in the Danish folkeskole, followed up by qualitative interviews with 20 teachers (Haas 2014a, b). Again, the interviewees at the same time acknowledged diversity and saw Danish culture and history as the obvious unifying factor:


In my opinion, education should prepare them for the multicultural society which they are about to enter as citizens. But I still believe that… what I like about the curriculum’s canon after all… is that somewhere… a tiny bit of common thread through something… that we all can feel that right here in our multi-cultural, heterogeneous society, there still is something that bind us together somehow. I think that is a very good idea (Haas 2014a.).


Borrowing a concept from Gregory Ashworth, Haas characterises the typical Danish approach towards pluralism as ‘Core +’. In Ashworth’s definition, this concept slightly resembles the classic ‘melting pot’ metaphor, but with the difference that a substantial core of history and heritage is preserved. To this core can be added ‘such other social groups as are seen to be unthreatening to the existence of the core and even contributing a useful addition

to its variety’ (Ashworth 2007, p.20). However, Haas stresses that this approach is not the outcome of a deliberate choice – when present in the interview answers, it is conceptually vague and marked by a lack of critical reflection.


A certain vagueness and lack of rigour is also present in the preliminary results from a Swedish survey carried out as part of a research project on interculturalism and history education conducted by the historians and educationalists Per Eliasson, Maria Johansson, and Kenneth Nordgren (Eliasson 2014). The survey results indicate that history teachers are interested and eager to promote ‘orientation competence’ of the kind proposed by the German FUER project. They clearly see the relevance of and the possibilities inherent in their subject, but it is uncertain whether they actually contribute with narratives challenging or adding to the textbooks’ ‘master narratives’. It is also uncertain whether they, tied up in the straight-jacket of a detailed curriculum, can find the time for classroom work focussing on multi-perspectivity and different interpretations and explanations in history.


According to a deceivingly simple but extremely fruitful explanatory model, outlined by the Swedish political scientist Lennart Lundquist (1992), Successful implementation of a reform or programme requires that those who are supposed to carry it out on the shop floor

have the understanding, the ability, and the will to implement the programme.


When it comes to the implementation of history education that is meaningful and sustainable in a society marked by a multi-dimensional plurality, we can therefore ask whether Lundquist’s three requisites are met. Interview answers suggest that they lack the ability due to a shortage of appropriate learning material and best-practice examples and also of time needed – curricula do not stress procedural knowledge only, there is a huge portion of factual knowledge that must be given time if the learning outcomes are to be fulfilled. They also lack a profound understanding, firmly grounded in theory and established practice. There is, consequently, much to be done in teacher education institutions as well as in the field of continuous professional development, e.g. developing and defining conceptual frameworks for inter-cultural teaching and learning (both generic and subject-specific) as well as integrating inter-cultural perspectives on teaching and learning in subject-related courses in teacher education programmes.


The good thing is that the perhaps most important factor, a willingness to teach for a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, is present.





Aron, Raymond (1961): Dimensions de la conscience historique, Paris: Plon.


Ashworth, Gregory J. (2007), ‘Plural pasts for plural publics in plural places: taxonomy of heritage policies for plural societies’, in: Groote, P., Ashworth, G & Haartsen, T (eds.), Public Places, Public Pasts, Groningen: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, pp. 13-26.


von Borries, Bodo (2008): Historisch Denken Lernen – Welterschließung statt Epochenüberblick. Geschichte als Unterrichtsfach und Bildungsaufgabe, Opladen: Verlag Barbara Budrich.


Butters, Nanna Bøndergaard (2014): ‘Når elever gør kultur og bruger historie’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Department for Education (UK) (2013a): History: Programmes of study for Key Stages 1-3. February 2013. London.


Department for Education (UK) (2013b): History: Programmes of study. September 2013. Internet: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study


Eliasson, Per (2014): ‘Förutsättningar för en interkulturell historieundervisning’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2005): ‘From obsessive egalitarianism to pluralist universalism? Options for twenty-first century education’. Keynote speech, NERA conference, Oslo 10 March 2005. Internet: http://hyllanderiksen.net/Obsessive.html


Gellner, Ernest (1983): Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell.


Haas, Claus (2014a): ‘(Fler)Kulturelle paradokser i historieundervisningen – om en national kerne + kulturs hegemoni’. Unpublished conference paper, the 28th Congress of Nordic Historians, Joensuu 14-17 August 2014.


Haas, Claus (2014b): Staten, eliten og ‘os’: erindrings- og identitetspolitik mellem assimilation og livet i salatskålen. Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.


Jeismann, Karl-Ernst (1979): ‘Geschichtsbewußtsein’, in Bergmann, Klaus et al. (eds.), Handbuch der Geschichtsdidaktik, Vol. 1, Düsseldorf: Schwann, pp. 42-45.


Körber, Andreas (2011): ‘German History Didactics: From Historical Consciousness to Historical Competencies – and beyond?’, in Bjerg, Helle, Lenz, Claudia & Thorstensen, Erik (eds.), Historicizing the uses of the past: Scandinavian perspectives on history culture, historical consciousness and didactics of history related to World War II, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 145-164.


Lundquist, Lennart (1992): Förvaltning, stat och samhälle. Lund: Studentlitteratur.


Ogawa, Masato & Field, Sherry L. (2006): ‘Causation, controversy and condition: recent developments in the Japanese history textbook content and selection process’, in Nicholls, J. (ed.), School history textbooks across the cultures: international perspectives and debates, Oxford: Symposium Books, pp. 43-60.


Repoussi Maria (2011): ‘History Education in Greece’, in Erdmann, E & Hasberg, W (eds.), Facing, Mapping, Bridging Diversity. Foundation of a European Discourse on History Education, Schwalbach am Taunus: Wochenschau, pp. 329-370.


Schreiber, Waltraud et al. (2006): Historisches Denken. Ein Kompetenz-Strukturmodell, Neuried: ars una.


Schreiber, Waltraud & Mebus, Sylvia (eds.) 2006: Durchblicken. Dekonstruktion von Schulbüchern, Neuried: ars una.


Skolverket 2011: Curriculum for the compulsory school system,

the ­pre-school class and the leisure-time centre (Lgr11), Stockholm. Internet: http://www.skolverket.se/publikationer?id=2687


Undervisningsministeriet 2014: Læseplan for faget historie, København. Internet: www.emu.dk/sites/default/files/L%C3%A6seplan%20for%20faget%20historie.pdf

Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

In his 1965 talk “The Crisis of Modern Society”, Castoriadis retrieves five crises or dimensions (107): (1) axiological; (2) productive; (3) political; (4) familial; (5) educational. While Castoriadis discusses the notion of crisis in other works of his, he focuses therein on one or two of these five specific elements (e.g. (1) in “The Crisis of Culture and the State”, (1) and (3) in “Un monde à venir”, (5) in “Entretien avec Cornelius Castoriadis”). Thus, what makes this particular 1965 talk so interesting is its broader, perhaps more superficial, but undoubtedly more comprehensive scope. In essence, it is as synthetic a picture of what Castoriadis understood as crisis, and particularly as modern crisis, as there can be. Also, it must be noted that Castoriadis revised his assessment of (4) in a later work of his focussed upon crisis (“The Crisis of the Identification Process”), which seems to reduce considerably the relevance of this element. Later assessments of (1)-(3) and (5) do not differ much from what he stated in 1965, instead.

  Continue reading Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

Ingerid S. Straume (ed.), Danningens filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal Akademisk, 2013)

Bildung is not easily defined; it may even be among our most evasive and complex philosophical terms, both because of its inescapable historicity and cultural contingency, but also due to the scope of its conceptual relevance. We could say that it designates the process of ‘civilization’ or ‘humanization,’ of becoming a human being, and therefore encompasses pedagogy, education and maturation without being reducible to any of these. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for instance, understands Bildung as an ‘aesthetic’ process in which the individual acquires a profound ‘sense’ (Sinn) for one’s social and ethical environment by nurturing such qualities as taste, judgment, and tact that tend to be all but ignored in Western discourse on the grounds of their ostensible lack of ‘objectivity.’ Others take different approaches and have different foci while they may still be dealing with Bildung.

As Straume explains in her informative and accessible introduction, the philosophy of Bildung has had considerable and lasting impact on the education systems and ideals in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In contrast to Germany, where it gradually came to be associated with a certain elite, and later may even have degenerated into a superficial and uncritical ‘snobbery’ that was eventually incapable of resisting the takeover of political extremes, the Scandinavian version revolved around universal ‘folkedanning’ or ‘public education’ and was closely associated with the ideals of a democratic society. It is well worth asking whether the emergence of these peaceful, prosperous welfare societies may owe more to the specific development of the Bildung philosophy than usually held, and, alas, whether we may currently be witnessing the erosion of its ideals by narrower and more self-centered values and considerations in the political, social and not least economic arenas. At least it can be stated with certainty that if Bildung ever had any impact in Iceland, arguably a part of cultural Scandinavia, that impact seems all but lost in the present.

Straume explains that there is no English word for Bildung (danning). While this is for the most part correct, the word ‘edification,’ used for instance by Richard Rorty, may by now have become an adequate designator. But the historical lack of a clearly equivalent term in English – or French, or in most other languages for that matter, including Icelandic – has the consequence that a selection of topics and thinkers that are to constitute the ‘history of the philosophy of Bildung’ is subject to debate. From one point of view, Bildung refers to the particular tradition of thought that began with Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt and was further developed in German idealism by Hegel and the hermeneutical and phenomenological disciplines. From another, however, many of the implications involved in the concept of Bildung are present in most if not all streams of thought dealing with pedagogy and the philosophy of education. The volume under review is undeniably, and perhaps inescapably, strained by this ambivalence. For those leaning to the former understanding of Bildung, the selection of thinkers and periods may appear too broad and some sections somewhat out of place. And those leaning to the second may find that other topics should have been covered. Be that as it may, putting together a volume on this important and fascinating topic will always be a complex and formidable task which is certain not to satisfy all readers. In the opinion of this reviewer, however, the selection has been largely successful. By introducing various ways of thinking in history that could be subsumed under a philosophy of Bildung, the volume is intended first and foremost as a textbook for teaching, but should also be of value to the general reader who seeks to gain an overview. The editor further deserves credit for including sections on non-Western approaches such as Confucianism and Islam, thus introducing to Western readers divergent approaches that ought to be able to stimulate fresh views on what it means to be an educated, civilized or ‘gebildet’ human being.

Most sections are well composed, organized and lucid. They are written in altogether three different languages, Norwegian Bokmål, Norwegian Nynorsk and Danish, which, however, should present no obstacles to readers of the Scandinavian languages. The editor has made a surprisingly successful effort to ensure that the length of each section is more or less the same, around 10-12 pages, which makes the book ideal for teaching. Due to the brevity of the sections, however, they are necessarily condensed, and will lend themselves to being picked at for their omissions. The following are some brief suggestions that could serve to improve later editions of the book.

The section on Confucianism is clear, informative and surprisingly comprehensive, but seems to rely excessively on an Aristotelian ‘virtue ethics’ reading of Confucianism in its rather artificially (or Occidentally) systematic presentation of the Confucian ‘virtues’ (de). It is regrettable that it leaves out the demands on the individual practitioner of self-cultivation to come up with creative responses to new social circumstances, especially in the practice of li. For it is precisely these that most prominently constitute the self-reflective aspect of the Bildung-process in the Confucian view of education. Furthermore, considering the inclusion of Confucianism in the volume, one may wonder whether other Asian approaches, say, for instance, the Buddhist self-cultivational quest for eliminating ignorance (avidya), should not deserve to be included as well.

While Kant’s epistemology and ethics are certainly important for an understanding of his overall project, it would have been useful to consider as well his attempts to systematize his entire philosophy in a comprehensive whole from a Bildung-perspective. These are evident in the latter half of his Critique of Pure Reason as well as in his discussions of pedagogy, history and Enlightenment. The author certainly makes reference to some of these, but perhaps they should have been pulled more to the forefront. As a point of comparison, the author of the section on John Rawls does well to explicate the all-too often ignored second part of his A Theory of Justice, which is revelatory for the ultimate purpose of his well-known but not always well-appreciated concepts of ‘original position’ and ‘veil of ignorance’. In a similar fashion, the elements of Kant’s elaborate philosophy can similarly be made more meaningful by contextualizing them within his philosophical framework – or architechtonic – from the perspective of Bildung. It is readily admitted, however, that composing such a synthesizing account in 10-12 pages is easier said than done.

The section on Hegel would have profited from a somewhat more elaborate discussion of his specific understanding of ‘experience’ (Erfahrung). It had considerable influence on Bildung-thinkers such as Dilthey, Dewey, Gadamer and Habermas, and is, as a matter of fact, treated in some detail in the section on Habermas. Experience for Hegel is really a formative kind of experience. The subject’s transformation to self-reflection, its ‘reversal of consciousness,’ when exposed to objects of the world and other subjects is a vital factor in enabling and initiating the Bildung-process. A more striking omission, however, is the notion of ‘growth’ in the section on John Dewey, while it receives some discussion in the one on Rorty. In Dewey’s terms, growth could be said to be the outcome of the civilizing process. But the aim of growth is simply more growth. It enables the individual in question to continuously expand on his or her experience and apprehension of the world and make it more sophisticated and open to other and novel experiences. Dewey’s notion of growth makes it all the more easy to appreciate his visions of a civilizing process towards the necessarily non-specified aim of a flourishing humanity.

But all this is nitpicking for the sake of academic discourse and primarily intended to be enriching. The editor and contributors should be commended for a bold but successful project that should serve to keep alive a certain family of ideas belonging to humanity’s most ambitious and lofty, yet realizable, ideals. Their survival can only depend on accessible publications such as this one, and, of course, on those of us who make use of them.

Hannele Niemi, Auli Toom and Arto Kallioniemi (eds.), Miracle of Education. The Principles and Practices of Teaching and Learning in Finnish Schools (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012)

It is difficult for societies, just like individuals, to stay in the same place for a long time: they either thrive or decay. The thrift or decay can have many forms and many causes, one of them being neglect of their children and education. In modern societies, this need to regenerate and renew is just as necessary as in any ancient society, but now we have a different way of dealing with it.

Modern societies have without exception developed an educational system to deal with the problem of upbringing and education of the young and to renew these societies. This simple fact tells us that division of labour in modern times requires that specialists in education need to work with children and adolescents to make them fit for the modernity that awaits them. The simple truths we could once learn at our mothers´ knees are not what modernity requires.

Any education and educational system must fulfil at least three functions: it must prepare the young for living in a society (and nowadays this means that they must learn to live in a democracy); it must prepare them for living in a capitalist economy (meaning that they must acquire skills suitable for that kind of economy enabling them to get a job that is such that somebody is willing to pay for the services provided or goods produced); and lastly education must prepare the young to live well, to live in families dealing with intimate relations, having their own families, to enjoy the course and direction their lives have taken and even have a feeling that there is a meaning within their lives. This is a tall order and I am not sure if there are many educational systems serving all these functions.

One of those that come close to it is certainly the Finnish educational system. In international comparative research Finnish students are among the best in whatever is measured: mathematical skills, scientific literacy, reading literacy. Among the member countries of OECD they nearly always come at the top. It also seems that there is widespread consensus among the Finns themselves about the educational system, which indicates that they believe that it serves them and their society well. It cannot be an aim of an educational system to come out on top in international comparative research, but if it serves its children and in general its society well and comes out on top in international comparison, then that is quite an achievement.


This book is about the Finnish educational system, its features, structure and principles. The authors emphasise many features of it that are interesting indeed in an international perspective. They describe a well-functioning system that aims to form well-rounded individuals, morally and emotionally mature, and well advanced cognitively. Yet the system is not competitively driven, there are no national exams that students have to complete at regular intervals, there is no national inspectorate of schools, and teachers are autonomous in their decisions about their methods in teaching within the limits set by each school and by the national curriculum. These features go against the grain, at least in the Anglo-Saxon context, because there the trend has been towards more accountability to the political authorities through increased testing, competition between schools and discriminating pay scales for teachers who achieve results.

In the light of their achievements in international comparisons, it is natural to ask if there is anything special that might explain the Finnish miracle. How do we account for it? For one, the Finns have emphasised equality in their school system and it shows in the results. Those who do best are similar from most of the countries measured, but what makes a difference for the Finns is that those who are weaker also do well, lifting the general score for Finland. It is also the case that differences between schools are negligent, account only for 8% of the variation in the scores. There is a gender gap in reading, girls doing better than boys by 55 points, the largest difference between girls and boys in all OECD countries. There is a difference between the two language groups, Finnish and Swedish, but those who speak Swedish in Finland do considerably better that Swedes in Sweden. The Finnish state only spends averagely on education, Finnish pupils get the third fewest lessons from the age of 7 to the age of 14, the average number of students per teacher in the OECD countries is 16 but 11.4 in Finland, and the average class size in Finland is 20.1 students, the sixth lowest. Teachers have to complete a master´s degree to get a qualification as a teacher; studying for a degree in teaching is very popular and the universities only accept 10-15% of those who apply. Teaching is a high-status profession in Finnish society. On the whole it seems that Finnish teachers are cautious in their approach to their teaching and trust the well-tested rather than the innovative, relying heavily, for example, on textbooks in the natural sciences.

This book is divided into four sections. The first is about the general frame within which the educational system as a whole operates in Finland. The second concentrates on special features of the whole system, such as the emphasis on equity and excellence and how evaluation is mostly used formatively, how the national curriculum is structured and the research orientation in teachers´ work. The third part is on the subjects taught in Finnish schools covering all of them, not just those that have been used in international comparisons. The last part is on future directions for the system, discussing drama education as a part of arts education in the future, ICT in schools, the links between public institutions e.g. museums and schools, and LUMA (the project to bring science to everyone). It is very interesting to see how carefully Finnish teachers planned the use of ICT, realising that the most important thing was to figure out how you want to use these new machines. It is also striking that the Finnish students, who are so skilled in scientific literacy, score very low on interest in the natural sciences and therefore it was decided to establish the LUMA project.


If you want to become acquainted with the Finnish system of education this book is a good place to start. It is a sympathetic approach and very informative. It also gives the reader a flavour of the strong and varied academic research tradition in education and teacher training in Finland.

The Wider Impacts of Universities: Habermas on Learning Processes and Universities


It should seem obvious from a European point of view that higher education and research fits tightly together institutionalized in the age old university institutions. It has, however, been observed that research on higher education and research on the research functions of universities are strangely unrelated in the literature.[1] Apart from this separation there can be distinguished between two mayor outcome debates on higher education and universities. [2] The debates on outcomes are firstly the debates on the ends of higher education for the individual and secondly the wider societal benefits of both research and higher education.


Considering the outcomes for the individual the discourse of reform in higher education tends to focus narrowly on employability and the relationship between higher education and the labor market. Considering the wider outcomes of research the dominant discourse is that the end of all knowledge production is that of innovation that privileges technology and applicative fixes of social kinds. Both aspects of the benefits of universities are thus viewed in strictly economic terms – often related to a functionalist interpretation of both the demands of the knowledge economy (not the knowledge society) and of the “outcomes” of higher education and university research. According to many scholars, including Habermas, the functionalist interpretation has proved hard to overcome especially in the field of research in higher education. Since Talcot Parsons and Charles C. Platt wrote their seminal work on the American university functionalist views of higher education has prevailed both in the literature but also in the self-understanding of many university leaders.[3]


The concern of this paper is therefore threefold. Firstly the critique by Habermas of the prevailing functionalism in the view of higher education and research will be outlined. Secondly a brief discussion on the outcomes of research will, thirdly, lead to a discussion of the contributions on both the individual level of higher education as well as the wider societal outcomes. It is the argument here that the two last discussions cannot be taken separately but that they meet in concepts like the public sphere, civil society, citizenship, empowerment, emancipation and wellbeing. It is also the aim here to overarch the current dichotomies of either/or in the discussions on university reform. It is obvious that higher education and research also contribute to the knowledge economy but the argument in this paper is that this role is only one out of multiple social and cultural roles. Instead – this is a discussion on balances.


Habermas – the critique of functionalism


Habermas fights on two fronts in his critique of university reform and reformers.[4] One front consists of the “mandarins” of a conservative outlook that defend the classical idea of a unifying “idea of a university.” As enemies of modernity these reformers seem to cling to outdated views of both society and institutions. This leads Habermas to adhere to some of the functionalist views – in a word he agrees to differentiation as against unity. But he certainly does not agree with the full-blown functionalism that considers both higher education and research as governed by norm free symbolic media in the vein of Niklas Luhmann.


Firstly on the front against conservative reformers like Karl Jaspers and Helmut Schelsky Habermas raises a critique of the idea of a university as a unifying force, which he considers to be based on an idealistic sociology. The university is NOT exemplary of a life form that shall permeate society as a whole. “Organizations no longer embody ideas. Those who would bind organizations to ideas must restrict their operative range to the comparatively narrow horizon of the life world intersubjectively shared by its members.” Adhering to the ideals of Humboldt thus “belongs to those purely defensive minds whose cultural criticism is rooted in hostility to all forms of modernization.”[5] He equates this stand with that of a “mandarin ideology” of the learned classes, a concept coined by the sociologist of education Fritz Ringer.[6]


As to counter this out-dated view the university is initially called a “functionally specific subsystem of a highly differentiated society” and Habermas states “The functional capability of such institutions depends precisely on a detachment of their members motivations from the goals and functions of the organization.” He even states that a functionalist interpretation presents itself as promising:

“A more distanced perspective derived from international comparisons thus yields a picture which practically compels one to adopt a functionalist interpretation.”[7]


Habermas critique of systems theory is well known. The problem he sees in connection to higher education is that systems theory presupposes that all modernized parts of society must take the form of a norm free subsystem of communication and that it a priori supposes that this covers all areas of societal action. This Habermas calls the “system-theoretical overgeneralization.” “The universities (have) by no means out grown the horizon of the life world in the style of, for example capitalist corporations or international agencies.”[8]


In Habermas’ terms a functionalist view entails a perspective where “the universities present themselves as part of a system requiring less and less normative integration in the heads of professors and students the more it becomes regulated by systemic mechanisms with disciplinary production of technically useful information and job qualifications directed at the environments of the economy and the planning administrative bureaucracy”[9]


It is not difficult to see the current discourses on higher education in this quote, in spite of a distance of a quarter of a century. Habermas’ general critique of functionalist sociology is therefore all the more relevant to apply to the present day discussions. Habermas’ insistence on a differentiation between instrumental and communicative action in his interpretation of society as a whole does also find its way into his views of the university. The distinction between life world and system that is basic to his view of society at large is also found within this institution: “Processes of differentiation which have accelerated over the last two decades need not be brought under a single system theoretical description leading to the conclusion that the universities have now completely outgrown the horizon of the life world.”[10]


Hereby Habermas, in my view, delivers a more ecological view of a balance to be found also in university and higher education reform. The view is dismantling the idea of an unproblematic unity of all activities in the university, but is holding on to a view of a multiplicity of interplay between different aspects of the institutional life forms of a modern university.


Before we consider these differentiated aspects of first research and then higher education this part of the paper should state the interesting affinity between traditionalists and functionalists that make Habermas’ two frontal attack feasible. In Habermas critique the functionalism is equated with a neoconservative viewpoint that “only uses traditions as a compensation for the easier flow of information streams between research and the economic-military-administrative complex.”[11] The compensation thesis is thereby seen as a neoconservative strategy to accept modernity as long as this modernity stays in the realm of productive and administrative life, and does not interfere with a compensatory traditionalism of life forms outside this realm.[12]


Habermas on wider outcomes of the research function of universities


Habermas sees the university as the home of research. He does consider the challenges towards this from what now often is termed Mode II knowledge production,[13] but asks polemically if these forms of research will not always be “parasitical.”[14] So research is depending on the specific life forms of the university: “Scientific productivity might well depend upon the university’s form, in particular upon that differentiated complex interplay of research with the training of future students’ preparation for academic careers, the participation in general education, cultural self-understanding and public opinion formation.”[15] He even acknowledges the idea of the university as a norm to govern this life world: “The universities are still rooted in the life world, through this interpenetration of functions. So long as this connection is not completely torn asunder, the idea of the university is still not wholly dead. But the complexity and internal differentiation of this connection shouldn’t be underestimated.”[16]


Before we consider the implications of this complex interplay between research and wider impacts on society let us look to his discussion on research and science (Wissenschaft).


Fistly the idealism of the Humboltian model suggests the “unity of the sciences.” And secondly the Humboldtian model suggests “an oversimplified connection between scientific learning processes and the life forms of modern societies.”[17]


Habermas sees in both these statements a need for differentiation. The unity of sciences needs differentiation because of the internal differentiation between philosophy and the empirical sciences that has proceeded since the middle of the nineteenth century. The connection between science and the life forms of modern society must be differentiated. Because of a “plurality of powers of faith (Glaubensmächten) philosophy lost its monopoly on the interpretation of the cultural whole.”[18] Secondly this unity must be differentiated because science grew into a productive force of industrial society. Especially the natural sciences have been ascribed a technical function as against a world view producer.


But science is still an activity of the life world as it is organized as a communicative activity, which was already the view of Schleiermacher. With direct address against Luhmann, Habermas states: “because the activity of cooperative truth-seeking points to a public argumentation, truth – or let alone the reputation among the community of investigators – can never become a control medium for a self-regulating subsystem.”


These very brief points on research points to the fact that Habermas defends the normative aspirations of a life world of scholars. Faced with developments of neoliberal new public management these considerations become highly relevant. These reforms are exactly directed towards “control media” of a “self-regulating” subsystem of research such as bibliometrics and citation counting.[19] But let us leave the discussion on research seen in its own right to a view of the wider societal impacts of research and higher education.


The crucial argument is the interconnectedness of research and educational processes – that in spite of the differentiation processes of modern society are still valid.



Habermas on the wider impacts of universities


To sum up Habermas sees institutionalized in universities an interplay of research with:


  1. 1)Training of future students preparation for academic careers (Nachwuchs)
  2. 2)Participation in general education (Allgemeinbildung)
  3. 3)Cultural self-understanding
  4. 4)Public opinion formation


What are then the appropriate understandings of these connections?


The Humboldtian idea of a university pointed to three wider impacts of research, in idealist terms coined as “unities”: The unity of science and teaching, the unity of science and general education and the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation. As stated above Habermas sees a need for differentiation of these unities in view of the modern development.


Firstly the unity of science and teaching needs differentiation because of a differentiated labour market that demands highly skilled employees.


Secondly the unity of science with general education needs differentiation because the institutional structure was built on specialized bureaucratic functions rather than on general education.


Thirdly the unity of science with enlightenment and emancipation needs differentiation because of the social differentiation between academically trained elites and popular education. This means that the general enlightenment and emancipatory claims of the classical idea of the university in Germany were not met.


However, Habermas can now positively list the functions of the university thus: “The university learning processes do not simply stand in an inner connection to the reproductive functions of the life world. Going beyond mere academic career preparation, they contribute to general socialization processes by introducing students to the mode of scientific thinking, i.e. to the adoption of a hypothetical attitude vi-á-vis facts and norms. Going beyond the acquisition of expert knowledge, they contribute to intellectual enlightenment by offering informed interpretations and diagnoses of contemporary events, and by taking concrete political stands. Going beyond mere reflection on methodology and basic theory, they contribute to the self-understanding of the sciences within the whole of culture by supplying theories of science, morality, art and literature.”[20]


As a broad impact on culture Habermas sees the university to have contributed to the development of the freedom and differentiation of research disciplines, and benefitted society with a certain “utopian” ideal of universalistic and individualistic values that has upheld a critical potential. This is seen as a specific trait of the occidental development, but also writers on higher education like Björn Wittrock states universalism and cosmopolitan viewpoints to be typical in the development of universities.[21] This leads to the following conclusion:

“The egalitarian and universalistic content of their forms of argumentation expresses only the norms of scientific discourse, not those of society as a whole. But they share in a pronounced way that communicative rationality, the forms of which modern societies (which are without Leitbilds from the past) must employ to understand themselves.”[22]


A brief turn to Habermas’ theory of communicative action will maybe enlighten these conclusions.[23] In this book Habermas differentiates between three processes of reproduction in the life world: cultural reproduction, social integration and socialization. He states these in relation to culture, society and personality.


Habermas mentions (at least) two concepts concerning the reproduction of the life world highly relevant to this discussion which are 1) the reproduction of valid knowledge (which not least takes place in the universities) 2) the reproduction of personal socialization patterns and educational goals for the individual (which are parts of education as a whole). These can be disturbed which results in 1) loss of meaning and 2) crisis in orientation and education.


Below this discussion will focus mainly on the second point. How can Habermas theory be applied to the discussion on the outcomes of higher education for the individual to counter a crisis in orientation and education?


Habermas related to current issues in the debate on higher education


Looking at the part of the debate on wider outcomes of higher education for the individual the knowledge economy discourse tends to focus on employability, a term that stands central in the Bologna process of the integration of higher education markets in Europe. However, this discourse is by no means specifically European but is global.


The employability discourse is highly market oriented and suggests a one to one fit of transferable skills from the learning situation to the job situation. The discourse is connected to a view of the individual that is reduced to the concept of the effective or competent person – or a highly instrumental view.[24] The construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the reproduction of personality as a life world construction now (maybe) to be found in the literature on empowerment, citizenship and capabilities – and in Habermas. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas early modern German concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit are what I call personality and life world related with a parallel to ideas of liberal education in the Anglo-Saxon world.


The competing concepts are indicative of views of the self. Gerard Delanty in his book on citizenship addresses the question of the person, or the self, in this way:


“Modernity was a discourse of the emancipation of the self, but the question of the other is being asked only now. The problem with self-determination in postmodern times is that there is no single self but a plurality of selves. In this move beyond the contours of the modern age we have to ask the question of the responsibility of the self for the other. The rethinking of democracy – which is a discourse of self-determination – that this entails will force us to re-establish a link with citizenship – where self and other find a point of reconciliation.”[25]


I share with Delanty the view that a concern for the self as responsible should still, or again, be relevant in present discussions on citizenship and education. Not only postmodern writers but also the now dominant concepts of learning and transferable skills exclude personhood. This implies an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Can competencies and skills be other that means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? My reading of this discourse tends to point to the direction of a crudely functionalist notion of usefulness of the individual. When all education is regarded only as learning towards transfer of skills into workplace competencies the reduction is full blown. A maybe too optimistic reading of this dilemma would be that the self (situated in higher education) takes care of itself – sometimes in spite of pressures of economic or systemic performance. But this does not, in my view, exclude the responsibility of educators and leaders of educational institutions to choose a balance between instrumentality and life world concerns.


In the continental debate on the university an oppositional concept to employability is the mentioned concept of Bildung. The concept implies in its neo humanistic version the coming into being of a whole person through activities of scholarly and creative pursuits. It has highly normative connotations as both the goal of and the process of education or life-experience. Habermas critique indicates that Bildung builds on an exaggerated subject philosophical inheritance. But what is Habermas view of the learning subject? And how can we relate his thoughts on higher learning to civil society? Habermas himself in The structural transformation of the public sphere cites numerous connections between Bildung and the creation of a public sphere in early modern Europe. These historical examples both suggest what in the German debate is called the traditional marriage between education and money (Bildung und Besitz), but also points to the creation of a politically respected public sphere being a result of literacy, journal writing and thus education. The book is certainly split in viewing bourgeois culture and education as progressive and emancipatory forces or as simply reproducing class distinctions.[26]


Concluding words


I would suggest that we are now facing a crisis both in the reproduction of meaning, in educational goals and the reproduction of personality as Habermas theory suggests possible. Performative expectations to all knowledge production inhibit the reproduction of valid cultural knowledge. Goals of employability dominate any educational pursuit and the construction of the effective person stands in contrast to the balanced view of the personality as a construction now to be found in the literature on empowerment and citizenship. The concepts of skills or competencies are understood as performative and system related whereas concepts of Bildung and Mündigkeit capture a more balanced view of the relations between the individual and society. These questions need further clarification, but Habermas’ diagnosis can be a path to this investigation.


Concepts of learning and transferable skills distort reproductive processes of the life world. They imply an amoral idea of the effective and performative individual. Social skills are present in the debate on competencies – are these ethical skills? Can skills be other than means? Can skills be ends? Who decides the ends in a world of only means? This seems highly implicative of Habermas’ idea of colonization. Economic man has overpowered all other views of the human kind. The balance between life world reproduction and system reproduction is to be found anew in the discussion on higher education and universities in society.


Especially as concerns the scientification of political life – the bureaucratization and technological approaches to top down social engineering calls for a research near general education that serves critical thinking to prevail in a civil society that must be just as “armed” with research based argumentations as governments and IO’s are. Habermas’ concept is that of a “radical democracy” – and in such a democracy the creative destruction of social capital through higher education is all the more necessary.[27] Higher education thus primarily should arm new generations, and older ones, with antidotes to the prevailing top down tendencies of governments and non-democratic international agencies.




[1] Wittrock, Björn. (1985). Before the Dawn. Humanism and Technocracy in University research Policy. In Björn Wittrock & Aant Elzinga (red.), The University Research System. The Public Policies of the Home of Scientists (s. 1-10). Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

[2] Brennan, John and Rajani Naidoo (2008) ”Higher Education and the Achievement (And/or Prevention) of Equity and Social Justice” in Higher Education Vol 56. No. 3., pp.287-302.

[3] Wittrock, Björn. (1996 (1993)). The modern university: the three transformations. In Björn Wittrock & Sheldon Rothblatt (red.), The European and American University since 1800.Historical and sociological essays (2 ed., s. 303-362). Chippenham, Wiltshire: CambridgeUniversity Press. P.337

[4] Habermas, J. (1986). Die Idee der Universität–Lernprozesse. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 32(5), 703-718. (References below are to this version, referred to as “IU”). For an English version see Habermas, J. “The Idea of the University: Learning Processes” in New German Critique No.41 (1987). Habermas’ earlier writings on university reform (from the 1950ties and 1960ties) will not be considered here.

[5] IU p.704

[6] Ringer, F. (1969) ”The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community 1890-1933,” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[7] IU p.705

[8] IU p.714

[9] IU p.706

[10] IU p.707

[11] IU p.706

[12] For discussions on the compensation thesis see Ritter, Joachim (2003 (1961)). Die Aufgabe der Geisteswissenschaften in der modernen Gesellschaft. In Metaphysik und Politik: Studien zu Aristoteles und Hegel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp and Herbert Schnädelbach, (1988). Kritik der Kompensation. In Kursbuch 91. Wozu Geisteswissenschaften? (Vol. 91, s. 35-45). Berlin: Kursbuch Verlag.

[13] Gibbons, Michael, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott, & Martin

Trow (1995). The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research

in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

[14] IU p. 714

[15] IU p.707

[16] IU p.707

[17] IU p. 707

[18] IU p. 710

[19] For a discussion of the negative consequences of this development see Aant Elzinga “Evidence-based science policy and the systematic miscounting of performance in the humanities” at the blog: humaniorasociety.wordpress.com

[20] UI p.715

[21] Wittrock op.cit p.360

[22] UI p.717

[23] Habermas, J. (1987) ”The Theory of Communicative Action” Volume 2 “Lifeworld and System: a critique of Functionalist reason” Boston: Beacon Press, pp.142ff

[24] For a debate on this tendency in the Denmark see Laura-Louise Sarauw (2012) “Kur eller kurmageri for humaniora? – konkurrerende forestillinger om fremtidens samfund I den europæiske Bologna-proces.” in J.E.Larsen and M. Wiklund ”Humaniora i kunskapssamhället. En nordisk debattbok” Malmö: NSU-Press.

[25] Delanty, Gerard (2000) ”Citizenship in a global age. Society, culture, politics” Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press, p.3.

[26] Habermas, J. (1962) ”Strukturandel der Öffentlichkeit” Darmstadt : Luchterhand.

[27] For this argument see Fuller, Steve. (2004) “Universities and the future of knowledge governance from the standpoint of social epistemology” in Final plenary address at the UNESCO Forum Colloquium on Research and Higher Education Policy, Paris (Vol. 3).