Teaching the European Union
This article presents the European Union — often seen as an "extra" in instruction — as an integral part of the government, economy, history, and culture of Europe. It offers background on the EU, and ideas for deepening understanding of the EU every time you teach Europe.
When we hear “Europe,” our minds are flooded with images from books, films, and the news. We see castles and great art, wars and famine, empires rising and falling. And when we teach Europe, the main challenge is to choose among all the furniture in our minds what to include and what to exclude in instruction. And resources? Libraries, museums, and web sites are packed with resources on Europe.
But amid all the European plenty, there’s one topic that leaves teachers a bit speechless, and scrambling for some help. The European Union is still considered an “extra,” unconnected to mainstream European history and contemporary life.
Until we see the European Union as it is, an integral part of the government, economy, history, and culture of Europe, we’ll go on keeping the topic at bay, referring to the EU in passing, or as the news brings it to our attention. But if we get to know the EU — how it began, how it grew, how it affects every part of European life — we’ll be more likely to include it in teaching.
Let’s begin with some basic facts about the formation of the European Union.
- European cooperation began after the destruction of World War II had reduced much of the region to rubble and chaos. The U.S. Marshall Plan helped Europe rebuild its cities and infrastructure. But cooperation was Europe’s own plan for avoiding further catastrophic wars, and ensuring peace and prosperity.
- Beginning in 1945, Europeans began proposing ideas for overcoming destructive national rivalries by forming a community built on mutual cooperation — what Winston Churchill called “a kind of United States of Europe.”
- In 1951, Western European nations formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), to pool the essential raw materials for production needed by all. France and Germany, enemies during two world wars, were the leading nations in the agreement.
- In the years that followed, Western Europeans signed other treaties that broadened and deepened economic cooperation. Those nations within this Common Market enjoyed freedom from many trade restrictions and tariffs, which helped their economies to grow. Because of these trade benefits, more West European nations joined in the agreements.
- In 1993 the Maastricht Treaty formalized the European Union. By this time, the member nations had formed an economic and political community with a single market and intergovernmental cooperation. Within the EU, businesses could now work across national borders without trade restrictions and citizens could travel freely without visas.
- In 1999, the introduction of the euro in twelve of the member nations gave the EU a common currency recognized in all euro nations. The EU was fully established as a true economic and political union.
- Now the EU influences the lives of all its 500 million citizens through government, economy, environment, and even culture. The EU is a vital part of the global economy, and one of the main trading partners of the United States.
Clearly the EU is an integral part of European history as well as contemporary life. But how can teachers include the EU in classroom instruction? Let’s explore some possibilities.
Post-World War II history
Many social studies and history textbooks emphasize the U.S. Marshall Plan, which provided aid for Europe to rebuild cities and industries after World War II, but devote little space to Europe’s own plans for rebuilding stability and lasting peace. When you’re teaching the post-war period, take time to introduce students to the ideas and the treaties that led to the present EU.
In fact, a look through the Essential Standards reveals very specific goals and objectives that correlate to study of the EU. The growth of European cooperation that resulted in the EU is clearly one of the major “key turning points of the modern era” (WH.H.7.1) for study in World History. Similarly, in AP World History, students must gain “a greater understanding of the development of global processes,” a challenge that surely should include cooperation as well as Cold War in Europe. And, of course, AP European History calls for uncovering “economic, social, cultural, intellectual, [and] political” themes, all powerfully expressed in the movement towards the European Union.
Student exploration of the effects of the two world wars and European responses can be an active, technologically rich project, especially if it involves resources on EUROPA, the official web site of the EU. The web site offers documents, background texts, and contemporary video and audio to enhance research and presentations.
Living in Europe today
If you’re teaching Europe in middle school, with an emphasis on cultural geography, it’s important to remember (and teach) that the EU affects the lives of all Europeans, whether they’re living in an EU member nation or not.
The Essential Standards call for a study of “how competition for resources affects the economic relationship among nations” (7 E 1.1), “the implications of economic decisions in national and international affairs” (7 E 1.2), and “the effectiveness of cooperative efforts and consensus building among nations, regions, and groups” (7 H 2.2). All these topics can be taught in an EU context, bringing students to a deeper understanding of the effects of cooperation in Europe today.
Take time to talk about the opportunities made possible by the EU for European students to study abroad at a school or university in another EU country through the Erasmus Programme. Discuss why study abroad might be important for Europeans, and point out the importance of the European tradition of fluency in several languages. And acknowledge your own students’ growing skills in another language by offering age-appropriate texts on the EU in Spanish, French, and German. All are downloadable from the EUROPA web site.
Teaching social and economic cooperation
From kindergarten onward, the Essential Standards for social studies includes learning about distinguishing needs and wants, making decisions about limited resources, and understanding that groups share similarities and differences. The “story” of the European Union tells of a group of nations who recognized the need for a sustainable peace after terrible wars, made difficult decisions about limited resources, and acknowledged their cultural similarities and differences.
We teach young students about ways to resolve differences and maintain relationships from the earliest days of school. Frequently our real-world model of cooperation is the United Nations. It’s a good example, and young students show they understand how nations, just like individuals, can disagree while remaining friends.
The EU can be a real-world model of cooperation as well, with examples of overcoming rivalries, pooling resources, respecting differences, and sharing ideas freely. The EUROPA site offers age-appropriate resources and games for learning about the EU’s history of cooperation.
The EU — It’s not just for social studies
The EU touches every part of European public life, from protection of the environment to guidelines on intellectual property. As a result, you can include instruction about the EU in subjects beyond social studies and in interdisciplinary projects as well.
Science and math classes can include EU connections. For instance, it is European cross-border cooperation that has made possible the reversal of environmental degradation and the improvement of soil conservation. EU data also offers opportunity for real-world application of math skills at all levels, including examinations of Gross Domestic Product and other data analysis.
The change from national currencies to the euro offers lessons not only in economics, but also in cultural awareness and art. Students researching the challenges Europeans faced in giving up a familiar-looking currency and creating new, appropriate images for the euro learn much about how art can ignite and then resolve a clash between national pride and commitment to cooperation. (See the UNC European Union Center of Excellence for K-12 lesson plans on these and other topics, aligned to standards in science, math, language arts, social studies, and technology.)
On the EUROPA website, teachers of French, Spanish, and German can download and distribute actual EU publications in their language of study for students to read. EUROPA also offers video and audio resources that will strengthen students’ listening skills while expanding their knowledge of European culture and government.
European Union resources
For more information on teaching the EU, you can go to the web site of the Center for European Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their teaching resources include an EU primer, background on contemporary European issues, and an online textbook on EU economics. You can also access the most popular EUROPA resources from their site, including student reading material in several EU languages.
The site also has information about how North Carolina high school teams can join Euro Challenge, a national competition to deepen knowledge of the EU and the euro currency.
The UNC European Union Center of Excellence offers a database of teacher-created lesson plans for teaching the EU in grades K-12, across the curriculum. If you’re looking for ideas about how to include the EU in your classroom, browse the database by grade or subject, and choose a lesson plan to try. North Carolina Standard Course of Study goals and objectives are noted.
If you have your own original lesson plan for teaching the EU, you can submit it for inclusion in the database. A teacher-author will receive a $100 stipend for permission to publish the lesson plan. Details for submission are included on the EUCE site.