The European far right has its eye on education

Conservative and far-right forces across Europe are seeking to control mass education and indoctrinate a new vanguard.

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Italy's Minister of Education Marco Bussetti arrives at the Quirinal palace in Rome, Italy on June 1, 2018 [File: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters]

Today, the Thirteenth World Congress of Families will kick off in Verona, under the patronage of the Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Marco Bussetti, the Italian education minister, will be among a number of high-level officials to speak at the event.

That Bussetti will be rubbing shoulders with ultraconservative activists and politicians from Italy, Hungary, Moldova, Russia, Uganda and Malawi at an event that purports to “the natural family as a fundamental unit of society” should not come as a surprise.

Education has never been politically neutral and has always been shaped by a particular vision of society. With a right-wing ethnocentric world view becoming more appealing to western electorates and far-right parties, strengthening their representation in political and administrative institutions, they are naturally trying to imprint their views on culture and education. 

This includes the right in Italy, which has its eye on the education sector under the current populist government. In fact, the current political environment in Italy which appears quite favourable to nurturing far-right activism has attracted even foreign far-right ideologues.

Earlier this month, the media zoomed in on an educational project former Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon set up in an old monastery in Italy. The so-called “modern gladiator school” will aim to give its students the necessary tools to defend “the Judeo-Christian West” and its values.

The news came as a shock to many who did not expect this controversial alt-right extremist and his supporters to be investing in education. However, despite the demagoguery and anti-intellectualism that define some of far right’s contemporary reincarnations, its interest in founding elite education institutions to raise a highly skilled vanguard, as well as shaping mass education to influence large segments of the population, is nothing new.

Cultivating a new elite

Far-right intellectuals in Europe have been advocating for the establishment of right-leaning elite institutes with vehemence for decades.

They have long argued that “the leftist indoctrination” propagated in universities across the continent has rendered necessary the establishment of education hubs which would follow an alternative right-wing curriculum to train a new, and different, intellectual and political elite. Neo-conservative institutions in the US, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Young Americans for Freedom, have served as their main source of inspiration.

With his new project, Bannon wants to establish an elitist school that would work towards cultivating the future thought leaders of the far-right movement. This idea seems to be, at least partially, inspired by Julius Evola, the Italian fascist philosopher who promoted the formation of a hierarchical society run by a spiritually superior caste – a small elite of “warriors”.

Evola viewed progress and equality as poisonous illusions and rejected the liberal democratic order. His anti-democratic ideology remained popular in far-right circles for decades after his death and today, it is embraced by a diverse bunch of right-wingers – from Bannon to the Greek Golden Dawn, from the US alt-right to the Russian far right as well as other extremists opposing markets-led globalisation, liberalism and multiculturalism. 

While Bannon’s Evola-inspired vision of providing high-quality, traditionalist right-wing education to select few elites is undoubtedly supported by many ultraconservatives, others have concentrated their focuses on shaping mass education along their views.

Controlling mass education

Education delivered through compulsory state-controlled schooling can indeed reach much more people than the small number of already sympathetic elites targeted by “gladiator academies” like Bannon’s, and could potentially be more influential in the long-term.

Different far-right movements in Europe have approached this in different ways.

Bussetti, the Italian education minister, for example, recently decided to exclude history from the exit exam for high schoolers, thus decreasing its importance in the curriculum. This move is part of the plan of the far-right League party, which is part of Italy’s governing coalition, to give more prominence to vocational subjects over humanities in high schools. 

The party hopes a high school education focused on skills necessary to perform specific jobs and basic citizenship duties would reduce university attendance rates and probably expose fewer young people to leftist and liberal ideas in institutions of higher education.

The Italian far right has also pressed forward with its educational agenda at the regional level. In Udine, for example, the city council recently voted to ban all references to “other cultures” in the local kindergarten. Children are now supposed to only cuddle dolls, play instruments, and read books that are deemed culturally Italian.

In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is seeking to rewrite the history syllabus. Its Saxony-Anhalt chapter, for instance, has called for history lessons to be redesigned so they promote among students “a fundamentally positive relationship to their country and a consolidated national identity”.

The AfD chapter also claims there is a need for an “education policy that orients itself again towards the pure ideal of the German history of thought”. It supports the re-introduction of the “Heimatkunde” (knowledge about the homeland) – a subject that they believe would help German pupils connect with their roots and “gain orientation in a globalised world”.

A few regional AfD organisations have also targeted teachers who, it asserts, use their lessons for “leftist indoctrination”. They have set up websites in which pupils can denounce left-leaning teachers, promising to send these cases “to the highest institutional level“. With AfD representatives strengthening their presence and power in parliaments and the Lander’s education boards, teachers’ associations have expressed their worries for retaliation.

Education has evidently become a battleground for the conservative and far-right forces. This is both because it is a topical issue that many people care about and that can be used to reach wider audiences, and because it can help shape society according to far-right social and political values.

In the past, educational systems have often demonstrated a strong resilience towards radical political shifts. However, history also shows that they can become a powerful tool to indoctrinate citizens at the hands of autocratic and fascist forces.

This is certainly the dream of the contemporary far right – which, when in power, tries to systematically undermine the progressive and cosmopolitan values of education. If Europe does not want to go back to the dark age of fascism, it should stand up to the far right and fight to preserve the values of liberalism, pluralism, and critical thinking in European education.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.