There is a crisis of contemporary education, and a very peculiar one, because probably for the ?rst time in modern history we are realising that the differences among human beings and the lack of a universal model are going to be lasting.
Living with foreigners, being exposed to the "other," is nothing new. But in the past it was believed that those who were "alien" would sooner or later lose their difference and be assimilated by accepting those universal values that were, in fact, our values.
But nowadays this has changed. People who move to another country no longer desire to become like the natives and the natives in turn have no wish to assimilate them.
So what happens in a city like London, where there are almost 180 diasporas who speak different languages and have different cultures and traditions?
It is no longer a question of being tolerant, because tolerance is another face of discrimination. The challenge is at a higher level, about creating a feeling of solidarity.
There are two opposite reactions to the phenomenon in contemporary cities - mixophobia, the typical fear of being involved with foreigners - and mixophilia, the joy of being in a different and stimulating environment.
The two con?icting trends are more or less as strong as each other - sometimes the ?rst one prevails, sometimes the second. We cannot say which of them will carry the day, but in our globalised world, interconnected and interdependent, what we do in the streets, in primary and secondary schools, in the public places where we meet other people is extremely important not only for the future of the place we live in but for the future of the whole world.
We have been working to achieve school inclusion for more than 25 years, convinced that educating all children together, including those with special needs, is the best training children can receive for mixophilia. We were also able to take up the challenge because Italy is the example of the only country in the world where full inclusion has been in force for almost 40 years.
Yet on the one hand inclusion has never been fully applied and on the other some Italian politicians are trying to discredit public schooling, where - to quote Silvio Berlusconi - "communist teachers transmit ideas to our children that are different from the values we received from our parents."
Conversion and assimilation, that early modern recipe for dealing with the presence of strangers, is not on the cards in the present context of a multicentred and multicultured world. The need to develop, to learn and to practise the art of living with strangers and their difference permanently and daily is inescapable for another reason as well. However hard state governments may try to prevent them, migrants are unlikely to stop knocking at a country's doors and those doors are unlikely to be kept closed.
"Europe needs immigrants," was the blunt statement by Massimo D'Alema, currently president of the European Foundation for Progressive Studies, in the French newspaper Le Monde in May last year. His words directly take issue with Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy, "the two most active European pyromaniacs."
Calculations to support D'Alema's verdict could hardly be simpler.
There are 333 million Europeans tomorrow but with the present average birth rate - still falling all over Europe - that number will shrink to 242 million in the next 40 years.
To ?ll that gap at least 30 million newcomers will be needed, otherwise our European economy will collapse, together with our cherished standard of living. "Immigrants are an asset, not a danger," D'Alema concludes. And so the process of cultural metissage - hybridisation - which the in?ux of newcomers is bound to trigger, is unavoidable. A mixing of cultural inspirations is a source of enrichment and an engine of creativity, for European civilisation as much as for any other.
All the same, there is only a thin line separating enrichment from a loss of cultural identity. To prevent the cohabitation between autochthons - indigenous inhabitants - and allochthons - those arrived from elsewhere - from eroding cultural heritage, it needs to be based on respect for the principles underlying the European "social contract." The point is that this unwritten and unsigned contract needs to be respected by both sides.
But how can one secure this respect if recognition of the social and civil rights of "new Europeans" is so stingily and haltingly offered and proceeds at such a sluggish pace? Immigrants currently contribute 11 per cent to Italian GNP but they have no right to vote in Italian elections.
In addition, no one can be truly certain how many newcomers there are with no papers or with counterfeit documents who actively contribute to the national product and thus to the nation's well-being.
"How can the European Union permit a situation in which political, economic and social rights are denied to a substantive part of the population, without undermining our democratic principles?" asks D'Alema, all but rhetorically. And, since citizen duties come in a package deal with citizen rights can one again in principle seriously expect the newcomers to embrace, respect, support and defend those "principles underlying the European social contract"?
Our politicians muster electoral support by blaming immigrants for their genuine or putative reluctance to "integrate" with the indigenous population's standards while doing all they can, and promising to do yet more, to put those standards beyond the reach of those arrived from elsewhere.
On the way, they discredit or erode the very standards they claim to be protecting against foreign invasion.
The big question - a quandary more likely to determine the future of Europe than any other - is which one of the two contending "facts of the matter" will eventually, but without too much delay, come out on top.
The choice is between the life-saving role played by immigrants in a fast-ageing Europe, a role few if any politicians thus far dare to emblazon on their banners, and the power-abetted and power-assisted rise in xenophobic sentiments eagerly recycled into electoral votes.
The of?cial ministerial pronouncements and statistics of voting intentions suggest one tendency, while the daily habits and slow but relentless subterranean changes in life's setting and logic at the grassroots seem to point in another direction.
After the dazzling victory in Germany by the Greens in Baden-Wurttemberg - which left the social democrats trailing and put Winfried Kretschmann at the head of a provincial government - the Greens, and notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit, are begining to ponder the possibility that the German Chancellery in Berlin could turn green as soon as 2013.
Who will make that history in their name? Cohn-Bendit has little doubt. It is Cem Ozdemir, their sharp- minded, clear-headed, dynamic, charismatic and widely admired and revered co-leader who was re-elected a few months ago by 88 per cent of the party members who voted.
Until his 18th birthday Ozdemir held a Turkish passport. Then, a young man already deeply engaged in German and European politics, he chose German citizenship because of the harassment to which Turkish nationals were bound to be exposed whenever they tried to enter Britain or hop over the border to neighbouring France.
One wonders who, in present-day Europe, are the advance messengers of the continent's future? Europe's most active pair of pyromaniacs, or Daniel Cohn-Bendit?
Not being a prophet and believing that history is made by people and doesn't exist until it has been made by them, I can't answer that question. But it will have to be answered, in words as much as in deeds, by all of us alive at present.
And it will be answered by our choices. For more than 40 years of my life in Leeds I have watched from my window as children returned home from the nearby secondary school. Children seldom walk alone, they prefer walking in groups of friends. That habit has not changed.
And yet what I see from my window has changed over the years.
Forty years ago, almost every group was "single colour." But nowadays almost none of them are.
This is an extract from On Education - Zygmunt Bauman, Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo reprinted by kind permission of Polity Press. The book costs £9.99 and will be published next week.
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