Friday 17. September 2021
#214 - April 2018

Education: Extending competence or going beyond?

Critical reviews of two training documents from the EU Commission and the Holy See: how do they differ, where do they agree and in what areas do they complement one another? An invitation to further analysis.

Studious female high school student

Two documents on education appeared in January 2018, more or less at the same time. On 17 January, the European Commission presented its education package (the Commission has no authority to act in the field of education, but merely a “support function”). On 28 January, the Holy See published Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution “Veritatis Gaudium” on the Catholic Universities and Faculties.


Let us begin with a definitive statement: both documents are concerned with preparing people for, and helping them to find their way in, a world and a reality that are growing ever more complex. But this is where the similarities end.


Education – with the focus on people


A striking aspect of “Veritatis gaudium” is its opening words: The joy of truth. This joy should counterbalance a widespread cultural pessimism – and the document calls on the Catholic Universities to put this into practice. Building on the two documents “Optatam totius” (the 2nd Vatican Council’s decree on priestly training) and “Sapientia Christiana” (Pope John Paul II, on the Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties), it is the task of the ecclesiastical academic institutions, faced with an “anthropological and socio-ecological crisis”, to redefine the relationship between world and society. One thing remains unchanged: the focus of all education and research is still the individual, fallible and educable person. The aim of all educational efforts must be to enable people to develop leadership qualities, so that they can ultimately “change the models of global development” and “redefine our notion of progress”. This requires a “bold cultural revolution”.


The proposed methods do not sound particularly rebellious, but given the approaches and methods of current educational policies, they may indeed be revolutionary since they involve dialogue, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, networking and contemplation. In view of the continuous breakdown of knowledge into ever smaller units and specialisms, which contributes to isolation and a kind of academic (and consequently also political) autism, “Veritatis gaudium” argues for prioritising a holistic approach. There follows a principle already put forward by Pope Francis in “Evangelii gaudium”, that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”. Dialogue, exchange, networking and encounters enable people to penetrate ever deeper towards an understanding of this whole. No discipline alone can claim to be in full possession of the truth: truth (and reality) first become apparent in a dialogue, based on a desire to understand, between people and disciplines.


Education – merely ensuring employability?


Helping people to find their place in society is also the (unspoken) aim of the European Commission’s education package. It is striking both for its language, which is so completely different, and the different understanding of people that it has at its core. Every reference to why something should be learned, or a certain skill acquired, is linked to acquiring or maintaining the “employability of the person”. To simplify, the aim is not so much “education” as “training”. Of course it is necessary to have a good mastery of cultural tools which, today, are not limited to reading, writing and arithmetic, but also include the ability to use the necessary instruments from pencils to computers. Sometimes, however, one has the impression that mastery of the cultural tools is considered an end in itself, and one that begins with the computer. This applies in particular to the document “10 Trends.Transforming Education as We Know It”. It is very surprising to read that “academic education”, “teachers as those who transmit knowledge” and “books” are deemed to have been overtaken and should be superseded by “virtual reality” and “digital education” as a matter of urgency.


There are good reasons why education is not a (core) competence of the European Commission, but remains devolved to its member states and their various cultural traditions. While this in no way implies a desire for everything to stay the same, either in terms of content or methods, it cannot be denied that the Commission’s proposals – even where they are only acting in a “supporting”, “encouraging” or “acting on duty” capacity – resemble a totalising influence, which does not take seriously or promote plurality, but ensures that the focus of its education policy is on the needs and requirements of the economy and/or the IT industry, rather than on people.


Michael Kuhn



Translated from the original text in German

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.