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Europe is an incredibly diverse area with many languages, traditions, countries, and peoples. To illustrate the diversity of Europe, let’s draw a map. It’s about 250 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. If we were to draw a circle around Chapel Hill with a 250-mile radius, this circle would include places like Charleston, West Virginia, Columbia, South Carolina, and nearly get us to Knoxville, Tennessee. Within this area, English is the common language, the American dollar is the only currency, and almost everyone would identify themselves as Americans. This circle would only get us halfway to New York, a third of the way to Chicago, and a fraction of the distance to Houston, Texas, or Los Angeles, California, the major economic hubs of the United States.

Map of North Carolina with radius
The circle and greyed area include all points within a 250 mile radius from Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Next, let’s draw a similar circle around Brussels, Belgium. The area encompasses a huge range of peoples, geographies, and political entities. While our American circle includes just the United States, the circle around Brussels crosses into five other countries beyond Belgium: England, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, and France, and only nearly misses parts of Denmark, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. This part of Europe is densely populated, much more so than the Untied States, and our circle includes several major cities: Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, Paris, and London. Four major languages are spoken in this area: German, French, English, and Dutch, not to mention the regional dialects spoken in many areas. Can you imagine driving 4 to 5 hours and being in a different country, not to mention understanding street signs in another language and different rules of the road?

Tile with picture of Brussels Belgium and surrounding area
The circle and greyed area include all points within a 250 mile radius from Brussels, Belgium

Pro Tip: Do this on your own at Map Developers

Key Points

  • European borders have changed frequently over the centuries. Modern borders are a product of the post-World War II era.
  • The idea of belonging to a nation – or nationalism – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
  • Just as borders moved over time, so did people. Migration of European populations was not rare.

The people living in this circle are Dutch, French, German, Belgian, and British, but they are also Europeans. But they were not always Dutch, French, or German. First, borders historically changed after every major European war, which occurred regularly until World War II. Second, the idea of a national identity came after modern-day states were created. A state, as defined by the German philosopher Max Weber, is a community with a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a territory. States came about in the 17th – 20th centuries, with Germany and Italy being some of the most recent states in the 1870s, much later than the United States. The idea of a nation, or an “imagined community” with a shared culture and history that binds them together, came about after states were founded. These national identities, in turn, emerged from public school systems with set national curricula. Think about your time in school in the United States. How often did you say the pledge, and how often did you learn about America’s past, often in glorified ways?

Sometimes, groups’ identities and the state they live in do not match. This is often the case with ethnic and linguistic communities, who often have an identity more important than the dominant identity in that state. For example, Catalans in Spain, Hungarians in Slovakia, and Russian-speakers in the Baltics might identify more strongly with their regional identity, in the case of the Catalans, or ethnic and linguistic identity, in the case of Hungarians and Russian-speakers, than they identify as Spanish, Slovak, or Lithuanian, Latvian, or Estonian (the Baltic countries). Europe is also home to several indigenous communities, including the Saami in Finland and Sweden. In an already diverse continent, differences between groups within a country are also important for understanding the politics, history, and culture of an area. Differences between minority communities and the dominant group in that country are also reflected in these groups’ cultures, religions, political attitudes, and voting behavior. Some identity groups want to be their own country, like Catalonia, Alto Adige, and Scotland, and have advocated for greater regional autonomy from the central government.

Even as borders have changed over time, people have also moved over time. Some of the largest worldwide movements of people were after major wars in European history, including population movements of millions of Germans after World War II, nomadic lifestyle of the Roma/Sinti peoples, or the expulsion of Jews during medieval times. After the second World War, immigration to Europe has come from its former colonies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. More recently, it has been of people who were invited to work in Europe from Turkey and the Middle East as a result of labor shortages after World War II, many of whom ended up settling in Germany, the Netherlands, and France. Since 1992, Europeans have been allowed to freely move across borders and settle in any European Union country. In the past decade, millions of Syrian and other refugees have settled in Europe following civil strife and violence in the Middle East. Europe’s populations have always been changing and will continue to change in the future.

Key Points

  • Many citizens of European Union countries feel both like they are their own nationality and “European.”
  • The European Union has fostered European identity by brining countries closer together through economic development, study abroad programs, and European symbols.

The proximity of European countries and cultures to one another has important implications for peoples’ lives. Thanks to the European Union, those living in the EU have the right to work and live in any other European Union country. Some people living close to borders might even live in one country and work in another. The Schengen agreement, which was established in 1995, eliminated border controls between many EU and non-EU countries. This allows people and goods to flow more easily from one country to another, and is a key part of the EU’s goal to bring European peoples and economies closer to one another.

Instead of imposing definitions on a very diverse group of cultures and countries, we might think of “European-ness” as an identity that people hold to varying degrees, just like people have different attachments to being from North Carolina or from the South. Some people tend to feel closer to their national or regional identity (ie. Venetian – for someone from Venice – and Italian) than they do European. Others might see themselves primarily as European, and Italian as a secondary identity. Some research has been done to investigate why and when people might identify as European (as opposed to national or regional identities). The extent to which people identify as European varies by country and demographic groups. Young people are more likely to feel European, as are those with higher levels of education and those who studied abroad or lived in another country.

This is an Italian passport. Every passport issued by a European Union country now has “European Union” written on the cover.

Being European is not just a matter of identity, but also a legal designation. As of 1992, the European Union created a new citizenship – European citizenship. Citizens of EU member states automatically received European citizenship, and this is now printed on all passports issued by European countries. This citizenship comes with certain rights – including the right to move and live in any other European member country without having to apply for citizenship. European citizens can also vote in local elections, regardless of which EU country they live in, and vote in European elections, which are held every 5 years for the 705-seat European Parliament, it’s legislative body.

A chart showing different levels and types of attachment to European versus national identities.
A chart showing different levels and types of attachment to European versus national identities.

By contrast, consider those living on the North American continent. Do people identify as “North Americans” if they are from the U.S., Canada, or Mexico?

How Different is life in Europe from Life in the US?

Key Points

  • Europeans move less than Americans do. Americans are some of the most frequent movers in the world.
  • Because Europeans move less often, local identities are more important.
  • Many Europeans have to study more than one foreign language in school.

Americans move a lot compared to the rest of the world. High school students often move to another city and sometimes to another state to attend college, graduates move across the country to take jobs, and people often move to warm places, like Florida, when they retire. Americans move an average of 11 times in their lifetimes, while the average for Europeans is about four. About 0.3 percent of Europeans move between countries each year, while it’s three percent in the U.S. between states, and that figure is higher for younger people between 18 and 24. In fact, it’s more common for children in Europe to live in their parents’ homes until they are well into their twenties.

How is this the case? Europeans are more likely than Americans to know one or more languages beyond their own. As we will discuss in the next section, it is incredibly easy to get around Europe. One of the key features of European Union citizenship is that any citizen of one country can move to live in another without having to apply for a visa or work permit. This can be partially explained by language skills and qualification barriers, but also because despite the way in which the European Union has brought the group of 27 countries closer together, they are still separate countries with unique cultures.

This lack of movement has important consequences. It (along with other factors) means that regional identities tend to be stronger, and that people form tight-knit communities in the places where they and their parents lived. We might think about particular regions like Catalonia and Basque country in Spain or Alto-Adige (South Tyrol) in Italy, as regions with histories and languages that make them different from the national culture. High in the valleys of the Dolomites, many communities in Italy either speak German or Ladin, a Romance language distinct from Italian. Similarly, Basque and Catalan are the primary languages spoken in their respective parts of Spain, while Spanish is a secondary language. These particular regions aside, local identities associated with being from a particular city are more pronounced in Europe than in the United States. This is reinforced by annual festivals, like Carnival (Mardis Gras) or other religious festivals, sports teams (particularly soccer), and dialects. Even though Americans from South Carolina or North Carolina might sound different from those from Minnesota and Wisconsin, these differences are matters of accents, or how words are pronounced. In Europe, the barriers to understanding one another is much higher, because linguistic differences are much stronger, ranging from dialects to completely different languages.

A Map (from the Pew Research Center) on the required number of foreign languages students must study in high schools around Europe.
A Map (from the Pew Research Center) on the required number of foreign languages students must study in high schools around Europe.

You can also watch this Youtube clip that explains European citizenship.

Key Points

  • There are lots of ways to get around Europe: by car, train, boat, and plane.
  • Public transportation networks are better developed in Europe than in the United States.
  • High speed rail is connecting cities in Europe that were once far apart. It is now quicker to take a train between some cities than it is to fly!

A second major difference is also related to mobility. Because of the continents’ population density (107 people per square kilometer in the EU vs 36 people per square kilometer in the U.S.), mass transit systems were developed beginning with the invention of railways to connect people within and between European cities. Most European cities have a combination of subways, light rail (or streetcars), and buses that allow people to get around town. These are built to both connect people from the suburbs to the center of the city (where there is often a major train station) and for people to move from one neighborhood to another. Many European school children, rather than board a school bus that stops by their home instead get on public transportation to get to school.

There is also great connectivity between European cities by a combination of high speed rail and flight networks. In many cases, it is faster to take the train, which stops in the middle of the city, than it is to get to an airport, which can be miles away from the historic city center (for example, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport is 15 miles from the city center, or a 45-55 minute train or taxi ride). Many of the projects to bring Europe closer together through improved transportation infrastructure are funded by the European Union, because connections facilitate trade and cooperation.

High speed rail makes use of several novel technologies, including rails that are constructed at an angle to facilitate high speed turns, to achieve speeds of up to 330 km/h, or 190 mph. Whereas a car ride between Madrid and Barcelona takes just under six hours, the high speed train ride lasts less than half that time (2 hours and 53 minutes). To take another example, the train between Amsterdam and Paris takes 3 hours and twenty minutes, and a car ride lasts over 5 hours. In some cases, European airlines have given up flying short domestic fights, and passengers instead take the train from their hometown to a major airport hub. If you don’t own a car, Europe is a great place to live!

A Map of the French TGV (high speed rail) Network
A Map of the French TGV (high speed rail) Network

Did you know that a train ride on the TGV between Paris and Bordeaux takes about 2 hours and 14 minutes, covering a distance of over 300 miles. On average, you’re traveling about 150 miles per hour!

Key Points

  • European school systems are different in every country.
  • The German school system has three different tracks, depending on which career you want to be in.
  • In France, high school students take a big exam, called “le Bac” that is key to getting into university.

The school system is another important difference between the United States and the European Union member states. The American school system is relatively straightforward: you go to Kindergarten the year before starting first grade, Elementary School runs through fifth or sixth grade, Middle School through 8th grade, and High School through 12th grade. After High School, students may enter the workforce, go to community college or vocation school, or attend a four-year university. In this section, we’ll briefly outline how the school system works in Germany and France.

In Germany, the only commonality in the school system is that students all attend an elementary school that runs from 1st through 4th grade. During the fourth grade, students and parents decide if a student will move on to one of three different schools: A General High School (Hauptschule), Secondary School (Realschule), or Academic Secondary School (Gymnasium). The General Secondary Schools and Realschule run through either tenth or thirteenth grade, after which students can enter vocational schools, technical colleges, or apprenticeships. This part of the education system is well known for training German students for the job market through a combination of applied and theoretical trainings. Students will often work part time at a company and spend the afternoons studying.

The final school – Gymnasium – lasts through the 13th grade, after which students take the Abitur, a strenuous comprehensive exam that gives students a grade they can use to apply to universities. If students apply to university, they apply to study a particular subject – unlike in the U.S., where students often don’t declare a major until their second year of college. Instead, students study medicine, law, or any other traditional subject for four years. One significant difference between the US and Europe is that in most EU countries, tuition for college and universities is free or very cheap (think 500 euros per semester).

In France, all students begin “school” before the first grade in a Kindergarten. Close to all 3-5 year olds are enrolled in some sort of formal early childhood education programs, compared to only about 80 % of American students who attend a year of Kindergarten before first grade. Like in Germany, public mandatory education includes an elementary school and some type of secondary schooling, called a collège for Middle School (up to age 15) and a lycée for High School. Lycées come in three types – a technical, professional, and a general stream. The general stream is for students aiming to go to university, while the technical and professional schools provide job training for particular industries. Just like in Germany, going to higher education (of any kind) is very cheap – a few thousand euros per academic year, not including other costs like housing and other living expenses.

At the university level, the European Union promotes exchanges between countries of all kinds. One program, called the Erasmus program, facilitates and funds students from one EU country to study and live in another for a semester or academic year. More than nine million people have participated in the Erasmus program, and nearly 4,000 European universities participate. This encourages European university students to gain another language skill, develop connections in other countries, and therefore is part of the broader goal to encourage unity and cooperation across European countries.

Who governs these educational systems? In the United States, where a combination of states, counties and school districts control education and its funding through property takes. Germany is a federal country, just like the US, where states that have significant authority, especially over education. The national government may set rules regarding education, but the implementation of these laws is up to the individual states and localities. The situation in France is very different, where decisions about education for the whole country are more tightly controlled by the Ministry for Education and national government in Paris. This centralization of political authority in France is not just unique to education! Many other areas of French political life are controlled by the central government, with little autonomy given to different regions and cities.

Case Study: Dispelling the Myth of a Monolithic Europe

Key Takeaway

  • Ancient Europe (and contemporary Europe) has always been a continent of bright colors and diversity. There is/was no one aesthetic to define the region.

Ancient Europe (and contemporary Europe) has been and continues to be a continent of bright colors and diversity. There is and was no single aesthetic to define the region. When we visit a museum and see sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome, we see often see or think of them as devoid or color or ‘white,’ which has led to presumptions about the whiteness of these civilizations. This has led to their association with whiteness and their use in propaganda as ancient symbols modern fascist movements have used to legitimate their cause.

These civilizations and the marble sculptures they created were hardly color-less or white. When this sculpture was rediscovered during the Renaissance, these objects emerged after centuries of being hidden away. Over the course of this time until their re-discovery, they had lost their original paintings and color, each of which depicted a range of what we today would call races. It’s important to note that race and the concept of whiteness was invented by Europeans a long time after the Roman and Greek civilizations had disappeared. So rather than using statues as a way to convey racial differences, they would have just reflected the surroundings of the places where statues were made: the Mediterranean basin, extending from Spain to modern day Israel and Turkey.

Tile of picture with colored greek sculptures
Classical painting of a Roman Sculpture. Picture credit to the New Yorker

These ancient sculptures had such an effect on Renaissance artists that the Renaissance artists created statues without any paint or coating, which cemented them in people’s minds as white. The true color of the ancient statues is being revealed with the help of new technologies that can scan the current statues for trace amounts of the materials and colors used when they were first made. While the norm is that these statues are presented devoid of color, in the next few years, you might be more likely to see restored ancient sculptures restored to their original vibrancy!
Dispelling the Myth of a Monolithic Europe Lesson Outline
You can watch this YouTube (in color!) about Roman statues.

How to teach this section

Discussion Questions:


  • Do you think feeling like you are European is similar or different from how we think of ourselves as “American” and/or “North Carolinian”?
  • What stereotypes do you have of Europeans? Do you think these are accurate or not?
  • Can you think of other ways life in the United States might be different from life in Europe? If you were to create a new country that combined the best parts of both Europe and the US, what would it look like?


Suggested Lesson Plans

Elementary School
Exploring EU cities through Google Earth Using Google Earth, students can explore the center of Europe’s historic cities (Geography).

Middle School & High School
Immigration and Refugees: Comparing the Contemporary Refugee Crises to Historical Immigration And Refugee Movements Students can learn about the movement of populations by comparing and contrasting contemporary and historical migration patterns in Europe (History).

Family Life in Europe Students can learn about family life in Europe (Grades 9-Post Secondary).
After reading about life in Europe, students can work in groups to make TikToks representing their lives in America (Social Studies).

Population, Migration, and IdentityStudents can explore identity and its intersection with the European Union (Social Studies).

¿Qué es la Unión Europea? Students can practice their Spanish while learning about the countries in the EU and transportation in Europe (Spanish).

Additional Resources

Order a European culture kit from Carolina Navigators to share with your classes.