Written by: Louisa Slavkova and Dobrena Petrova, Sofia Platform Foundation
Civic education in Bulgaria: Discourse, challenges and opportunities
Prevalent topics in the public discourse on democracy and civic education in Bulgaria are the meaning of patriotism beyond the clichés of the oldest European nation-state, the positive attitudes towards Russia vis á vis the war in Ukraine and the susceptibility to disinformation and conspiracies. With an ongoing political crisis mirrored in parliaments unable to produce governing majorities, the levels of trust in the representative institutions of democracy have plunged, making citizens even more disenchanted with democracy.
A debate related to the structure, methods and scope of formal civic education in schools has not received much public attention and is mostly being held between a small group of experts, including the Ministry of Education and Science, teachers, university professors and non-governmental organizations. The war in Ukraine has given the democracy discourse a new salience as Bulgarian society has traditionally been divided between pro-Russian attitudes, even though Bulgaria was occupied by the Russian army in 1945, and pro-Western attitudes critical of Putin’s Russia. These sentiments dictate the actions of politicians to a point where foreign media tells Bulgarian citizens that the first government after Boyko Borissov’s 12-year rule has rescued Ukraine in the first phase of the war but has done so secretly, because of their pro-Russian coalition partner and the general pro-Russian sentiments.
Partly due to the role of Russia in Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire, partly due to the propaganda during Soviet times and the insufficient processes of dealing with the country’s communist past after the end of the Cold War, the attitudes of Bulgarians are a mix of communist nostalgia, support for democracy and the EU, respect for Russia and Putin and solidarity with Ukraine. However, the country is plagued by low levels of volunteering, civic engagement and voter turnout.
The spread of disinformation, often anti-EU and anti-democratic, that up until recently has not been taken seriously enough, has proved to be particularly successful in a country in which the majority shares positive views of Putin’s Russia. The way that political elites discuss these topics in mainstream media and act on them is largely priming citizens’ attitudes too, including those of the youth. A study by Trend research also finds that Bulgarian society is particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories.
This is why civic engagement and dealing with the past become important topics of civic education in Bulgaria, alongside contemporary topics like disinformation, climate change and sustainability.
Formal civic education overview
There are two approaches to civic education in formal education. One is an interdisciplinary method, which holds that due to the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, teaching it cross-curricula would be most suitable (Petrova, 2021: 19). The other approach is having a separate school subject. Initially, civic education in schools was thought through the interdisciplinary approach, until the new subject was introduced in 2020. While both approaches have some advantages, in the Bulgarian context, where civic participation and competencies are not high, it is important to have a separate school subject as the former interdisciplinary approach did not prove very successful. The current approach is to combine both – a separate school subject to allow for a holistic and systematic curriculum, along with an interdisciplinary approach of integrating civic education in all subjects at all educational levels (Petrova, 2021: 20).
Civic education as part of the formal sector has seen significant improvements in recent years with the introduction of a separate school subject in 2020 for 11th- and 12th-grade students (the final two years of secondary education). The preparation of the educational curriculum by the Ministry of Education and Science included consultations and discussions with various actors such as teachers, university professors, non-governmental organizations and history, philosophy and civic education experts. The subject is thought predominantly by history, geography and philosophy teachers, who together negotiated the vision for the school curriculum.
The Sofia Platform Foundation implemented an approbation of the school curriculum in 2018 and 2019 by visiting 12 schools across the country and organizing open lessons on the different topics in the upcoming subject. The results of the approbation, which investigated the topics and methods in the curriculum itself, as well as the perceptions of both students and teachers, were largely positive, which could be because the open lessons were taught very interactively.
Another positive step is the organization of training opportunities for teachers of civic education by the Ministry of Education and Science and non governmental organizations such as the Public Policy Institute, Sofia Platform Foundation, New Bulgarian University and others.
An important development is the National Olympiad in Civic Education held since 2007 in all grades. Interest and performance among students at the Olympiad vary across the country. Students from some regions (e.g. Vratza, Kazanluk, Haskovo, Sandanski, Plovdiv) perform significantly better compared to the national average. This is due to the strong initiative and involvement of teachers from these regions, who were better equipped for teaching civic education even before the subject was formally introduced in the school system, as data from the Civic Health Index Bulgaria in Vratza suggests, and this is reflected in the high competences of the students there.
At the higher education (university) level, there are a couple of universities that have specific civic education programmes. The New Bulgarian University has a two-year minor programme in Civic Education, as well as a general Civic Education course offered to all bachelor’s students. The St. St. Kiril and Metodiy University in Veliko Tarnovo offers a master’s degree in Civic Education. The Plovdiv University Paisii Hilendarski offers teacher training programmes focusing on civic education and other subjects such as philosophy and literature. The American University in Blagoevgrad and the university of the Open Society University Network (OSUN) also offer a bachelor’s course on civic engagement.
Although a systematic evaluation of the school subject has not been done yet, anecdotal evidence outlines a few areas for improvement. The biggest challenges currently are related to 1) students and teachers not perceiving civic education as a serious school subject and lacking the motivation to engage with it; 2) the insufficient teaching time for a large number of theoretical topics and practical sessions (Petrova, 2021: 20); 3) insufficient theoretical and methodological training of the teachers to teach the subject (Petrova, 2021: 20); and 4) the introduction of the subject at a late stage in students’ education.
According to the Civic Health Index Bulgaria, an important change occurs in youth attitudes’ formation during their time in pre-secondary education (around 12–13 years old). During that time, the role that school has in shaping students’ attitudes increases significantly at the expense of the role of their parents (Slavkova, 2022). However, students in pre-secondary education do not currently study any school subjects that deal with the topics of civic education (e.g. ethics, philosophy), which are all introduced in secondary education (Kostov, 2018: 180–181).
Non-formal and informal civic education
As Bulgaria is a post-communist state, a significant part of the non-formal and informal civic education in the country after 1989 has been focused on democratization and transition processes. Key topics in early democracy included building a democratic state with accountable institutions and processes such as voting, media regulation, NGO legislation. Since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, however, there is diminishing funding for civic education as Bulgaria was considered part of the family of democracy and there was no talk yet of democratic backsliding in Europe. Another trend in early democracy was civic education for elites (civic and political leaders), which is today largely missing too, and few civic actors are offering it (e.g. School of Politics, German political foundations for representatives of their respective party families).
Since the EU accession in 2007, trends and topics in non-formal civic education began to change. A variety of non-formal and informal civic education actors emerged. They can generally be clustered as 1) civil society actors and institutions who work with the formal sector and offer teacher trainings, programme approbations, teaching materials and extracurricular projects for both students and teachers, etc. (e.g. the Sofia Platform Foundation); 2) civil society actors who offer civic education programmes for citizens at large through civic education academies and trainings, public lectures and discussions, etc. (e.g. Bulgarian Center for Non-profit Law, the Sofia Platform Foundation, AGO Academy, the Bulgarian Donors Forum, Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation, Bulgarian Youth Forum); 3) civil society actors who provide education on specific topics related to civic education, such as media literacy, climate education, women’s rights, etc. (e.g. Media Literacy Coalition, Za Zemiata, Ecologica BG, Bulgarian Fund for Women); 4) young non-formal actors who discuss relevant political and social issues online (e.g. informal influencers such as Flora and Chefo, Instagram profiles such as Zemlevezh, Tsarski Pishtovi, Active Politics, or podcasts such as Channel4Podcast, etc.); and 5) active citizens, especially on a local level, who do civic education in their communities, often in or with the support of local community centres (tchitalishte). The work of many would be unthinkable if it weren’t for the targeted support for civic education by America for Bulgaria Foundation for organizations both in Sofia and outside the capital.