Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, Photo: Ulla MontanUmberto Eco, Photo: Ulla Montan

Surveys should always be taken cum grano salis. The fact that a majority thinks Berlin is the most attractive city could have something to do with there being three thousand German respondents and only half that number from France. Knowing the French, I would have put money on Paris winning if the proportions had been reversed.

Similarly, answers on Europe’s most important structure seem to reflect the stereotypes vehicled by the press and, in the case of the Eiffel Tower, by cinema. The Colosseum and the Parthenon rank high enough but any interviewee over the age of forty would have put the Parthenon in first place. So the Eiffel Tower it is.

Leonardo da Vinci’s ranking also appears to me to be driven by media exposure, in the sense that fewer Japanese as well go to see the Mona Lisa than visit the Sistine Chapel. I’m disappointed at Shakespeare’s low score but we have to take young people’s opinions as we find them.

I’m pleased that Italian cooking is regarded as the best. I think that this is partly down to the Germans but if there had been more French respondents, my money would have been on French cuisine. I can see that for many young people the most important politician is Angela Merkel, not least because there aren’t any other equally influential politicians around. But when I see Napoleon – who, for good or ill, left his mark on Europe, – languishing at four per cent, I get the impression that the question wasn’t fully understood. The young live in the present and perhaps for them even the Colosseum is of today, something that you see on postcards. Napoleon is not part of young people’s memory but this could jeopardise their understanding of European history, and of why Napoleon meant so much to Beethoven. But that’s what young people think and that’s what we have to acknowledge. If there had been three times as many Italian respondents, Berlusconi might even have featured.

The interest, undoubtedly aesthetic and moral, in La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) speaks highly of the younger generation’s sensibilities but a generation ago, interviewees would have said Battleship Potemkin.

On the other hand, there is a string of answers that I think are extremely significant. To sum up what Europe means to them, a majority – albeit it tiny one – said “culture”. It is important that at least an elite of young people should be aware that what binds together Europe’s different languages, territories and forms of government is culture, much more than the euro. I do not know whether the respondents had in mind the Christian tradition, Jewish influence via the Bible or the heritage of Greece and Rome. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask. Whatever the case, it must be the reason why the great majority feels “quite a bit” or “full-blooded European”, and looks to Europe’s future with quiet optimism.

This cultural orientation seems to be confirmed by the good position of Don Quixote. Evidently, Europe has a right to exist, beyond its national differences, because of its shared culture and it is to be hoped that the young will come increasingly to understand this. Equally, I regard it as significant that almost twenty per cent identify the European heritage with the discovery of printing, and democracy as Europe’s greatest contribution to world culture.

In short, the answers inspire a certain optimism while revealing a generation that remembers almost nothing of the past. This is something that an education for Europe ought to recover.