The European Enlightenment and the Development of the Ideal of the Homogeneous Society

Richard Herr, Professor Em. in UC Berkeley’s Department of History, gave a lecture at IES illustrating how, during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, individual countries attempted to create uniform populations not only as a means of preserving loyalties in the event of wartime, but also as a way of embracing Enlightenment ideals of democracy and community. It was thought that, if every citizen was to be treated equally, every citizen should be similar; resultantly, countries such as the France, Spain, and Germany pursued state-led policies of education that aimed to give every citizen the same linguistic, historical, and cultural background. The goal of homogeneous societies, Herr outlined, was to eventually eliminate class conflict; however, these homogeneous societies struggled to include everyone. Some groups were seen as obvious outsiders who were unable or unwilling to assimilate. This trend of homogenization continued until the end of the Second World War when governments started to explore other strategies to promote the dream of democracy and equality.

To conclude his lecture, Herr acknowledged that, throughout history, people have shown a tendency to surround themselves by those who were similar to them; however, he claimed that the idea of “multiculturalism” has gained popularity and momentum in more recent decades, demonstrating how people within a given society are less likely to see each other as strangers when that society is more diverse. Citing the United States as an example, Herr emphasized how, through the promotion of multiculturalism, countries can overcome pasts of discrimination and become more inclusive and accepting of difference.

Then came a question and answer session, during which the 15 in attendance raised a number of points. One question concerned whether or not developments in technology and the increasingly-divided world political structure would cause people to return to individual culture and homogeneity as the basis for their identity. Herr answered that agitators will always try to excite and divide populations, but, ultimately, history has shown him that humans prefer peace to war, unity to separation, and equality to injustice. Herr ended with a hopeful and empowering prediction for the future of world culture and society.