In 1983, the parliament of Catalonia passed a law that would help the region assert its identity, and its autonomy, relative to the rest of Spain. It made Catalan the region’s official language—this after the language was banned for four decades under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who had died in 1975. In the words of a 2014 report from the Catalan Ministry of Culture, the policy “constituted the basis on which the population of Catalonia would become one sole people, free of dynamics differentiated by language.”

In addition to mass media, schools would also become a key vehicle for the propagation of the Catalan language. The 1983 law required that public schools in the region use Catalan—a romance language similar to Spanish that is today spoken by some 9 million people—as the primary mode of instruction. This and similar policies aimed to reclaim the Catalan identity that Franco had attempted to annihilate. And now that Madrid has suspended Catalonia’s autonomy following the region’s contested declaration of independence, scholars argue the sacredness of Catalan identity is key to understanding Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis since the end of Franco’s regime. Meanwhile, a region whose leaders pushed for full independence from Spain now finds itself stripped, at least temporarily, of the powers it did have, including control over its education system.

Spanish nationalists have blamed Catalan-language instruction as a sinister force for fostering separatist sentiments. But the question of language and identity is much more complicated, as is Catalonia’s history of using its classrooms to foster unity. …

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