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Citizenship Education in Germany

Inken Heldt Dirk Langen

/ 12 Minuten zu lesen

Learn more about the situation of Citizenship Education in Germany with a focus on the definition, the ecosystem of non-formal CE, the legal environment as well as on stakeholders, challenges and educational offers. To understand the situation in Germany, a review of the country’s history is necessary.

Germany (© bpb)

1. Background Information/Brief History

The history of citizenship education in Germany is closely linked to the experience of totalitarian rule in the early days of its democracy. The development of democratic attitudes within Germany was understood to be an indispensable ingredient in building a stable democracy in the Federal Republic after 1945 and in reunited Germany again in 1989. The failure of the Weimar democratic experiment and the ease with which Hitler took over Germany in 1933 was seen as due in part to the educational systems, which were themselves anti-democratic and authoritarian, and unable to bring the idea of democratic values across.

Although the strategies of the four occupying powers differed considerably in terms of purpose, content and method, all agreed that the development of a stable democracy would require more than citizens who paid lip-service to democratic principles and reluctantly tolerated a democratic order imposed on them by the occupation authorities. This diagnosis emphasized that mere transmission of information on the logic behind democratic systems was insufficient. A focus on developing democratic attitudes and practices rather than imposing certain ideas ‘from above’ was required. ‘Democracies need democrats’ soon emerged as the underlying credo for the concept of citizenship education, valid even today.

By the 1960s, new left-wing approaches took the argument further, demanding a more emancipatory take on citizenship education, encouraging people to question authority and if necessary, to resist it. Opposed to this were approaches that took a more ‘rationalist’, less politicalized stand, emphasizing the value of information and reflection rather than political activism. One believed that the goal of citizenship education was to help citizens make rational judgements; the other believed it was to teach citizens how to emancipate themselves from those who might seek to seize power. Because of the socio-political demands made by citizenship education, the debate was at times bitterly contested. At its root, it reproduced the controversy on scientific theory taking place between critical rationalism and critical theory.

After German reunification in 1989, ‘re-education’ was seen as a necessary antidote to years of intensive indoctrination under the totalitarian regime. Again, it was reiterated that the internalisation of democratic values and practices would be the most effective in eradicating anti-democratic ideas among the population. Citizenship education in Germany is non-partisan but not impartial; it is grounded in the values and interpretation of democracy found in the Constitution, Germany’s most basic laws. In its initial phase of emergence, citizenship education was derived from the closely related fields of education and political science, and it was not until the 1960s that the programme developed into an independent academic discipline. Ever since, it has demanded the right to deliberate over questions concerned with planning, actualizing, and assessing citizenship education processes; this role involves empirical research, (normative) reflection, and designing and implementing learning processes.

2. Definition

The precise definition of citizenship education has long been contested. The debate centres on what knowledge should be applied, what academic disciplines are most worth considering regarding the topics of citizenship education content and which conceptual frameworks are most promising in regard to an efficient and meaningful teaching and learning.

Different positions have coalesced throughout the ongoing academic debate. The first attempts were made in re-establishing political science as the benchmark discipline for citizenship education. The second model utilizes a variety of fields from within the social sciences, giving each their respective importance, in an effort to mediate citizenship education. The third perspective refers largely to democratic discourse and citizenship engagement. The fourth position emphasizes the individual subject, and uses learners’ prior knowledge as its point of reference.

What the first three approaches have in common is that they place the centre of citizenship education firmly in academics, whether in political science, the social sciences or the study of democracy. The fourth has disengaged from the demands made by institutional academia, and instead favours individuals´ perceptions as a point of departure, in order to develop subject-centred approaches.

Each different framework translates into different learning goals and objectives pursued in the classroom, speaking in varying degrees to theoretical models of citizenship such as the Liberal, the Citizenship Republican and the Critical Model. The Liberal approach to citizenship education is focused on creating autonomous citizens who can act towards supporting their own self-interest. It is focused on enhancing individuals’ basic level of citizenship knowledge and their dispositions towards engagement. The Citizenship Republican approach emphasizes the need for citizens to be actively engaged within a community as equal and free citizens. The approach stresses citizenship responsibility in acting for the common good. The Critical approach focuses on improving and critiquing society through political action and social change. This approach is based on the idea of empowerment, social justice and the critique of the status quo. In 2016 a catalogue of basic principles, the ‘Frankfurt Declaration: For a Critical Emancipatory Education’ was published by scholars from the Critical school of thought. It aimed to realign the debate about the objectives and topics of citizenship education towards a more transformative approach to citizenship education. The declaration focuses on six key areas: crisis, controversy, criticism of power, reflexivity, empowerment and changes.

Despite competing ideas of citizenship education, widespread agreement exists in three basic principles known as the ‘Beutelsbacher Consensus’. In 1976, a conference of educationalists formed different didactic schools addressing the need to avoid indoctrination. Education as propaganda and as a means of brainwashing citizens has been an especially sensitive issue in the Federal Republic because of former Nazi and communist indoctrination policies. The conference participants agreed on a set of guidelines emphasizing the notion of `objective´, value-neutral education. The first principle prohibits educators from overwhelming students with political opinions, attitudes or values. Any kind of indoctrination contradicts the core idea of a self-assuredly critical individual, and is therefore irreconcilable with citizenship education overall. Second, educators are expected to reflect on the variety of perspectives and plurality of interests, and the problems they present. If a topic is controversial in science, politics or society in general, then citizenship education must also teach it as controversial. The third postulates that students are to be taught to analyse their own political interests, and to influence society in a realistic way so as to pursue those interests. The ‘Beutelsbacher Consensus’ has played an eminent role in citizenship education in Germany and continues to act as a fundamental pillar. However, recent critics have been demanding that the normative, underlying assumptions and implications of the consensus should be explicitly questioned as they tacitly speak in favour of the status quo rather than of truly emancipatory notions. The ‘Consensus’ moved into the focus of public debate in 2018. Germany's far-right political party AfD demanded a strict adherence to ‘neutrality’ in citizenship education when teaching controversial or political issues. The party referred, among other things, to the first and second principle of the Beutelsbacher Consensus when arguing that teachers must not promote political or value-based views in classrooms but provide a balanced presentation of opposing views, including right-wing views. The AFD's advance has sparked public outcry. Authorities, educational institutions and advocacy groups have made it clear that neutrality towards right-wing views is itself a political choice and it is one that bolsters racism and antisemitism. Germany’s school authority soon published a declaration making it clear that classroom practice should not be value-neutral but is obliged to take a stand for human rights and democratic values. Indeed, teachers are legally prohibited from advocating or disparaging political parties, however, at the same time they have a legal responsibility to counteract positions that put antisemitism, racism and discrimination against LGBT+ people or any other form of discrimination forward.

3. Ecosystem of Non-formal Citizenship Education

The system of non-formal citizenship education in Germany is characterised by a diversity of 16 federal states, known as Länder, each defining their own priorities and goals regarding education, which therefore allows for a decentralised system for non-formal education. There are, however, some general, overarching policies and some federal funds. The ‘Kinder- und Jugendplan des Bundes’ is the main federal subsidiary fund that allows for diversity in non-formal citizenship education. It finances a variety of non-governmental organizations and regional centres, ensuring diversified and impartial approaches to citizenship education. The situation of non-formal citizenship education is characterized by a range of provision from agencies outside the direct responsibility of the federal or regional governments, placing special emphasis on diversity of education. Since 2019 and 2020, when a group of civil society organizations engaged in adult education lost their non-profit status, non-formal education providers in Germany have feared that authorities are curtailing political discourse in civil society. In a decision published in 2019, Germany’s supreme court for tax and customs matters held that the activist group ATTAC was no longer eligible for non-profit status due to its general political activity and its calls for concrete actions and demands. The German Fiscal Code provides that companies that directly serve the public good qualify for tax-exempt status. According to the court, the furtherance of adult education requires discussing political questions with an open mind but may not be used to advance specific political objectives. The survival of many non-formal education organizations is endangered if their non-profit status is revoked.

4. Educational Offers in Terms of Content, Purpose, Method and Philosophical Affiliation.

Non-formal citizenship education is carried out through a variety of governmental and non-governmental agencies. These include schools, colleges, publicly-funded adult education institutions, trade unions and churches. Germany's history accounts for the important role taken by institutions which are, in some cases, necessarily unique to Germany; this is true especially for the variety of political and religious foundations and the Federal Agency for Citizenship Education (BpB). The latter is amongst the Federal Ministry of the Interior’s executive agencies, and is involved in both formal and non-formal citizenship education. It has regional branch offices in 15 states. The foundations are affiliated with established political parties or religious communities in terms of their political, intellectual, philosophical or religious orientation, but they are independent of the parties and churches and they offer a variety of educational services.

5. Legal Environment of Formal Citizenship Education

Citizenship education in schools is categorized under the cultural authority of the respective German states, which means its importance as a subject varies from federal state to federal state. With regard to its place in the curriculum, citizenship education is structured as its own subject. While situated within a normative framework of democratic values and human rights, the subject is non-partisan as it does not educate citizens exclusively in their relation to the state. It does not simply aim at maintaining the democratic status quo but rather, seeks to develop citizens’ ability to judge and act, which thus enables them to rethink and reframe citizenship principles and structures, especially those involving critical thinking and political participation. Citizenship education claims to be institutionalized as a principle course in all of Germany’s varied formal educational facilities, at every level of education. In practice, however, most schools provide less than the ideal two hours of citizenship education each week.

6. Stakeholders

Alongside school-related activities, another important aspect of citizenship education is the engagement of both younger and older students outside the classroom, in a variety of non-formal learning opportunities sponsored by state and social authorities. Extracurricular citizenship education activities are supported or have been financed by political parties, unions, trade associations, foundations, religious and spiritual communities, the media, academies, independent institutions, and initiatives that pursue citizenship education due to their commitment to political ideals. Recently, however, public institutions have been withdrawing financial support within the field, thus causing private funding for citizenship education to increase, often implicitly or explicitly advocating partial norms and values.

Non-formal citizenship education increasingly competes with educational offerings that are tied more closely to the issue of employability and economic needs, which prompts the need for a discussion to ensure that employability and its educational programmes do not displace critical citizenship.

7. Challenges

Concerning research needs, the major challenge for citizenship education in Germany at present is to further build upon the international discourse and international research base that already does exist, so as to further develop into an independent academic discipline. Regarding empirical research, attention should be given to what is known as citizenship awareness , a subject-centred approach referring to individuals’ intuitive ideas about the social and political world. The citizenship awareness approach calls into question any teaching that focuses upon the exhaustive coverage of citizenship education knowledge or normative dispositions that do not include the meaning it implicitly possesses for the learners. Instead, the approach sets out to propose an alternative to normative approaches of citizenship education that usually draw from liberal, republican and critical theories (see ‘definition’), by placing more of an obligation and value on individual meaningfulness. The citizenship awareness approach means putting the learner at the centre of the process. Elaborating on the assumptions that inform individuals’ mind-sets and being able to discuss these will help students to truly understand citizenship issues, not just to learn towards a specific end. Accordingly, a working knowledge of research findings on learners’ conceptions of the political-social reality might well be considered fundamental to the professional preparation of educators in this field.

In recent years, German public discourse has become increasingly xenophobic. Also, hate speech has become more common. The rapid rise of right-wing populism and racist attacks has become a major cause for concern. Especially in times of crisis, the right-wing positions score with exclusionist slogans and allegedly simple ‘solutions’ for any perceived problem. The constant Islamo- and xenophobic discourse emanating from the extreme right has had an impact on the mainstream political discourse and has gained considerable influence over the online discussion. Citizenship education in Germany indisputably has a key role to play in advancing society’s political discourse on anti-democratic tendencies and on pluralism in Germany, and in contributing to a more integrated society in terms of minorities and social classes.

Another current area singled out for advancement is the central role of participatory citizenship in dealing with climate change and the transformation to a sustainable economic (de-)growth model. Thirdly, a focus is on digital citizenship education. Digitalisation plays a crucial role in shaping political, economic and social life and needs to be critically reflected upon across all its social, ecological, economic and political dimensions. Core aspects include the mechanism, possibilities and limits of online platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and Google and its impact on democratic culture, sustainable global economy and individual autonomy.



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