Why are schools politically liberal?

Political education

Much has been written in recent years about the question of how civic education should react to the challenges that arise in the context of the newly strengthened right-wing populism in Germany. [1] The perspective of these contributions is mostly aimed at deriving action perspectives through a more precise definition of problem areas. [2] As a rule, however, these remain very general and are not institutionalized. There is agreement that political education has a central and worthy task in the context of current challenges. At the same time, it is by no means clear how this task could actually be achieved. [3] How can and should civic education in schools react to the increasing aggressiveness, brutalization of content and extreme polarization of the political disputes that have recently been lamented? How is the school itself affected by these phenomena? How can and should it position itself as a state institution on social and political conflict situations, and what challenges arise in this context?

These questions are the starting point for this article. With regard to the argumentation, there are four central steps in which the problem situation, its visible effects in the school as an institution and the behavior of the teachers are examined and finally it is discussed which difficulties and prospects for action arise with regard to dealing with it with right-wing populist challenges in school.

What is the problem?

Let us first turn to the first point: Can right-wing populism as a growing political force be described not only, but also in the Federal Republic as a problem or challenge of political education? In view of the not inconsiderable approval that they receive, should right-wing populist positions not be discussed in educational contexts as relevant political positions alongside others? Aren't teachers in the field of political education absolutely obliged to integrate them into their lessons as equal positions? Quite a few teachers ask themselves these questions. Many find it difficult to develop an answer. Because it cannot be denied that these positions are virulent in public, take up a lot of space and are represented by and within parties that are present in parliaments and are not forbidden. At the same time, however, it must also be noted that in the course of the rise of right-wing populist movements across Europe, tendencies towards the delimitation of public communication can be observed, xenophobic resentments, nationalist-folk concepts and - especially in Germany - the relativization of responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism entail. [4]

The sheer existence of misanthropic, racist and revisionist ideas even in the middle of German society is not new. It has been known for some time from relevant research such as the long-term study "German Conditions" led by the Bielefeld social scientist Wilhelm Heitmeyer or the "Mitte Studies". [5] With the strengthening of right-wing populist actors, these attitudes and statements are shifting as concrete political demands into the public space and claiming relevance and recognition more than before. Demands for a turnaround or turning away from central elements of the German culture of remembrance, which in the past were only represented by the NPD, a party with a visibly anti-constitutional profile and close proximity to right-wing extremist cadres and comradeships, [6] are made today by politicians who appear less martial presented. [7] The problem is not the existence of right-wing populist actors or the success of the respective parties, but the shifting of discourse boundaries, the disinhibition with which racist ideas are disseminated and the normalization of nationalist and revisionist concepts in everyday communication that have been specifically prepared by these actors is.

How is the school affected?

This development hits pedagogues "with full force and often unprepared". [8] This is reflected in uncertainty, especially when it comes to the question "whether and in what way they can and are allowed to position themselves on these discourse shifts". [9] These uncertainties are additionally promoted by campaign-like attacks by the AfD on school institutions, as became apparent in 2018, for example, through the so-called reporting platforms. Via these online platforms (which were first activated in Hamburg), schoolchildren and parents can report teachers who express themselves critically about the AfD. [10]

The educational mandates formulated in the state constitutions or school laws are clear. The Saxon School Act, to name just one of the many possible examples, with reference to the German Basic Law and the state constitution of Saxony, the education and training mandate can be inferred that schoolchildren should learn "to meet all people without prejudice, regardless of to their ethnic and cultural origin, outward appearance, their religious and ideological views and their sexual orientation as well as to advocate non-discriminatory coexistence "(§1, paragraph 5, sentence 4) and" causes and dangers of the ideology of National Socialism and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes recognize and counteract them "(§1, paragraph 5, sentence 8). The normative perspective of school education and upbringing is thus clearly defined: Teachers should not behave neutrally in school. Rather, they are given the task of sensitizing young people to democratic values, advocating non-discriminatory coexistence, and finding responsible ways of remembering German history and representing an anti-totalitarian consensus. So far, so clear.

For many educators, uncertainties only arise when they have to grapple with the question of how these educational goals could most sensibly be achieved in everyday practice. Because democratic values ​​cannot simply be prescribed for students to memorize. Non-discrimination needs to be practiced, and it is not easy for everyone to take responsibility for the horrors of German history today. In political education, the problem that appears here is usually resolved by referring to the Beutelsbach consensus. [11] For many years, this has encouraged teachers in Germany not to discuss political issues one-sidedly in class and to support students in developing a self-determined judgment. Controversy must also appear controversial in class. This is where right-wing populist actors such as the AfD come in with their reporting platforms aimed at creating uncertainty. They use the Beutelsbach consensus as a strategic means of establishing extensive border shifts [12] and, according to the political didacticist Helmut Däuble, the "indeed existing duty of neutrality (...) as a fighting term against the existing democratic education system". These attacks are therefore to be understood as a "general attack on the liberal school system" and not as a "slip". [13]

What effects of these social developments are now visible in (everyday) school situations? The basis for answering this question are findings from the project "Strong Teachers - Strong Students". [14] The school development project based on a study by Rico Behrens [15] started in 2015 and aims to support teachers in developing appropriate strategies for dealing with anti-democratic tendencies. One of the initial basic assumptions was that racist and revisionist incidents in school contexts are brought into school as "immature" positions, especially by pupils. This assumption has not been confirmed. Misanthropic positions are also clearly visible among teachers, school administrators, parents or people close to the school such as caretakers, administrative employees or suppliers in school educational contexts. It is precisely then that they are evidently very difficult to work on from an educational point of view. For this reason, in the context of the project it was not uncommon for meetings to take place with highly insecure teachers who feel strongly challenged, if not to say overwhelmed, in their everyday work. Four situations will be sketched as examples: [16]
  • A teacher reported from the parents' evening. A father present that evening was demonstratively wearing a Consdaple T-shirt and also made sure that everyone could see the corresponding label. Consdaple is a clearly far-right clothing label, [17] but how should teachers react to parents who wear these clothes in school?
  • Through the window of a classroom, a teacher observed the arrest of some students by a special task force of the police. It was only in the context of the news reporting that evening that she realized that the operation had been directed against a suspected right-wing terrorist cell. As a result, the Federal Prosecutor's Office took over the investigation, and the arrested students were charged and sentenced, among other things for the establishment of a terrorist organization. The teacher tried several times to persuade the school management to discuss the incident with the students - without success. The school management may have feared that overly open discussion could have a negative impact on the school's image.
  • One schoolgirl resisted anti-Semitic agitation, which had repeatedly become visible in the class chat, and thus became the focus of the arguments herself. She unsuccessfully sought support from teachers and finally decided to report classmates to the police. [18]
  • At a workshop on the topic of human rights, the participating students reacted strongly against the learning offer. At the end of the event, they recommended the workshop leader to go to the concentration camp and turn on the gas chamber. [19]

How do teachers react?

Schools and extracurricular educational institutions are not spared from the social conflicts. Even in educational contexts, concepts with a connection to the extreme right can be said without any immediate consequences. Populist language, staged breaking of political taboos together with social challenges such as refugee and migration movements have brought what studies on right-wing extremist or misanthropic attitudes have long described as a phenomenon from the middle of society [20] into the public consciousness. Xenophobia, racism and other dimensions of group-related misanthropy or ideas of inequality are not phenomena that have been overcome. For some time now, they have been pushing their way back into public attention through observable behavior. While some are frightened of the return of authoritarian, völkisch and nationalist ideas, others are encouraged to update such concepts in the context of newly emerging protest movements and parties and bring them back into the discourse as "normal" positions. [21]

Teachers often react with great reluctance to anti-democratic incidents. There are several reasons for this. It is not uncommon for teachers to have difficulties in perceiving incidents as such, because they do not recognize them as misanthropic and / or they often occur outside of the classroom, for example in the class chat, in the school yard, in the teachers 'room or at parents' evening. Therefore, the problematic question arises for them as to who declares themselves responsible for dealing with or resolving the corresponding conflicts. For example, teachers often do not feel called to comment on the behavior of parents or colleagues in the school context. In addition, they often experience incidents like the examples presented as practical tests in which they have to prove their ability to act and "win" the dispute. [22] The stress that is associated with this often means that teachers do not even get involved in the challenges. Of course, this does not mean that evasive behavior is equally explosive in all educational contexts. Many teachers, school administrators and educational specialists are not only committed, but also work professionally and successfully in their respective educational environment. Nonetheless, a more detailed analysis regularly reveals possible didactic cliffs and recommendations for action that arise when dealing with misanthropic positions in the school.

Perspectives for action

Ignoring challenging situations is the worst way to react to inhuman statements and behavior in a school context. In the political didactic literature this problem is also described as an "indifference trap". [23] That means: In every educational situation the clear democratic-human rights-oriented attitude of teachers should be recognizable. This is especially true when actors normalize inhuman or historical revisionist statements and thus try to push the "limits of what can be said". Teachers in the context of political education are not allowed to participate in this under any circumstances. Legalistic arguments in which teachers or educational specialists refer to the fact that they are only asked to act in school-based educational contexts if legal violations become visible in the legal sense [24] are inappropriate. In educational institutions, impulses for action cannot only be legitimized by behavior that is relevant to criminal law.

At the same time, it is important not to overreact and thus not to get caught up in provocations that are presented in the form of misanthropic statements. This can easily happen. Classification in "friend-foe" categories is also not very helpful in this context. In educational situations it remains important to keep in contact with people where possible. For example, house rules, school models and an institutional understanding of the self or model can provide orientation in conflict situations and help to arrive at coordinated courses of action. However, they should not be formulated so narrowly that individual decisions are no longer possible. In this sense, it is not advisable, for example, to ban the commentary on political questions or problems about clothing. Clothing, hairstyles and habitus always express attitudes. You cannot be kept out of educational institutions. Schools and other educational institutions should not be non-political places. Generalized devaluation constructions and misanthropic statements - also in symbolic forms - are to be avoided, however. In this sense, a peace sticker is something different from a historical revisionist slogan on a T-shirt.

In political education, the Beutelsbach Consensus is a well-anchored and clearly defined idea of ​​how political indoctrination can be avoided, controversy can be guaranteed and student orientation can be realized. Unfortunately, there are also misunderstandings in this context. It is therefore important to emphasize that the Beutelsbach consensus is not to be equated with political neutrality. Rather, it is bound by value in the sense of the Basic Law. He calls for democratic values ​​such as pluralism and human rights to be at the center of educational processes. Antiplural, misanthropic or racist positions must therefore not be treated as controversies on an equal footing. It would be very problematic, for example, if teachers were involved in educational situations in marking certain groups as strange or different. This as othering The processes described appear openly or covertly and have both individual and structural consequences through the construction of supposed inferiority and superiority. Othering becomes visible on different levels: in structural exploitation and disadvantage, in signs or objects, in jokes or certain terms, but also in assumptions or prejudices against certain people or groups.

The self-confidence and emotional force with which broad sections of the population have made their political frustration visible almost overnight have given rise to a wide range of new formats for dialogue events and citizens' talks, and not just on a political level.In this context, the victims of racist, sexist, homophobic or inhuman hostility are less of a focus. The same applies to school contexts. When dealing with extremist and revisionist ideas, teachers often pay close attention to preventive approaches. Against the background of increasing right-wing populism, however, these concepts often fall short. Therefore, the perspective of those affected must always be taken into account when reflecting on pedagogical strategies. Teachers often fear that by addressing racist and revisionist incidents in school they will first make the relevant concepts accessible and familiar to their students. With this idea, there is often also the hope that the majority of the pupils have not yet noticed the issue, which was perceived as problematic. Experience has shown that both these fears and these hopes are unfounded. Schoolchildren are usually well informed about the corresponding "problems" or phenomena long before their teachers and therefore do not fall for it easily. The developments in Web 2.0 and digital media in particular make problem-oriented handling necessary.

The idea that racist, sexist or misanthropic statements in educational situations can only be dealt with through lessons is also extremely widespread and unhelpful. Arguments like this sometimes also serve as a relief strategy. After all, according to a popular argumentation, "after a certain incident in the school context, you can't regularly change the timetable". This makes pedagogical action impossible. Instead of wanting to solve everything in class, one-on-one discussions with students and further processing settings are possible and useful. They too belong in the teaching staff's toolkit and are not to be delegated exclusively to school social workers. Teachers also tend towards a culture of lone warriors. When dealing with challenging cases, they often only seek collegial support late on. This is problematic from two perspectives. On the one hand, discussions about these challenges often have to be dealt with systemically. On the other hand, networks between colleagues, but also between teachers and those involved in extracurricular prevention work, are always important when educational staff is the object of political attacks. In all federal states there is mobile school advice or democratic education initiatives that can provide support in this context.

Particularly in times when liberal democracy is facing challenges, civic education often quickly falls on the defensive and the legitimacy of existing structures and procedures becomes obsolete. In this sense, in view of right-wing populist developments, extensive criticism of the media and experts as well as a not inconsiderable Euroscepticism (to name just a few aspects), teachers might feel compelled to emphasize the effectiveness of the political system in their lessons and to use publicly law media praise and sing a song about Europe. Legitimation is not the task of political education in a democracy. It should therefore never remain stuck in the existing, but always be open to new societal challenges based on values ​​and to look for new solutions.