„If society has an itch, it scratches education.” Demokratiebildung als Antwort auf Krisen

“If society has an itch, it scratches education.” Citizenship education in times of crisis 

Author: Isabelle-Christine Panreck 

Many teachers would agree with Karl Sweeney’s assessment: “[I]f society has an itch, it scratches education.”1 Schools mainly come into public consciousness when social problems are discussed: at worst the education sector is suspected to be responsible for them, at best schools are seen as a promising approach to address social issues. Thematically, schools have to deal with a broad spectrum of political requests: Initiatives to foster healthy eating, to promote digital competencies, road safety education as well as preventing drowning accidents by providing swimming classes are part of the wider curriculum.  

Each task is of particular importance, because education certainly means more than teaching the alphabet or algebra. Yet, the amount of requests can overwhelm school communities: Whereas a political demand is quickly verbalized, the implementation into school practice is much more complicated. This holds particularly true for the citizenship education: Its aspiration to empower students for self-determined and responsible participation in political processes is an important step towards the fulfilment of the liberal democratic promise of universal freedom and equality. Further, schools have the duty to foster resilience against anti-democratic forces and safeguard students from radicalisation.2 

In recent years concerns about the stability of liberal democratic systems have grown. Consequently, the calls for an expansion of civic education are becoming louder.3 Indeed, the publicly discussed crisis of democracy seems to be severe: On the one hand Europe faces social polarization, on the other hand the political sphere is shaped by debates which follow the “TINA-principle” (“There is No Alternative”). People’s trust in political elites and the number of party members are declining. Moreover, the relationship between state and society seems to be imbalanced – the list goes on. Crises as well as their causes do not stop at borders: Throughout Europe right-wing populist and right-wing extremist forces raise the pressure; partly in parliamentarian opposition, like in France or Germany, partly in governmental responsibility, like in Poland or Hungary.4 

As Sweeny’s quotation illustrates, citizenship education is not uncontestedly on the rise in Germany: societal conflicts and crises keep democracies in suspense throughout Europe. Thus also the United Kingdom deepens programmes to strengthen student’s commitment to democracy and to prevent them from radicalisation. The comparison of British and German paths to citizenship education unveil huge historical differences, yet both face similar challenges in current implementation of measures to promote democracy in schools. The efforts of curricular citizenship education in the Federal Republic have their roots in the aftermath of the Second World War as a reaction to the Nazi dictatorship. In contrast, the United Kingdom hesitated to implement citizenship education into the curricula. In the most populated nation, England, “Citizenship” only became a mandatory subject in Secondary Schools in 2002. Despite this difference, debates in the scientific community as well as in teacher’s rooms in Germany and England are occupied with questions revolving around appropriate answers to populist and extremist strategies and the teaching of controversial issues. 

The project “Citizenship Education in Great Britain and Germany” aims to narrow a research gap: Comparative introductions into the British and German approaches – already rare – mainly give either only a short overview or they are outdated.5 The study compares the different concepts of civic education, its contemporary characteristics and its historical pathways. It provides insight into the ideals of democracy and statehood mirrored by education policy. Further, the research is aimed at finding recommendations for political reform, inspired by other case. Shortly: To what extend can the British case be a role model for the German case and vice versa?  

Curricular measures to strengthen democracy will not lose relevance in the coming years as liberal-democratic systems neither face their first nor their last crisis. Pointedly, already Karl R. Popper stated in The Open Society and its Enemies: “Our dream of heaven cannot be realized on earth.”6 At first sight, this might lead to disillusion. But Popper wants to prevent misguided utopias. Some decades later, the Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe – certainly arguing from a different angle – convincingly explains that crises and conflicts lie at democracy’s heart. Liberal democracy constantly has to regain people’s trust in its institutions; the establishing and stabilizing of  democratic systems resembles a permanent building site. 

Crises can have many faces. Certainly, they cannot be foreseen as the current COVID-19 pandemic illustrates. During the outbreak, politicians strive to maintain teaching – in classrooms or at least remotely. But in future, the pandemic and the political reactions to it will surely occupy curricular Citizenship lessons – because of the presence of conspiracy theories, the tension of protecting health and the restriction of fundamental freedoms or the public debates on science and truth. 

The empowerment of students is an essential part of curricular education. Citizenship education has the duty to discuss controversial issues, to strengthen student’s abilities to handle conflicts and crises in a democratic way. These goals of civic education should neither be pushed to the margins by the huge amount of political requests nor should they lead to a heavy burden for teachers. Researchers have a responsibility to contribute to the success of this balancing act. Scientific findings are not only relevant in the academic sphere, they can and should support didactics and their day-to-day work in schools: as a pool of useful insights into school politics as well as guidance for practical challenges, like discussing controversial issues in the classroom. 

Reading Recommendation:

Carole Hahn/Ian Davies/James Arthur (Ed.), The SAGE handbook of education for citizenship and democracy, Los Angeles 2008.

Heinz Ulrich Brinkmann/Isabelle-Christine Panreck (Ed.), Rechtspopulismus in Einwanderungsgesellschaften, Wiesbaden 2019.

Carl Deichmann / Michael May (Ed.), Orientierungen politischer Bildung im „postfaktischen Zeitalter“, Wiesbaden 2019.

  1. Karl Sweeney, A Subversive Guide to teaching Fundamental British Values. In: Teaching Citizenship (2017) 45, pp. 16-21, 17. []
  2. Cp. Department for Education, The Prevent Duty. Departmental advice for schools and childcare providers, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/439598/prevent-duty-departmental-advice-v6.pdf; 5.6.2020; Home Office, Prevent and Channel Factsheet, https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/12/19/prevent-and-channel-factsheet/; 10.8.2020); Kultusministerkonferenz, Demokratie als Ziel, Gegenstand und Praxis historisch-politischer Bildung und Erziehung in der Schule. Beschluss der Kultusministerkonferenz vom 06.03.2009 in der Fassung vom 11.10.2018, https://www.kmk.org/fileadmin/Dateien/veroeffentlichungen_beschluesse/2009/2009_03_06-Staerkung_Demokratieerziehung.pdf; 11.6.2020. []
  3. See particularly: Michael May, „Der Herausforderung entgegentreten“. Zum Verhältnis von politischer Bildung und Rechtspopulismus. In: Isabelle-Christine Panreck (Ed.), Populismus – Staat – Demokratie. Ein interdisziplinäres Streitgespräch, Wiesbaden 2020, pp. 111-133, 111-113. []
  4. See Cas Mudde, Populismus in Europa: Von den Rändern zum Mainstream. In: Totalitarismus & Demokratie 17 (2020) 1, pp. 13-34, 19-23. []
  5. The well-known study from 1970 is outdated. Cp. Klaus Schleicher, Politische Bildung in England 1939 bis 1965, Heidelberg 1970; an overview on the website of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education is quite short: Cp. David Kerr, Citizenship Education in the UK, https://www.bpb.de/veranstaltungen/netzwerke/nece/214156/citizenship-education-in-the-uk?p=all; 10.6.2020. First insights can be found here: Ben Kisby / James Sloam, Citizenship, Democracy and Education in the UK. Towards a Common Framework for Citizenship Lessons in the Four Home Nations. In: Parliamentary Affairs, 65 (2011) 1, pp. 68–89; Daniel Faas, The Nation, Europe, and Migration. A comparison of geography, history, and citizenship education curricula in Greece, Germany, and England, in: Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43 (2011) 4, pp. 471–492; Anne Sliwka, Vorbild auch für Deutschland. „Education for Citizenship“ in England. In: Wolfgang Edelstein / Peter Fauser (Ed.), Beiträge zur Demokratiepädagogik, Berlin 2005, pp. 1–10. []
  6. Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume Edition, Princeton 1994, p. 189. []

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