"Political education" is an expression I have struggled with. Not because of its meaning in German, which I have grown used to during my year of volunteering, but because of its translation in other languages. I try to find words for "politische Bildung" and I can not decide between "political education" (a very literal word-to-word translation) and civic education. The latest seems to be the most beloved one in reports, academic articles and instutional Internet sites. Still, I am not happy leaving the powerful "political" behind and deciding to use "civic" instead, which I associate with an ambivalence I would not like to share in my article. Both "political" and "civic" come from the word "city", Greek and Latin roots respectively: it has something to do with the city, with its estructures, with its citizen, with the way resources and decisions are dealt with.
During my year of volunteering, I have talked about this topic in different contexts and settings, both very homogeneous and full of diversity. I have met different questions and opinions, but there is an assumption that has kept coming over and over. The idea that political education is a form of indoctrination, namely that political education consist on the promotion, almost adversiting, of a political party within the context of the elections or that it revolves around the reproduction of propaganda. Ironically enough, political education has quite the opposite goal: "consolidating values such as democracy, pluralism and tolerance in the consciousness of its population", according to the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education). Political education deals at its very core with democracy as a system and it goes beyond parties, positions and content-oriented education programms. Its aim revolves around developing key skills like critical thinking, diversity and tolerance awareness, knowledge of the political and legal system (of Gemarny in this case!) and the value of dialogue, disagreeing and listening to different opinions in the context of democracy.
In an overview of political education for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung by Arne Cremer, political education is understood as a State´s responsability, speacily "considering Germany's experience with various forms of dictatorial rule down through its history". The overview points out that "the Federal Republic of Germany bears a unique responsibility to firmly anchor values such as democracy, pluralism, solidarityand tolerance in people's social conduct". This key values are interdisciplinar and they can be reflected on, learned and practiced through a variety of formal and non-formal education proposals. Sometimes, political education workshop deal with historical facts like Nacionalsocialism or the German Democratic Republic in East Germany (GRD). This might sound like your typical History class, but it has an interesting twist. The aim of approaching these topics is quite focused on reflexion and interdisciplinar question. Which role do times of economical and political crises play in the rising of totalitarism and dictatorships? How are populist narratives built up and how do they rethorically work? What does extremism means? What are the limits of freedom of speech? What does diversity means? Some of these questions do not have a "yes or no" answer and they open a spectrum of positions. Understanding the past is quite often a key to changing or present and shaping the future.
Political education does not happen "at once", it is a lifelong learning process, something very interesting if we take into account that societies do change, political systems do change and our understanding of important topics like social justice or integration does also change. For that reason, the process of getting "politically" educated is never closed: it is always an open possibility and a practical thing that enables us to participate in society, to get active and learn how to share our positions, how to listen to other, how to reach agreements and how to be aware of our rights, obligations and position as citizens* and people who live in the country.
During a conference in the small town of Beutelsbacher, the so-called "Beutelsbacher Konsens" was achieved. It contains the three basic and minimum standars of political and religious education in Germany. Even if developed during the seventies, these principles still apply today! One of them has already been addressed in this reportage, but it is of such importance that it must be properly explained: manipulation and indoctrination are not allowed. The aim of political education is to promote participation, democratic values, dialogue and tolerance. The compass of political education are probably human rights and the basis of democracy, but it is against the aim of civic education to manipulate students or participants in a particular direction. Secondly, diversity, diversity, diversity! Having different opinions, different ways of seeing reality, different needs and different ways of expression is not bad... it is necessary. Alternatives should be discussed, controversy in political topics must be addressed and there should be enough room for contrary opinions, that must be taken into account. This leads me to the final point: political education should be adapted to the needs and skills of participants and have a focus on empowerment. The key word here would be probably participation and independent judgement.
Working during a year in the field of political education has confronted me with my own views on social justice and democratic learning, with my own approach to non formal education and my ability to deal with diversity and made everyone felt listened to as a facilitator. I have had the opportunity to co-facilitate workshops on topics related to German history, which was an on-going learning experience. Moreover, it has enriched my "skills backpack" with new methods and tools, like interactive tools to work with young people (I am thinking about Actionbound, check them out!). Making this kind of workshops happen in the classroom, during the weekend activities, in the context of a youth exchange, was a very powerful reminder that talking to each other and building up on democratic values actually do lead to change. That listening is hard, but necessary. That moving forward is possible. And for that I am grateful.
*This reportage is an introduction to the topic of political education in Germany. I would like to point out that by using "citizens and people who live in the country" I try to address the population of our country and not reduce it to the (legal!) concept of citizenship. Still, I am aware that having the German citizenship is a privilege and that there are some democratic participation process in which people who do not have this official requirement can not take part.
** The image "Justice for all" is published under a Creative Commons license. Its creator, Shraddha Mandale, has created a beautiful alphabet centered around the children´s rights and education. You can check the project "Educating letters" here!