SOS historical-political education

by Karl Müller

It is a look into the microcosm of real existing historical-political education of German high school graduates, i.e. young women and men being of age, being able to assume all political rights (and duties) and having attended a type of school which is supposed to enable them to study at a university. Within a few years, these young people should exercise responsible tasks in society, business and politics.
A teacher has written down some passages of the school leaving certificate of his pupils. The pupils volunteered for a written “Abiturprüfung” (high school exam) in the subject History/Social Studies, they could also have chosen another subject.
What did these students write in their personal “Abiturarbeiten” (maturity research)?

From the personal maturity research of German students

As a reply to the question about the German electoral system, one could read for example:
“In each federal state, the parties field exactly 1 deputy [...]”
Or:
“On the ballot one can twice once for a person whether it is a free mandate or even a party doesn’t matter. This one elected I want that he represents me in the ‘Bundestag’ [...]” (The spellings of the high-school graduates have been taken over without correction.)
Or:
“First, the voting citizens elect a party. This party then elects MPs for the Bundestag [...]”.
In connection with the resistance against Adolf Hitler we read:
“Among the beginners of Hitler’s rule was the Waimarer constitution (also called Karlsbach Decisions).[…].”
Or:
“Hitler introduced senseless restructuring such as the Nuremberg Laws [...].”
Related to the time of change in the GDR and the accession to the Federal Republic of Germany, the students wrote:
“[...] there were Monday demonstrations, [...] the state presidents were also eliminated and the state parties were banned. Thus the borders loosened. Through the GDR Federal Chancellor’s death, Willy Brandt found his way and could now go his way and realise (‘umsätzen!’) his ideas and created a loosening of the entire state and the entire borders [...]. The reunion could happen.”
Or:
“With the new ‘Reichskanzler’ Willy Brandt and the completely new President Mikhail Gorbachev a ‘new’ agenda ruled. It loosened up, demonstrations were allowed in the 70s, there were youth revolts [...]”
In the description and interpretation of a caricature it was said:
“The caricature wants to depict the situation in the nineteenth century, where Berlin was divided into two sectors. The FRG wanted peace with the GDR [...] Honecker rejects the “Reformkost” (health food!), the help of the FRG [...].”
Or:
“The caricature belongs to the historical context when Mikhail Gorbachev took the place of Josef Stalin and wanted to introduce new reforms, not only in the Soviet Union, but also in its Soviet occupation zone.”
Or:
“Mikhail Gorbachev superseded Stalin, the dictator of the USSR. He fought for a reunion [...]. He was keen to help the GDR and together with the former Federal President Konrad Adenauer he fought for a united Germany [...]. With the fall of the Wall on 9 November 90, the united Germany begun to ‘roll’ [...].

No reason for a know-it-all attitude ... but extremely alarming

Now it is not appropriate to laugh at these German high school graduates or to place oneself above them in a know-it-all attitude. These young people certainly tried to give their best. Nevertheless, what is shown here is extremely alarming – because it represents no exception, but the tip of an iceberg. The author of these lines, himself teacher of history and social studies at a German school, can confirm this.
As a teacher, you are pleased about every student who begins to think historically and politically, who wants to understand the interconnections and backgrounds moving people’s life and living conditions earlier and today. But on the whole, these are actually few ones. This is a problem even in times of solid social and political order, especially in times when it becomes inevitable that the citizen steps before his own front door in order to restore public affairs.
After the end of the Second World War, some constitutions of German federal states had declared the subject of social studies (or civics or politics) to be a subject of instruction for all schools and all pupils. This subject was placed within the framework of a social and political ethics oriented towards social well-being. That had good reasons. At that time, we knew how important a good historical-political education is for the growing human being’s search for identity and how important it is for the development and the preservation of a living democracy.

What belongs to historical-political education?

Historical and political education includes a solid knowledge of historical and political basic concepts, of important historical events, of historical and contemporary chronology, of historical and contemporary historical connections, as well as of classical civic knowledge about the citizens’ political rights and duties and about the structure and functioning of the state and its organs. This is not all, but only in this way a foundation is laid for the young person to be able to take over responsibility for coexistence and for his community. This solid basic knowledge has no declining “half-life” and cannot be replaced by “key qualifications” or electronic reference materials, as is often claimed.
The causes for the decline of historical-political education can be well discussed. But it makes little sense to focus on the search for “culprits”. Instead, to counteract, a challenge to be addressed by the whole of society is necessary; because various authorities are responsible for historical-political education. It starts with the “family culture” in the parental home, continues through schools and colleges, to the attitude and activities of media, art and culture, economy and politics.

Who benefits from a lack of historical-political education?

Unfortunately, there are also forces that want to benefit from a lack of historical and political education: all manipulation and propaganda techniques are much more effective when they meet a historically and politically deprived audience. Totalitarian systems do not want well-educated, independently thinking and humanly feeling, but rather other young people, for example: “swift as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as steel”.
The hedonistic version of totalitarianism is no better.
Insufficiant historical-political education is also a gateway for distortions and half-truths. If, for example, it is said that the elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany this year have shown that the citizens of Europe would be denying “populism”, but the methods of soft-totalitarianism in the countries of the EU in order to demonize, discriminate and silence every alternative are withheld, then essential facts are simply omitted.
Who – without historical and political education – can read and understand a multi-page text such as the new and very excellent analysis of Seymour M. Hersh on the question of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria in early April 2017 and the US reactions to it (“Syria: Trump’s Red Line”; www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article165905578/Trump-s-Red-Line.html)? Whereas the “fact-finder” of the German “Tageschau” on the evening of the day of the publication of Hersh’s bold, multi-page newspaper text already “knows” that Hersh was not credible, was largely alone with his view of things, and had published “wild ideas”.
And so on.

It is worth thinking about

Switzerland, mother country of democracy, had known very early about the role of her schools. An example is the curriculum of the elementary school of the Canton of Zurich, the Education Council of the canton had issued in 1905, which remained valid for almost 90 years and even today it’s worth thinking about its relevance.
There, among other things, it was said: “The elementary school forms the mind. Starting from the experience, the immediate intuition, it develops the knowledge with constant attention to the child’s perception, as well as by forming correct judgments and firm conclusions.”
It was also said: “The elementary school forms mind and character. It makes the youthful mind receptive to all noble emotions of human inner life, that it be strengthened against the influences of the ugly, the crude, the nasty in inclinations and passions. It forms and promotes the sense of duty, the joy of working, the consolidation in conviction, the sense of faithful, giving, steadfast acting.”
And: “It [the elementary school] lays the foundation for the ability to self-education in the sense of the demands of the enlightenment, of humanity and tolerance.”
Finally: “Thus, the elementary school is a place for a general shaping of human character.”    •

Devaluation of history education not without consequences

“Whether about the Reformation, the French Revolution, Bolshevism or the Holocaust, an increasing number of students know about these things – precisely nothing. This is true even for the history of the 20th century, whose disasters are increasingly sinking into the mists of a hazy past being likely to fall into oblivion. […] We are facing the risk of a widespread historical amnesia.
Our educational system is not innocent of this […]: There has been a persistent departure from the procurement of facts in the classroom, still aggravated by the new curricula based on competencies, which is particularly harmful to a subject such as history where the presenting of facts is of central importance. […] Finally, in many schools history is no longer taught in chronological order but in historical cross-sections such as ‘War and Peace’, ‘The Changing Face of Trade’ or ‘Migration’. This purportedly leads to a deeper understanding of interdependencies, but in actual fact it produces ignorance and superficiality. Clear conceptions of time-related chronology are yielding to a kind of hotchpotch. Historical epochs or periods do no longer exist. […]
Dealing with history in such a derogatory manner, we should not be surprised if young people […] do no longer participate in elections and referenda, if students are increasingly incapable to take account of the lessons of history, for example by learning from social and political conflicts […].”
Source: Mario Andreotti, “Thurgauer Zeitung” from 11 May 2017