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E-Plattform für Erwachsenenbildung in Europa



Where is digital civic adult education?

by Alexander Klier
Sprache: EN
Document available also in: DE

By Alexander Klier, originally published on his blog on 08/12/2015 (The original blogpost contains a number of links in German language, that have not been translated and therefore do not appear in the English version. You can still find them in the German langauge Version


‘On Monday, 20 October 2014, the German Facebook group “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West” (better known by its acronym PEGIDA) took to the streets for the first time, initiating a series of protests that have dominated the headlines for several weeks.’

In an article headed ‘The revolt of those disaffected by democracy’, Simon Teune, author of the quote above, writes about the development of the ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West’ group (PEGIDA).1 For me, the key passage in the chosen quote is the fact that these street protests started out as a Facebook group. A quite unmistakeable indication of how important social media and digital platforms have become for living together in and with society and therefore also for politics and education. On my blog, I have already written at great length about the fundamental significance and functioning of civic adult education social media. Within the context of this article, my goal is not to argue about what PEGIDA, ‘concerned citizens’ and their ilk are doing, what (negatively) characterises them or the manifold connections to organised right-wing extremism. A whole series of interesting blogs have already been written on this subject as well as some initial academic studies, which I will refer to.2 If you are interested in this topic, I would particularly like to point out the diverse range of analyses about the importance of the internet that have already been published by Sascha Lobo in his Spiegel column.3 In this article, I want to write about how fundamentally important the ‘digital world’ has become for the culture of argumentation and discussion within civic adult education. Or rather, how it has not become important. I also want to write about why it is especially important for civic adult education to act through – or within the framework of – social media.

The ‘political being’ and its opinion

‘Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party — though they are quite numerous — is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.’5

I have only recently realised just how right Rosa Luxemburg was when she wrote these words. For quite a while, over the course of my activities in the field of political education, and even from very politically active colleagues – in fact, much more frequently within this circle – I have been confronted by the non-argument that we should ban certain opinions or expressions of intention.6 This is often accompanied by comments that such opinions are only held by morons, ignoramuses and idiots – that is, people not fully accountable for their actions. Somehow, I get the impression that the belief is that if we are to ignore (in the best case) or ban7 (in the worst case) certain statements, the conviction and opinion behind them would also disappear. I’ll happily admit that in that case we certainly wouldn’t need to bother with winning people over with good politics or creating solid arguments. ‘We’ are always automatically on the right side. But – how can this achieve the aims that characterise the work of civic education? Namely, to convince people of the rightness or wrongness of their reasoning and ultimately their opinion?

To this end, it is well worth taking a brief look at a description of politics, which at its core can be understood as the regulation of ‘a commonwealth’s affairs by means of binding decisions’8 and at civic education, which aims to ‘recognise relationships in political events, teach and strengthen tolerance and the ability to take criticism and to embed the rules of the game of democracy’9. I find the idea of humans as innately political creatures particularly useful for this approach. ‘Again, a state is not made up only of so many men, but of different kinds (eîdos) of men; for similars do not constitute a state.’10 I like using this idea, as it comes from Aristotle, who understood and identified humans as naturally different creatures in a ‘polis’ society, that is, as different political animals (zoon politikon).11 It is only logical that different people have different opinions – particularly when it comes to politics. From my point of view, this understanding can now be transferred without problem – or at least, very easily – to civic education in the digital sphere and applied to particular communities or groups.

Civic education ...

‘What is resounding through the streets and squares of Dresden was previously difficult to overlook in other places.’12

Yes, it was difficult to overlook. At least, if you had been keeping an eye on social media. It was also discernible even if one is ‘only’ an observer, which is what makes social media so unique: the increased opportunity – and indeed the very first opportunity in the realm of mass media – to take part in discussions by means of writing articles, commenting, liking and disliking, therefore representing a genuine means of taking part in (political) discourse. But this doesn’t necessarily or automatically lead to a ‘good’ result. And so, ‘a flood of toxic comments ... broaching the issue of Muslims living in Germany’ burst out into ‘the online editions of commercial media outlets’, particularly in the comments sections of articles published online.13 What is now manifesting across a huge range of different channels is at times completely devastating.14 This starts with racist provocation and hate speech, through xenophobic conspiracy theories, all the way to specific calls for violence and the intended or even guided organisation of attacks on refugee shelters. Social media portrays such an uncannily hideous vision of Germany (but also of Europe) that it’s enough to make your blood run cold. And for me, there’s no question about doing something about it. But the question has, of course, already been asked – what can be done to stop this? In particular, what can be effectively done in terms of political (adult) education? After all, one thing is certain – social media and digital platforms have long become an integral part of many extremely different types of adult communities,15 including becoming a part of politics, again understood as the necessary regulation of a commonwealth’s affairs.

... does not work through prohibition, ...

I’m not really surprised that the discussion of banning and censoring tends to be welcomed when it is in connection with deleting Facebook pages with corresponding comments. This too is one way of interpreting the necessary regulation of politics. I believe that there are clear cases and already existing criteria regarding when, for example, deleting a page (and criminal prosecution) is unavoidable:

  • statements inciting hatred and/or

  • specific calls for violence.

However, between this, there are still a huge number of wholly hateful, homophobic, racist, antisemitic and xenophobic ideas. Usually accompanied by extremely problematic socio-political ideas, which are now expressed even in the context of political events in the field of adult education. It is precisely this that should be seen as cause to rewrite civic education online – because these events deal with issues surrounding how a commonwealth’s affairs are to be interpreted in the digital sphere by those affected and, ultimately, experienced in real life.

... but (only) with discourse.

Specifically, it is my view that it has actually always been the task of civic education not to ban such arguments, which, in their strongest form, are carried out into the streets (and thus to believe that they have simply disappeared from the population or people’s minds), but instead to explicitly engage in discussion and thus achieve political persuasion.16 That this issue has seldom been broached before is surely due to the fact that, for a long time, the fundamental question in the field of adult civic education has instead been: how can we even reach our ‘problematic’ clientèle at all? And how can we create an atmosphere in which such persuasive efforts can be effective?17 This question can now also be seen being asked afresh in the context of social media and digital platforms, although it is not fundamentally different. Or rather, a better way of putting it is that social media presents a new chance to directly speak to the key target group. But to do so, one must understand their mode of operation – and how to draw on this in the realm of adult education in particular. For example, by organising educational events and political discourses digitally and conducting them online.18 There is plenty of scope for developing and testing suitable educational opportunities.


(Digital) civic education ...

‘The internet is flooded with comments, digital ubiquity and the feeling of privacy are what make a huge, huge number of people feel free to simply write what they’re thinking.’20

The shift in our daily communication ‘is no longer governed by the evening news, but by Facebook and Twitter feeds.’21 Civic education, particularly civic adult education, has yet to make any allowance whatsoever for this situation. What’s more – and in contrast to the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, incidentally – by and large, civic education continues to be seen as party-civic education and the teaching of institutional knowledge (institutional education).22 In this way of thinking, participation is thus limited to the choice of stakeholders. Until now, civic education in the sense of developing skills, for example democratic and argumentation skills, has only been seen as a topic of civic education in isolation.23 As far as I can see, this should, in turn, apply to the field of civic adult education in particular. There is a complete lack of representation of questions about not only the extent to which the digital sphere and social media can be used to spread information, but also, due to their unique qualities, how they can offer new opportunities for argumentative discussion, co-determination and participation in politics as well as in the field of civic education.24

... needs argumentation, ...

Irrespective of the (lack of) use of the digital sphere, mass media have nevertheless spread and driven a clear shift, at least in public perception of the task of civic education. This can mostly clearly be shown in the scope of argumentation.25 Unfortunately, constructive debate is no longer particular ‘en vogue’ within the current media landscape. The media are usually much more interested in orchestrating clashes of opinions and interests between opposite parties. In most cases, this is then followed by ‘political argumentation’, in which the main aim is usually only to identify opponents and silence them.26 In any case, it is no longer a question of entering into a mutually communicative process, which is a matter of persuading others to such an extent, listening carefully to our opponents, picking up on their arguments and weakening these by the power of one’s own reasoning – or allowing ourselves to be persuaded otherwise. Of course, at this point, I must point out that the process of real debate is riddled with prerequisites.27 It goes without saying that these prerequisites must first be established in a digital context.28

... must not be allowed to stop at schools and ...

A further problem is that civic education continues to primarily be understood as an explicit, exclusive responsibility of schools to their pupils. The reinforces the aforementioned problem that civic education is usually seen within a very limited scope and was originally taught as just one part of social studies education. In contrast, civic adult education is not thought of as a task for the state, but has always been a task – an implicit matter as it were – for institutions of adult education. But in this context, it is rather a matter of the abstract discussion of (party) political concepts and theories of the state. The same still applies whenever an attempt is made to transfer these ideas to a living environment. In this respect, it is absolutely essential that civic adult education, for example, in terms of training democracy and argumentation skills, can find a way to become a serious and binding body of knowledge in all areas of society.29 Ultimately, this must also entail that financial resources are made available for this.

... also needs to happen at a digital level!

However, the core of my argument in this article is this: I believe it is too great a simplification to say that social media is causative for the problematic development described above – even if many stakeholders in the field of adult education have already assumed this.30 In philosophical terms, I would posit a sui generis cause. Such a view is thus, in my eyes, fundamentally wrong and obscures what is currently happening across social media, because while right-wing sentiments, armchair politics and above all right-wing populism are indeed breaking fresh ground, meanwhile racist and right-wing populist resentment – particularly that which is aimed at Islam31 – is deeply rooted in normal, face-to-face daily life and experiences. From my point of view, the problem is not that these opinions exist and are expressed, but that in our daily lives, they are neither critically scrutinised nor discounted with valid arguments. That’s right – not within the context of educational events, but in our daily lives. In this respect, in line with Sascha Lobo’s comments, I would like to expressly emphasise that the use of social media represents a unique opportunity for civic education. Why? In the words of Sascha Lobo, because ‘the grand and the gruesome thing about social media is that it offers us a peek inside the minds of others whilst their thoughts have not yet been fully formulated.’32 Digital media therefore offer deep insights into everyday right-wing populism, anti-Islamic resentment and institutional racism.33 In this sense, social media really does act as a mirror of our society; it is a magnifying glass beneath which we can observe the political sensitivities of German society. However, in this very same sense, it also represents an excellent opportunity to address this in terms of civic adult education, turn it around by means of argumentation and do something against it. For the first time, there would be the chance to move the so-called ‘silent majority’ – if it actually exists – to likewise make an argumentative contribution to the state.34

A model project

‘A feeling of resentment previously not seen or only experienced in isolation appears in the familiar shape of street demonstrations – a form of politics that has been closely linked with the political left for many years.’35

In actual fact, it should simply be a question of turning the tables. Instead of from the internet into meetings, comments to the streets, the process should be reversed – the discourse should return to the internet. This means the massive and, perhaps at times, aggressive reconquering of the digital sphere in terms of exchanging ideas and trading argumentative blows. And this should not just be a scattered attempt by a few brave bloggers, who can very quickly be threatened and then silenced,36 but a collective movement with the concentrated power of the ‘swarm’. An idea that the Petra Kelly Foundation is currently trying to implement as project sponsor within the framework of the ‘’ project. In specific terms, this project is not only to be implemented by using social media, but also by setting up a digital platform where the entire organisation can take place and by coordinating the planned network virtually via the internet. I see this as the first step towards returning civic adult education to the public sphere, which, for the most part, has become a digital sphere in the meantime. Let’s cross our fingers that this is exactly what is possible and what will happen. In this respect, there is sure to be much more to report.

1   First appeared here on 17 January 2015, published by the Institute for Protest and Movement Research, on TU intern (Berlin). [↩]

2  Whereby, particularly in the case of academic studies, close attention should be paid to their design, as Stefan Niggemeier clearly points out in his blog article. [↩]

3   Such as here, here, here and here. [↩]

4  An idea that I have often criticised in the context of civic education. My standard counter-argument is what should young people do differently, if adults do not show them by way of example? [↩]

5  Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution and Breslau prison manuscripts on the Russian revolution, both on Wikiquote. [↩]

6   This becomes particularly clear in the discussion over to what extent it was right that on 17 December 2014, Siegmar Gabriel and Norbert Lammert spoke out in favour of establishing a dialogue with PEGIDA demonstrators and that they actually did this on 23 January 2015. I find the following view, expressed by Gabriel, particularly notable: ‘Whether you like it or not, there is a democratic right to be right-wing or to be a German nationalist.’ Source – Wikipedia: PEGIDA. [↩]

7    In principle, therefore, a political censor – but by whom? With what authority? Freedom of opinion and freedom assembly in particular (Article 8 of the German Constitution) are two of the main achievements at the heart of human rights! ‘Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech, writing and pictures, and to inform himself without hindrance from generally accessible sources [...] There shall be no censorship.’ This is taken directly from Article 5, Section 1 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. [↩]

8    Wikipedia: Politik. [↩]

9    Wikipedia: Politische Bildung. [↩]

10    Aristotle, Politics II. In the 2008 Cosimo edition, translated into English by Benjamin Jowett. [↩]

11    This interpretation is particularly important to me, because, in addition to the natural disposition of man towards the community, it also accounts for the significance of this community. After all, ‘polis’ societies is more or less used to refer to the large city states of ancient Greece. [↩]

12    Teune 2015, ibid. [↩]

13    Ibid. It continues ‘The authors Sarrazin and Pirinçci shine with circulations running into hundreds of thousands; the political party “Alternative für Deutschland” has won one landslide victory after another in European and state elections with its right-wing populist, xenophobic statements.’ [↩]

14    Article can currently be read and is well documented at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) with reference to the article ‘The new movement of the German people’. [↩]

15   This observation aims at the importance of communities as well as characterisation in the sense of shared beliefs, which is not just a phenomenon and problem for young people. [↩]

16    Accordingly, I have always supported Toralf Staud’s adage that the NPD’s Schulhof CD campaign should not be banned, but should be collected and used in teaching, in order to help students actively engage with the issues of problematic core assumptions, concepts of man and ideas of society. [↩]

17    It is indeed an extremely interesting phenomenon, which, for a long time at least, was encountered by those in the field of civic education events, who did not need to be won over in the first place. This situation has now changed. [↩]

18    Not just by way of invitations to Facebook groups or writing a blog article about an event. Several experiments will definitely have to be run in order to explore what this might eventually look like. However, in principle, participants can be much more actively integrated into the event process. [↩]

19    Daphi, Rucht, Stuppert, Teune and Peter Ullrich 2014 in a study of the ‘Monday demonstrations’, p.11. [↩]

20    Sascha Lobo, ‘Flashes of Inhumanity’, published here on Spiegel Online. [↩]

21    Teune 2015, ibid. [↩]

22    See the wonderful essay by Anne Sliwka, ‘Role model for Germany: “Education for Citizenship” in England’, here. [↩]

23    See the interesting article by Gerhard Himmelmann, ‘What is democratic competence? A comparison of skill models, looking at international approaches’ here. [↩]

24    Somewhat poorly formulated, I think that it is a real highlight at the moment if social media is used for the promotion and, where necessary, the documentation of civic education events. [↩]

 25   Argumentation in the sense of a critical examination of an issue through discourse has enjoyed a long tradition in Europe and can be traced back all the way to Plato. In the Middle Ages, all great works had an argumentative structure and had to deal with each of the respective counter-arguments. [↩]

26    With regards to this aspect, Carl Schmitt may well have been correct in his political analysis. ‘For Schmitt, the area in which distinctions are made between friend and enemy is politics,’ – Wikipedia: Carl Schmitt. [↩]

27    See also the 2001 study by Fischer: ‘Collective construction of knowledge – theoretical and methodological aspects,’ here on p.15 et seqq. [↩]

28    In doing so, above all the top priority is to highlight the prejudices, fears and apprehensions which are mostly hidden behind armchair politics and cliché slogans and to make it possible to work with these notions. This is a separate topic and part of the project mentioned at the end of this blog article. [↩]

29    I believe that this closes the circle, in the field of professional training and apprenticeships too. Within the scope of this blog, I have already written articles on these issues (here and here). See my comments on the topic of ‘teaching democracy in the workplace’. [↩]

30    On the other hand, it is also true that even if social media is not the cause of the phenomena described, nevertheless, it does have an unbelievable power to reinforce a fatal trend. [↩]

31    At the moment, anti-Islamism appears to alternate with antisemitism. At least there are clear shifts in this direction. [↩]

32    Sascha Lobo, ‘Flashes of Inhumanity’, published here on Spiegel Online. [↩]

33    And all with blurred lines between this and organised right-wing extremism. [↩]

34    I see this as a self-contained challenge faced by civic adult education. ‘I have understood that the “silent majority” of the population prefers to stay “silent”. They certainly do not agree with the hate on the streets, but would prefer to hide behind their curtains, instead of taking to the streets themselves.’ Heinrich Schmitz, in his ‘Declaration of surrender’ as a blogger, here. [↩]

35    Teune, ibid. [↩]

36    As, for example, Heinrich Schmitz writes in his ‘Declaration of surrender’ in the Tagesspiegel newspaper. [↩]

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