A collective power
The political didact Prof. Dr Tonio Oeftering has been teaching and researching at the University of Oldenburg since 2018. His focus is on political education in and outside of school, political theory and political education, its internationalisation, and connections to human rights and cultural education. Oeftering studied politics and English as well as educational science in Freiburg, where he also completed his doctorate. This was followed by positions at the universities of Hanover, Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and most recently as a junior professor at the University of Lüneburg, before he took over as head of the working group for political education and political didactics at the Institute for Social Sciences.
A collective power
In a personal plea, political education expert Tonio Oeftering calls for freedom to be understood as a collective value. In order to protect it, political education must be strengthened and understood as a lifelong task, he holds.
"Freedom is too often thought of in typically liberal terms, as an individual entitlement which the state or politics are obligated to secure. My understanding of freedom is different. One that can be derived from political philosophy as far back as Aristotle and that is also advocated by Hannah Arendt. She basically says: The purpose of politics is freedom. What she means is that freedom is something that I experience in the political sphere by shaping the world together with others. Freedom is then something fundamentally collective that I can only experience by acting and speaking together with others in the political sphere.
This is an important point for me. It shows that freedom is something very special. The collective experience of shaping the world together or standing up for a common goal is something quite different from an individual idea that I do and leave be whatever I want. My scholarly work reflects this collective understanding of freedom. And it implies a certain understanding of political education: Politics should not be seen as a service provider for one’s individual freedom. Rather, the political sphere provides an interpersonal space for engaging and getting involved with each other.
Freedom regularly arises where people come together and can act together. That is why totalitarian systems spend a lot of energy on destroying the public sphere, such as banning demonstrations or shutting down the internet – in other words, restricting freedom of assembly and communication. These measures are intended to prevent people from acting freely. The fall of the Berlin Wall, however, is an example of the power that the urge for freedom can unleash. It leads to masses of people taking to the streets and taking power away from the ruling system.
Words alone can hardly convey the value of freedom
Freedom is a value for which many people are prepared to risk a lot – as currently in Ukraine. But when it comes to conveying values such as freedom and other human rights in political education, for example in schools, these cannot simply be prescribed. I can't come to the classroom with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and say: 'These apply to everyone, we all have to follow them and think they're good'. That doesn't work. If only because pupils have the opposite experience. When I say: 'Human dignity is inviolable', for many young people it sounds more like a religious statement of faith, because every day they experience otherwise, for example, abuse or other degradation in the schoolyard, or they see on the news that human rights are not always respected everywhere.
Of course, I consider the fact that we have human rights to be a highly valued achievement of civilisation and I fully support them. But as I always say: Human rights are won by argument - or not at all. You have to enter into a political argument about it, so to speak. It doesn't work to simply decree them, not even freedom. Their value is difficult to convey purely verbally. Anyone who has ever been politically engaged, whether in an election campaign or in a citizens' initiative, has gained a particular experience that can hardly be conveyed purely cognitively. The question is how to create spaces for this kind of experience in political education. Political education is more than just learning by heart.
Emancipation: fighting together for freedom
Freedom is also linked to the highest goals of political education: maturity and emancipation. According to Kant, maturity is about using one's own intellect without the guidance of others. And emancipation means a process of liberation from illegitimate dependencies. Emancipation movements have always been freedom movements. Whether workers' uprisings, women's liberation – it was always about a union of people fighting for their freedom with a common interest. If we currently have problems in society, for example with anti-democratic phenomena, I think they have a lot to do with immaturity and certainly also with misguided educational processes – also in political education.
Political education is prevention and a lifelong process. In Germany, there is, however, a glaring discrepancy between the socio-political claim and the actual provision. Time allotments for political education in schools are meagre, and often, pupils do not receive any formal education in this field prior to seventh or eighth grade. Yet everyone is supposed to vote and be responsible when they leave school. Why not start much earlier? Even the classic idea that childhood is a politics-free space is not true. Children get to know so many things by primary school age at the latest, or perhaps they want to go to demos in fifth or sixth grade at the latest, or they are simply taken along. That is a form of informal political education already taking place, but they are left alone with it because it is not systematically anchored in our schools’ curricula from the beginning.
Lack of political education can threaten freedom
In continuing education, too, it has become clear in the past decades that the share of social topics has decreased and that the focus is increasingly on so-called employability. The undersupply we see in schools is just as prevalent in adult education. In addition, you can't force contrarians (in German: “Querdenkende”) or adherers of the “Pegida” movement to take part in political education – they are basically no longer accessible. The problem is that a lack of political education can threaten freedom. The social philosopher Oskar Negt says: "Democracy is the only form of government that has to be learned.” It must be lived. We need mature citizens, not obedient subjects. Therefore, I fear that even a liberal democracy could slide towards an authoritarian or totalitarian system when political education is lacking.
When asked about my own personal understanding of freedom, the aforementioned is exactly what I immediately have in mind – the collective understanding of freedom and also its threat. From the fact that I don’t lose sight of the threat, I also derive my motivation to ensure that it doesn't come to that. And at the same time, I feel a bit of hope: hope that there will always be enough people who are prepared to stand up for freedom in the world."
Written down by Deike Stolz