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Citizenship – more than public participation and empty EU phrases

Tasks and responsibilities of political education are constantly newly determined due to people’s changing necessities, questions and needs. However, traditional political education tends to forget this and rather focuses on established topics without further questioning.

By Klaus Heuer

When reading pertinent new publications in the mainstream field of German political adult education, I often discern an attitude claiming a need for a fundamental renewal of democracy. However, there is too little discussion about the conditions for negotiating the state of society and the need for internal cohesion within the society as a precondition.

The fact that these challenging relationships can be tackled at a day-to-day level, particularly within our own respective living environments, is a resource that is, in my opinion, utilised far too little at the moment. In fact, this is already being done despite and with all the necessary political criticism of a capitalism that is unbound and barely controlled by politics.

Citizenship – better yet, active citizenship, in terms of voluntary involvement in parties and associations, institutions and organisations, social and charitable initiatives and in social movements all to support public welfare – as the production of public welfare in a creative process that acts on social reality is a powerful and long-established practice. If I look at these participative practices throughout history, I can find examples dating back to the Enlightenment, e.g. in debating reading clubs, in professional education initiatives for public enlightenment, and in the efforts to popularise the latest scientific findings through public lectures.

Plenty of contemporary examples can be found. Recently I have been fascinated by the large number of popular scientists who can be grouped under the new term “Citizen Science” – made particularly popular by Peter Finke in his 2014 book “Citizen Science. The undervalued knowledge of the layman.” (Citizen Science. Das unterschätzte Wissen der Laien.). Across a multifaceted range of fields, e.g. botany, zoology, astronomy, literature and history, these popular scientists promote the scientific advancement of knowledge for ordinary people and can potentially help to promote the democratisation of academia. In my seminar “Citizen Science – a future task for adult education” we look into this phenomenon and have invited a series of popular scientists from various academic disciplines to form an expert panel.

A voluntary expert who has been working in the field for many years, mapping ants in the region of South Hesse, described the results of his work to me with these clear words: “I often think that I am much richer than the others, because this work helps me to shape my personality through systematically controlled academic practices, and also because I get so much back from the community, because they need and value my work.”

For me, it is this two-fold learning process of personal development and active, academically-based participation that defines the substance of the term “citizenship”.

It is more than civic participation and the semantics of civic duties, particularly as expressed in German in the concept of citizenship, although these normative and institutional responsibilities are still essential. It is this intervention in and shaping of social reality as a creative process that focusses on common welfare.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently described this connection in a nutshell in an interview in the newspaper “Die Zeit”:

“Free societies depend upon their citizens playing an active role in creating a strong sense of identity for the country. During the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu spoke of the inalienable ‘vertu de citoyens’. Without this virtue of its citizens who are involved in public issues, a democracy is weak. Alexis de Tocqueville rightly pointed out that every democratic community continually needs to reinvent itself through the common activity of its citizens if it wants to function as a democracy: building the people.

It is only when one develops a sense of mutual obligation that the participants in a community feel that the democracy is strong. Democracy also means the experience of proximity, contact with other people who are equal as citizens.” (Charles Taylor: Anchoring in the future. Interview in Die Zeit 27/2016, 23.06.2016, p.40 or online (external link))

The challenging circumstances in which the democratic community has to prove itself are hereby mentioned, e.g. current issues such as handling Brexit or the refugee crisis.

It is my view that the greatest needs in our time, an era characterised by crises, antagonism and processes of erosion, are the need to strengthen the inner solidarity within a community and the need to actively shape the renewal of democracy in a globalised world. Whilst this view is compelling, it seems to me at the same time that it is not seen enough in the established field of German political adult education.


Dr. Klaus Heuer MA is a research associate at the data and information centre at the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE) in Bonn. His research focusses on the history of adult education and biography research. Beyond that, his special field of interest is political-cultural education. In addition, he is currently a lecturer at the Technical University Darmstadt in the Institute for General Education and Vocational Education.

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