In 2019 Social Science Works enjoyed a close cooperation with a district-school in Hamburg.[1] We formed two groups of about 12 pupils each that volunteered to participate in our deliberative project on discrimination, respect and democracy. The members of the first group were 13 or 14 years old, those of the second 15 or 16. Over a period of three months, we worked with each of the groups eight times for about two hours.[2] After these workshops, each group paid a one-day visit to Berlin where we went to four sites commemorating crimes under National Socialism: the memorial for the Sinti and Roma; the Holocaust memorial; the memorial for homosexuals; and the one for the victims of the “Euthanasia” killings. In Hamburg we had prepared for these visits by explaining the crimes done to the respective groups and how the Nazis justified them. We informed these histories by discussing at length identity, discrimination, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and fundamental values like democracy, freedom and respect. In Berlin, we concentrated on questions such as, “Why and for whom are these memorials built?” “Why do we commemorate?”  “What interpretations of the monuments could be given?” and “Are the monuments effective in communicating a message?”

At the beginning of the project, we asked the pupils to fill in a questionnaire with 52 items. Besides demographics, we inquired about democratic values and opinions on minority groups. This survey was repeated at the end of the project. After the workshops in Hamburg we also asked the children to fill in a feedback form. In this article we present the results as well as a few of our observations. We start with some background information.

1 Political education in Germany

Much more than in other nations, current politics in Germany can only be understood via German history, and especially via the still inconceivable atrocities and brutalities that took place between 1933 and 1945. Not just explicit conversations about the Nazi-regime are inevitably uncomfortable and confrontational, but in every general discussion about politics, and certainly about topics like racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia or euthanasia, the memory of these atrocities is always in the background.

Consequently, the issue of political education is contentious in German society and its educational system. Regarding the era of National-Socialism many people, and also teachers, are tempted to remain silent. Specific topics like racism and anti-Semitism are no less challenging for many. It is therefore not surprising that a representative survey in 2017 for instance revealed that 53% of the children of 14 to 16 had no association to the word “Auschwitz”.[3]

German history explains another feature of political education: out of fear for the centralization of power and for propaganda, the decision making on the measure and the content of political education is highly decentralized. Consequently, as research repeatedly shows, the extent and the substance of political education differs dramatically between the states and the schools. And so does the political knowledge and competence of children, adolescents and adults.

When it comes to political education, Mahir Gökbudak and Reinhold Hedtke observe, „that the equivalence of living conditions in the Federal Republic of Germany with regard to the right of children and adolescents to political education at school is not guaranteed. As a result, the chances of systematically acquiring competencies in democratic participation are very unevenly distributed among children and young people from different federal states” (2019: 17).[4]

In states like Hessen and Schleswig Holstein children at the Gymnasium receive up to eight times more political education than in states like Bayern and Thüringen (2019: 4). The average time in Germany devoted to political education is about 2% of all education time.

Research also shows that politics gets less and less attention in the curriculum. Disciplines like “economics” that are believed to have an immediate value on the labor market, are favored.[5] For Nordrhein-Westfalen Gökbudak and Hedtke notice: „In the lower secondary level, up to three times as much learning time is spent on economic education as on political education. Per school week, 17 to 20 minutes are devoted to politics, 41 to 63 minutes to business. Depending on the type of school, between 56 and 69 percent of the total learning time in the social science learning area (politics, society, economy) is available for business topics. For politics, this value fluctuates between 20 and 28 percent … Social issues are of only marginal importance, their share of learning time in the social science learning area is between 11 and 18 percent” (2018: 1).

The authors also note that the children that get the least political education at home, also get it the least at school. Obviously, this “Matthew-effect” (those who have more, get more and more)[6] is no different than that in the field of, for instance, cultural education (cf. Blokland 1997: ch.7).

Regarding political education, there are also important differences between East and West Germany to observe. Obviously, the citizens of the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik had an awful lot of political education. Today, they do not always look back at this in gratitude. This partly explains why there is a tendency not to go into recent history and politics at all. Many people simply have had enough of it. Besides, the history of Germany was interpreted and taught in the East from a different perspective, and this perspective is still apparent. The Holocaust, for instance, was seen as the product of fascism, and, as everybody knows, the fascists were living in West Germany. This explains why the “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (Antifascist Protection Barrier) was built. In the East lived the communists, and communists were resistance fighters, who, like the Jews, were put in concentration camps by the fascists. Thus, in a sense, East Germans were also victims (like the Austrians). There was no real need to pay special attention to the fate of the Jews.

In the research on how much political education is given, a problem is that the labels of the courses differ per school and per state. It can be plain „political education“ (Politische Bildung), but also “social orientation“ (Gesellschaftliche Orientierung), „economy and politics“ (Wirtschaft und Politik), „history“ (Geschichte), „social studies” (Sozialkunde) or „civics” (Gemeinschaftskunde). How much time actually is devoted to „politics“ in a course like “history” or “societal orientation” is not always easy to decide.

On top of that, how politics is actually taught can differ strongly. In our own workshops we have often noticed that most teachers seem to have the tendency to concentrate on “facts”. “Facts” are less demanding to teach, and its knowledge is easier to check in examinations. Consequently, pupils can now and then reproduce how many members are in the German parliament and how often elections are held, but are at a loss when asked why we should have a parliament or a democracy at all (cf. Blokland 2019a).

It seems a better research strategy to explore what pupils actually know about politics and to what extent they can think about politics in substantial-rational ways. Besides, political education should probably not be taught in just one course but should be an integral part of the entire education, as is also the case with cultural education. Why not discuss politics while teaching history, geography, English or biology (think about racism[7])?

2 What kind of school?

The school where we implemented the project counts about 700 pupils. More than 80% of the children of the school have a migration-background. Rightly or wrongly, the school is seen as a volatile school (“Brennpunktschule”), with many pupils from disadvantaged layers of society.

Apart from the teachers, there is a big team of special needs educators, guidance counsellors, youth workers, Fellows from Teach First Deutschland[8] and a respect coach.[9] On top of that a specially trained School Dog named Sam is there to help children to concentrate, to calm down, to reduce fears, to counter loneliness and to reduce aggression.[10]

According to the school, about a third of the pupils starts the Abitur (the school leaving examination, needed to enter higher levels of education – the German average is about 50%). For the Abitur the pupils have to go to another school. All the others (partly) leave school at the age of 15 or 16 to start a vocational training.

The school is located in a part of Harburg called Eißendorf. Harburg is a part of the city of Hamburg. The average yearly income before taxes in Harburg was in 2013 almost 21 thousand Euro, in the state of Hamburg the average is about twice as high. In the general elections of 2017 roughly 35% of the people that voted (70%) in Harburg, gave their vote to the SPD; 28% voted for the CDU and 11% for the AfD.[11]

Eißendorf counted in 2012 almost 24 thousand inhabitants (Harburg had 153 thousand residents, Hamburg 1.8 million). 49% of the people younger than 18 years had a migration background.[12] 32% of the entire population of Eißendorf had such a background, and 13% was counted by the German authorities as “foreigner”. The unemployment rate in 2012 was 6%. In 2017 the rate for Harburg was 7%.[13] The crime rate in Eißendorf is only half of that in Hamburg (62 acts of crime per 1000 inhabitants for Eißendorf, 130 for Hamburg). For what it is worth, probably only Baden-Württemberg and Bayern are safer places than Eißendorf.[14]

3 How were the participants recruited?

The children volunteered to participate and came from several classes. Their parents had to fill in a form to approve the participation of their children. About 25 children managed to return the form. Many more expressed the wish to the respect coach to participate but were unable to bring the form to their parents, get it signed and bring it back on time.

In another volatile school in Hamburg, we worked with an entire class of 25 children. In this case, the decision had been made for them to participate. Working with volunteers, though, probably leads to better results. Obviously, the people are more motivated and interested, and one might expect that the volunteers are more open minded or liberal in their views than the average pupil. Therefore, as our statistical data also indicate, these participants might need this kind of deliberation not as much as those, who choose not to enter the program. Nevertheless, the net impact of the project might be bigger, when we empower the volunteers. They will reach the other members of their peer groups easier than we are able to do and the impact of the program will be established via their interactions. Since they have become better informed and have been trained a bit in deliberation, they have a higher chance to become multiplicators in their peer groups.

With non-volunteering classes, certainly at volatile schools, we experienced that already a small number of non-willing pupils can damage the learning environment to such a high extent, that the total learning effect is substantially lower, including that of the highly motivated pupils. Existing classes also have ingrained patterns of attitudes and behavior, which are much more difficult to deconstruct than when one composes a new group out of different classes.

Groups should also not be too large. Children of volatile schools in particular can handle no more than about 15 other participants. A group of 25 is way too big, also in general, for deliberations:  there are too many distractions, not everybody is or feels able to participate and not all are capable to concentrate on the group discussion.

4 Who participated?

We formed one group of children of 13 or 14 years and one group with children of 15 or 16. In total we had 22 participants, 11 boys and 11 girls, who came most of the time. The parents of 17 children had not been born in Germany. Most of them came from Turkey, but there were also parents from Vietnam, Syria, Kosovo, Lithuania and the Dominican Republic. Only six children were not born in Hamburg or Germany. Nine children declared themselves to be Muslim, six said to be Protestant or Catholic, two were Atheist, one was Buddhist, one child described himself as Orthodox, and one did not answer the question. All the children stating they were Muslim or Christian, also declared that religion was important or very important to them.[15] Despite this avowed religiosity, religious arguments hardly ever played a role in our conversations.

5 How did we deliberate?

The theories and practices of deliberation play a pivotal role in our work. We see deliberation as an open and courteous exchange of ideas and values, which furthers the discovery, understanding, contextualization and development of preferences. Deliberation is not about transferring the undisputed, fixed preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies; it is foremost about the joint development of substantiated preferences regarding the public cause. Concomitantly, deliberation strengthens the notions and emotions of political community, civility and citizenship that democracies need to thrive (cf. Blokland 2011, 2016, 2017, 2018).

In this pluralistic and deliberative tradition, we meet the participants in our workshops as citizens who are able to rethink together with us the basic values of our society. Adolescents we do not treat much different than adults. We show them respect by taking them fully seriously. This respect is most of the time returned with serious, genuine thinking.

Consequently, typical for our deliberative communications is that we do not “teach” or “lecture” the participants via “Frontalunterricht” what is right or wrong, and correct or incorrect. Instead, we try to build up, together with our participants and mainly by endlessly asking questions and feeding the discussions, a mutual understanding of pivotal values and concepts. In collaboration with the participants, we try to explore, to examine, and to think through their often hidden assumptions, their explanations and justifications. Together we explore how ideas on concepts like democracy, freedom, respect and emancipation hang together, feed each other, are ultimately based on our understandings what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in a decent society. Together we try to develop an understanding of a complex web of mutually reinforcing values, ideas and perspectives.

In the deliberations in this school, discrimination and respect were the focal points. All types of discrimination and misanthropy contradict the idea of human rights and the associated ideas of respect and tolerance. In the workshops we explained and justified the idea of human rights with the help of a discussion of the concepts of democracy, freedom, autonomy and identity. The jointly developed insights were then applied in, and expanded upon, a discussion on racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, Antiziganism, mentalism (the discrimination of mentally disabled people) and homophobia.

Thus, we discussed different forms of discrimination in parallel. If the sociological similarities between different forms of discrimination are revealed, each individual form becomes less unique and justifiable. The discussion of the supposed characteristics of a particular group that are used to justify its discrimination, is replaced by a discussion at a higher level, in which the political, sociological and psychological motives or forces behind any form of discrimination are disclosed. This discussion is much more powerful and effective than the rejection of any individual form of discrimination.

The same applies when we discuss varieties of discrimination in the context of a deliberation on fundamental concepts as freedom, democracy and identity. If a consensus is reached at this philosophical level, the rejection of different ideas regarding racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or homophobia becomes clearer and more convincing.

6 What did we talk about?

The first workshops we had at the beginning of October 2019. We gave the children information about who we are, why we were doing this, how we wanted to work and what we could discuss together in the upcoming months. As often happens, the children had to get used to deliberation. Normally there is not much room in the classroom for their own views and thoughts, and they do not understand why we are asking all these questions. Did you come all the way over from Potsdam to Hamburg to ask us what democracy is? Don’t you know yourself? Weren’t you a “political scientist”? Why do you not just tell us what the correct answer is?

The children also had great difficulties listening to each other. They did not seem to have much previous experience with group discussions. Quickly they formed several subgroups and as soon as somebody was talking, people in the other subgroups started to chat among themselves. Over and over again we had to ask them to discuss the topics at hand in the entire group. Sometimes, we also had to take pairs of children apart and thus split up subgroups. But over the days, the idea of deliberation slowly became clear and many children also appreciated the opportunity to talk together about the issues that were put on the table.

The children were further struggling to arrive on time or to remember we had scheduled a workshop. Partly this is related to the school times. Since last year, school starts half an hour later (at 8.30 AM), still further adjustment to the sleeping habits of children in puberty may be needed. As research has repeatedly shown, it does not make much sense to start teaching before 9.30 AM. (Scheerens 2013; AAP 2014). Most adolescents are not awake before that time. It is a waste of energy and resources to push people in a schedule that does not fit their biological potentials. Besides, a substantial increase of the time devoted to sport or physical activity during the schooldays seems helpful. It furthers the abilities to concentrate, to enjoy school and would help to reduce (in this school also prevalent) obesity (Hyndman 2018). The same goes for eating habits. Too many children seem to be unaware of the physical and mental consequences of the diet that they consume during the day.

Regarding being on time and ability to concentrate, it was not helpful either that we regularly had to negotiate with other teachers, even during our workshops, to allow “their” pupils to continue participating in our workshop. They often considered it more important that their own curriculum was carried out exactly as planned.

After the introduction we asked the children to fill in our survey. We have learned over the years that the survey is a great educational instrument. Participants immediately get an overview of the topics we are going to discuss and instantly start thinking and debating about many topics. Although we pose many questions, we hardly ever get complaints about the length of the survey. Most of the time, in the context of a workshop, people seem to enjoy filling it in. Our non-response rate is negligible.

Asked about topics they especially would like to talk about, several kids named homosexuality. They were fascinated by it and did not know much about it, they explained.

6.1 Identity

The first big topics we discussed were identity and discrimination. We asked about the meaning of identity and why people are who they are. Under the influence of what factors have they developed their identity? What is the role of their parents, family members, friends, neighbors, teachers? What is the influence of culture, religion, tradition, history? Besides, are you always the same person, or do you behave differently with friends, parents, family, in class, at a party, in different cultural environments? So, who are you? Are you just a collection of roles, or something more? Furthermore, do you always stay the same? Are you the same as five years back, who do you hope to be in five years from now? Thus, to what extent do identities change? What stays the same, what do you leave behind, what do you gain? Finally, to what degree can you decide for yourself who you are? To what extent are identities attributed to you? Can you change these attributions? Where are these attributions coming from? How and why did they come into the world?

Obviously, the latter questions pave the way to the dialogue on discrimination. The deliberation on identity is also very instrumental to the discussion on freedom and autonomy: an important aspect of freedom is having the opportunity to live out one’s identity, and autonomy also means that one’s identity is not just the unreflected product of socialization, but consists as well of deliberate choices about who one wants to be.

In our workshops with refugees, but also with locals and certainly with adolescents, the topic of identity always plays a big role. All of these groups like to talk about identity. People from other cultures sometimes experience a “loss of identity” and have to reposition themselves in a different culture with different norms, values, habits and expectations. All young people are of course looking for their personal identity. And people in societies that are characterized by rapid social, political, economic, technological transformations often experience a great, probably growing, need to reset their answers to the question of identity.

Especially the children in the older group enjoyed discussing this topic. In both groups there was a strong tendency to couple identity with nationality or migration background. In the survey we asked them two direct questions regarding this theme. The first was: “The country where one is born, defines to a high extent one’s identity.”[16] (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). The mean of the answers was 2.75 in the first round of surveys, the standard deviation was 1.62. Thus, the answers were wide apart. A straightforward interpretation of this is hard to give. Did the children disagree a lot? Or did they fill in the answer at random? Is this because they did not care or because they did not understand the question?

The second question in the survey was: “The identity of a person hardly changes during his or her life.” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). The mean of the answers was 2.75, the standard deviation was less high, but still considerable: 1.19.

Especially when participants reduce their identity to nationality, we try to explain that identity has many more layers and is always in development. No doubt, nationality and migration background are significant parts of everybody’s identity but become overly important when people do not feel accepted and respected by the dominant group or the majority society. By defining oneself exclusively as a migrant or a refugee, one implicitly takes over the discriminations of the majority society. Maybe, one should not let them win that easily.

Did they answer the question differently at the end of the program? The mean for the first question (“The country where one is born, defines to a high extent one’s identity”) was this time 3.05 (up from 2.75). The standard deviation went down from 1.62 to 1.27. This could mean that their answers were a bit less random. Two people “totally disagreed”, five “disagreed”, five were undecisive, four “agreed” and three “totally agreed”. The older the kids, though, the more they disagreed with the statement (the mean for the younger group was 3.5 and for the older group 2.73).

The mean of the second question (“The identity of a person hardly changes during his life”) went down from 2.95 to 2.75. The standard deviation hardly changed (from 1.19 to 1.25). Three people “totally disagreed”, six “disagreed”, seven were indecisive, one “agreed” and three “totally agreed”. As with the first question, the younger the kids, the more they agreed with the statement (the mean for the younger group was 3.22 and for the older group 2.36).

6.2 Discrimination

The next topic we discussed was discrimination. The discussion on identity prepared this theme. We asked seemingly simple questions: What exactly is discrimination? On the basis of which attributes do people discriminate? Why do they discriminate? And how do people discriminate? Obviously, the answers are less easy to formulate. The entire concept already turned out to be difficult to grasp. All offensive behavior was readily described by the children as discrimination. But obviously, not all unfriendly, hostile, mean, hurtful or aggressive behavior is immediately discrimination. And not everybody who gets lower notes or does not get a job, has been discriminated.

We had to explain several times anew that we can only speak of discrimination when we treat individuals badly because we judge them on the basis of their supposed membership of a particular group, a group that we have assigned particular, usually negative traits.[17] Moreover, people can have prejudices against particular groups, but only when these are leading to actions, do they discriminate. Thus, we believe that women are less rational and able to govern than men, and consequently, when a man and a woman with exactly the same qualifications apply for the same management-job, we give the job, without much further thinking, to the man. Discrimination is also present when people with exactly the same qualifications apply for the same jobs, and the ones with names suggesting a migration background, have a much lower chance to be invited for an interview (as research regularly shows).

The motivations for discrimination that were mentioned, ranged from fear for strangers, stupidity and getting a better feeling about oneself. We illustrated this last tendency by some examples of discriminated groups in the USA: the group that arrived last, was usually discriminated by the already established residents, and especially by those that arrived just before them. Thus, the Italians were portrayed as aggressive, violent and likely members of criminal organizations, a portrayal that later became a part of popular culture via, among others, movies like The Godfather, GoodFellas and Casino. On their turn, the Irish were seen as backward, lazy, treacherous, malice and violent. Today, these troublemakers and agitators are replaced by the Mexicans and Latin-Americans. The depictions are rather constant, only the groups vary in time.

It is typical how the children reacted to the statement, “In Germany one cannot say anything bad about foreigners without immediately being labeled a racist” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean answer was 3.58 in the first round and even 3.85 in the second round. In the last survey, 10 people “totally agreed” and 4 “agreed” (out of 20). Still, the mean answer in the second round to the question “If you are new somewhere, you should first settle for less” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree) was only 1.65 (standard deviation .82). In the first round it was a much higher 2.42 (standard deviation 1.39).

In class, also to prepare the upcoming sessions, we discussed the discriminated groups that are designated in a longitudinal study of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.[18] Since two decades, the authors conduct a two-yearly survey on how people in Germany feel about Jews, Muslims, Sinti and Roma, refugees, migrants, homosexuals, transgenders, homeless people, women, long-term unemployed, other “races”, foreigners, and disabled people. They observe, among others, that negative feelings towards one particular group often come with comparable feelings towards other groups (2019: 69). Another observation is that the prejudices against women, homosexuals, disabled and homeless people have declined over the years, but that the negative feelings towards asylum seeking people, foreigners, Muslims, and Sinti and Roma are still on a high level.

Around 10% of the surveyed Germans further agree or fully agree to the statement that “white people are rightly leading in the world” (2019: 66). And 15 to 20% agree or fully agree with the statement that “Aussiedler should be better off than foreigners because they are of German descent.”[19] According to their own statements, around 15% have feelings of disgust towards homosexuals and around 8% of Germans consider homosexuality to be immoral (2019: 68).

It also turns out that not always only the older generations tend to devalue groups. Racism and the demotion of homosexual people, for example, are more established among people between 16 and 30, than among people between 31 and 60 (2019: 89). Nevertheless, sexism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and the degrading of newcomers and Sinti and Roma, are less widespread among younger people than among the members of older generations, according to this survey.

6.3 Antisemitism

As concrete examples of discrimination we discussed antisemitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, and the fate of the Sinti and Roma, as well as of the disabled people during the era of National-Socialism. We started with Antisemitism.

Most children turned out to have no idea what Judaism and Antisemitism is. They know about Hitler and the Jews and see an exclusive relationship between both: before and after Hitler no Jews were discriminated or prosecuted. This exclusive responsibility of Hitler for all the crimes of the Nazi regime, we encounter permanently. One girl also asked why Hitler had built the wall. We notice too that most children seem to believe that only the Jews were victims. Thus, when we explained the murder of the Roma and Sinti, the question was asked, “So these people were Jews?” Several children asked the very same question when we talked about the prosecution and murder of homosexuals or the murder of disabled people. The concept of racism became much more concrete and threatening to several kids after they understood that many different traits of people have been used to justify discrimination and horrendous crimes.

Why was Hitler hating the Jews that much? A girl explained that Hitler’s mother had had an extramarital affair with a Jew. Hitler, she added, was also an artist. He had applied at an art academy but had been turned down by the Jewish director. Since then he was out for revenge.

Several kids could imagine that the Jews, after what happened to them, are preparing a big attack on all other religions. The rumor is that they are already under way.

The defining characteristic of Antisemitism in comparison to other forms of discrimination is that the Jews are usually held responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world. It is not simply that they are criminal, stupid, unreliable, lazy, violent, or whatever, as what is usually said of other disliked groups, no, they are everywhere, conspiring against all the good people in the world. In Germany they were held responsible, among others, for the defeat in the First World War, the hyperinflation in the twenties, the mass unemployment after the Great Crash in 1929, for Communism, as well as for Liberalism and Capitalism.

Since they are everywhere and responsible for everything, how many Jews were living in Germany around 1933, we asked the class members? After we informed them that the total population at the time was 64 Million, the guesses ranged from 2 to 40 Million. The actual number was less than 500.000, about 0.8% of the total population.[20]

Inspired by the survey of the Ebert Stiftung (2019), in our survey we asked two questions related to Antisemitism. The first was: “By their behavior, Jews are complicit in their persecution” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers went down from 1.54 to 1.26. No less than 16 children “totally disagreed”, one “disagreed”, one did not answer, and two were indecisive (3).

The second question was: „Today, many Jews try to take advantage of the past of the Third Reich” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers went down from 2.53 to 2.05. Nobody “agreed” or “totally agreed”.

These results are comparable to that of the survey of the Ebert Stiftung: 55% of the general population “totally disagreed”, 18% “disagreed”, 15% was indecisive, 7% “agreed” and 5% totally agreed with the statement, “Today, many Jews try to take advantage of the past of the Third Reich” (2019: 71). Regarding the statement “By their behavior, Jews are complicit in their persecution”, 77% of the general population “totally disagreed”, 12% “disagreed” 8% was indecisive, 2% “agreed” and 2% “totally agreed”. At the same time, the Ebert Stiftung found that the people between 16 and 30 were considerably less antisemitic, than the older generations (2019: 89).

Obviously, every measure of antisemitism is too much, but we encountered no widespread antisemitism among our participants, or a higher measure than among other adolescents. Most of the time, the kids had no idea what Judaism or Antisemitism actually are.

6.4 Lack of societal engagement: Halle and the Wall

A couple of days after we had discussed antisemitism in the school, the attack on the synagogue in Halle[21] took place, which stirred an enormous “public” and political debate in Germany. Almost all top politicians went to Halle, parliament discussed what to do, the media devoted endless attention to the event and the issue of antisemitism.

We thought it was a good idea to get back to this issue, when we were back in the school two weeks after the attack. Unfortunately, none of the 22 kids had heard about “Halle”. The entire event and all the reporting had not penetrated their bubble. They do not read newspapers, they do not watch or listen to the news, in their Facebook and Instagram Streams the topic had never appeared, they informed us. None of their teachers had ever talked about Halle either. The school had also not devoted any attention to it.

The kids volunteer to participate in our project. Therefore, they probably belong to the most engaged and informed pupils in the school. We might assume that Halle had come to the attention of only a very tiny number of pupils.

The children told us that they hardly get any political education or social orientation. In no class references are made to the present time or current social and political issues. In history neither. One time there had been a one minute’s silence (“Schweigeminute”) after an attack somewhere. They could not remember where this attack had taken place, when or why.

The older kids explained that one time, in a project of the course “society”, they had been asked to follow the news and to report about it in class. Only one person had done so. Consequently, there was not much to talk about. The project had not changed their habits in this sphere.

Still, when asked, all children said they would welcome to talk much more about social and political issues. The idea to start everyday with a conversation of about half an hour (“Kreisgespräch”) on these issues, was welcomed.

Such conversations might help to prevent the feeling that children seem to have no part at all in societal happenings and discussions. In November 2019, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated. There were festivities everywhere, speeches of politicians, memories of time witnesses, fireworks, flags and banners, and again, all the news media devoted an awful lot of attention to it. But the children seemed to be at a total loss what the meaning of this all was. We were asked why, when and by whom this wall was built. Why, a very intelligent and involved girl of 15 enquired, was there a wall between East and West Germany, and not between North and South, or around every federal state? In the same context, a girl of 14 inquired who had won the Second World War.

6.5 Gender equality

For about 1.5 hours we discussed emancipation. We first gave a short historical overview of how the rights of women have developed in Germany. Since when are they allowed to vote? Since when can women attend a university? Since when are they allowed to have a bank account, or to buy a car? Since when can a woman report her husband to the police for rape, when she did not consent to sex?[22]

The children and adolescents often reacted amazed to these historical developments. It is not that long ago that women acquired these rights, rights that today seem so natural.

There is usually less amazement, though, when we show statistical data about the positions that men and women have in German society and about the professions they practice.[23] Women are greatly underrepresented in managerial positions in the public and private sector. In 2018, the board of governors of 160 corporations listed on a stock exchange, only counted 7.3% women. In 2017, 61% of the people working in the public sector was female. But 66% of the first-rank managers were male.

In many professions, women are vastly overrepresented. To give some examples: 99% of the clinic assistants in Germany are female, 96% of the Kindergarten teachers, 93% of the hairdressers, 87% of the care givers and primary school teachers and 86% of the nurses. Predominantly male are metalworkers (81%), physicists, physics engineers and mathematicians (83%), train operators (91%), motor vehicle drivers (96%), carpenters (97%), electricians (97%), tilers (99%) or roofers (99%).

As happens often in our workshops, showing the children these kinds of statistics about gender inequality, did not stir many emotions or questions. It is as it is. It has always been like this and it is also what one can expect considering the differences between the both sexes. So, asked about the possible explanations for the existing inequalities or different career choices and options, silence is often the answer. Only one girl forcibly opposed the idea that women are not able to govern or to have “difficult jobs” related to, for instance, math and hard sciences.

What was also striking, was the inability to think in social terms. Are there any sociological explanations for the over- or underrepresentation of men or women in particular positions or professions (or, for that matter, for social inequalities in education, influence, income or wealth)? There is a very strong tendency to think that the world as it is, is the product of individual, autonomous choices. When there are no women in particular professions or positions, they evidently have chosen not to be there. Who are we to criticize that?

Knowledge is often a problem in another way: it seems that the issue what knowledge actually is, is never addressed at school. This leads to the inability to put into question or to doubt any presented statistics. In so far statistics can be understood at all (a first hurdle difficult to take for many people), they are predominantly read as objective descriptions of reality, and reality is what it is, and therefore good. No need to explain anything. Especially in the time of internet, where everybody can spread “news” no matter how it has been grounded, or whether it can be grounded at all, this lack of understanding of what “knowledge” is and how it is produced, obviously becomes a rapidly growing problem.[24]

In the survey we asked three questions related to gender equality.

The mean of the answers to the question „There are jobs that only men or women can do” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree) was 1.8 (down from 2.16 in the first round). 14 people „totally disagreed“. Three people „agreed“ or „totally agreed”.

In the Spring of 2019, we worked before in the same school with two groups of children of comparable age. The 30 children in question had come less voluntary than the present groups[25], and might have been more representative of the entire school. The mean of the answers to this question was at the time 3.07. We did not repeat the survey, also because we only worked for no more than about 5 hours with each group.[26]

The second question was, „Women should have the same rights as men“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree ). The mean of the answers was 4.79 (up from 4.45). Only one person disagreed. The participants in the Spring of 2019 were also less convinced of equal rights between men and women: the mean of their answers was 4.03.

“It should be more important for a woman to help her husband with his career than to have a career of herself”, was the last question (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers was 1.45 (up from 1.33). Fourteen people totally disagreed, three disagreed and three were undecisive.[27]

6.6 Masculinity

Masculinity is a topic we discussed in combination with gender equality. We asked the children and adolescents to answer in small groups the question “typical for men is …“. The younger kids (mainly girls) told us that men are typically aggressive, violent, self-confident, egotistic and ruthless (Rücksichtslos). To the estimation of the girls, about 40% of the men are nice (“nett”), 60% are mean (“böse”).

The older group (mainly boys) told us that men are less emotional than women, more cool or composed, have more endurance, and also have more duties: they need to be the head of the family and solve all family problems, they have to provide for its livelihood, and they have to take care of the children and to be a role model for them. And yes, men are also more violent.

The boys considered it also natural or obvious that after a divorce the children go to the mother, as is also usual in Germany, since the mother knows the children best and has always taken care of them.

We showed the children several short YouTube videos about the different way’s children from a very early age on are socialized into diverse roles. Adults play differently with boys as with girls, giving them other toys (cars, puzzles) than girls (fluffy stuff) and handling them differently (more physical).[28] Girls suddenly start to run, throw and fight differently when they enter their teens.[29] And little girls and boys asked to paint a firefighter, medical doctor or a pilot overwhelmingly paint a male version of these professions.[30] How come? Although particularly the last two videos are made for adolescents, we already needed a lot of time to help many children to understand what their meaning or purpose was.

As said, the abilities to think from a sociological perspective are minimal among almost all young people we have worked with in the last couple of years. In our times, a sociological perspective seems to have become equivalent to a “socialist” perspective, and socialism, as we all know, is bad. The kids in Harburg were no different.

6.7 Democracy

In our programs we normally devote much attention to democracy, pluralism, civil society, citizenship, freedom and autonomy. In this case, we concentrated more on issues related to discrimination. Still, because all the issues are interconnected, and because both concepts lie behind notions of respect and tolerance, we also went a bit into democracy and freedom.

The children of both groups had a hard time explaining what politics is, what politics is good for, and how politicians are actually filling up their time. They basically have no idea. Politics, one can make up from the remarks, is for the most part associated with something dirty, sly or dishonest, and it seems difficult to think about this activity in a positive way.

Asked about democracy, the answers predominantly pointed to the presence of elections and majority rule. Whether majority rule was always a good idea in every sphere of life and whether this could harm the rights and interests of minorities, were questions that overburdened the pupils completely. As conditions for democracy, they mentioned the existence of at least two options to choose from. How these options come into the world, was not clear.

The children of both groups also could not think about anything related to “civil society” –independent societal organizations acting as communication channels and as buffers between the individual and the state. After we had explained what social organizations and interest groups are, nobody could name an example of such an entity. Only one person was a member of something, a soccer club. When asked how decisions were reached in this soccer club, the answer was that the coach made all the decisions. Our participant could not think of any issues that are not or should not be decided by the coach. How many social organizations do we approximately have in Germany, we asked the adolescents? Their estimations ranged from 200 to 1500.

To illustrate what politics is, we played a little game with both groups. We split each up in four smaller groups and asked the members to decide among themselves how 100 million tax-money was going to be spent. How much would they like to invest in education, defense, hospitals, the environment, poor families, the zoo, the economy, et cetera. And why this amount? As one might expect, the answers differed. Therefore, we asked the children how we could reach a decision. They practiced two options. The first was that they calculated simply the mean of all the proposals, without any further justification. And the second was that they decided by majority, as well without any further justification.

In the survey, we asked several related questions about democracy and civil society:

“In a democracy, decisions should always be taken by majority” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers in the first round was 3.82 and in the second 3.6. Hence, one of the things that we tried to make clear in class, is that majorities should better not decide on everything, and should always keep an eye on the rights and the interests of minorities. We made some progress here, although 5 (mainly male) adolescent still “totally agreed” with the statement.

“The majority in a society should be able to decide which ways of life are tolerated and which not” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers was 2.47 (up from 1.86). Four people agreed with this statement, seven were indecisive. It is remarkable that in the first round, people seem to have been more tolerant towards minorities than in the second, at least when one takes this question as an indicator. Twelve pupils totally disagreed in the first round, in the second only six. In the other volatile school in Hamburg that we visited in 2019, the mean of the answers was even 3.37. Of the 19 children that answered the question in this school, only two (totally) disagreed. Six (totally) agreed and 11 were indecisive.

More hopeful for minorities were the answers to the next question: „The state should allow citizens to decide for themselves how to live their lives, as long as they do not harm others by their actions“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree ). The mean of the answers was 4.1 (down from 4.35). Only two people „(totally) disagreed)“.[31]

„Particularly clever people should lead the society.“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean was 2.9 (down from 3.1). Interesting is that especially the older boys supported this statement: 4 totally agreed, two agreed. The average of the young, predominantly female group was 2.2, that of the older, predominantly male group was 3.5.

„Religious leaders should have an influence on decision making processes“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean was 2.6 (down from 2.4). Only three people (totally) agreed, but many (nine pupils) were indecisive. The importance of a separation between church and state, obviously was a topic they had never discussed before (neither did we).

„As in nature, the fittest should survive in society“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean in the second round was 1.85 (up from 1.68). Twelve people „totally disagreed“, three people „(totally) agreed“. Obviously, we could read the wide disagreement as support for democracy, civic society and the welfare state.

„Many different media and a diverse press strengthen society and democracy” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean here was 3.35 (down from 3.5). Five people „disagreed“ with this statement, seven were indecisive.[32]

The low expectations regarding the press also came back in the answers to the last question: “I trust that the media in Germany report fair and balanced on current problems“ (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree).The mean was 2.6 (in the first round it was: 2.55). Four people „totally disagreed“, four „disagreed” and nine were indecisive. Only one person “totally agreed”.[33] As said, the pupils we talked to were completely disconnected from mainstream media. Media training might be wanted.

All in all, the ideas on democracy and civil society are superficial and often disapproving. The abilities to think on these issues are rather underdeveloped, to the point that democratic values are endangered.

6.8 Racism

In the session on racism we first watched together a short documentary that presented the history of the idea that human races exist and the ways this idea have been used to justify colonialism, slavery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, murder, oppression, and discrimination.[34]

Previously, a girl of 14 had asked whether it is true that humans have been enslaved by other humans. We asked her how she thought that the African Americans had come to the USA. She answered that they had been looking for a job, like other migrants.

We noticed before that children had regularly heard about natural selection, survival of the fittest or Darwinism and that they implicitly or explicitly apply the same ideas to humans.[35] Why would it be different for this species? It seems that biology teachers, knowing that “race” is a social construct, leave the entire issue of racism to the teachers for political education, politics and society, or citizenship. Yet, the classes on biology or genetics seem the most appropriate place to counter racism. In the other realms it is often not or insufficiently discussed, or ineffectively (cf. Donovan 2019[36], Harmon 2019 and Rutherford 2020).

We explained to the children that human races do not exist, but we did not have enough time to clarify all the genetics behind it. Thus, we showed that the usual classifications of race are mainly based on skin color and on other outer features that can be observed, like height and hair and eye color. All these physical differences are determined by just a very small part of the genome. 99.9% of our DNA we share. The few differences that do exist, Chou (2017) writes, “reflect differences in environments and external factors, not core biology.” Besides, the average genetic differences between the groups often defined as “races” are smaller than those between the individuals within these “races”. This makes the division of people into races arbitrary. Two persons in Europe may genetically have more in common with a person in Asia, than with each other. Further, there are seamless transitions in the distribution of genetic traits between the “racially” differentiated populations. These transitions do not come about by mixing originally different “races”, but are original themselves.

We asked several questions related to racism in our survey. The first is „People with different ethnic backgrounds have different abilities (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). A very high number of respondents answer this question affirmative. The mean in the second round was 3.5 (in the first 3.63).[37] It is difficult to interpret this, though. Are the children believing that different human races do exist, and that particular races are superior? Or do they want to express their solidarity to other “races” by stating, that also people of different color have important qualities? Obviously, this solidarity would still be based on the false assumption that different human races can be discerned, but it would not immediately imply misguided ideas on superiority.

In the survey we used in this school in the spring of 2019, we explicitly used the word “race” (Rasse), which normally, after the Nazi era, would be a rather offensive word in German. The question was: „Unterschiedliche Rassen von Menschen haben unterschiedliche Fähigkeiten“. The mean of the 28 answers was at the time 3.41. Thirteen people “(totally) agreed“.

Another indicator could be the following question: “Different races should not mix” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean of the answers was 1.85 (first round: 1.79). One person „totally agreed“, one “agreed”, four were undecisive, two disagreed and twelve “totally disagreed”.[38]

6.9 Homosexuality

In the session on homosexuality we concentrated on the question to what extent homosexuality was “normal”, and not an expression of some mental, psychical or moral disorder. Other important questions one could address – for instance are, are homosexual couples able to raise children; should they have the right to marry? – we discussed only in the sideline.

We first watched together a well-made ARTE-documentary on homosexuality that presented some factual information.[39] Based on our previous experiences discussing this topic, we then addressed several ideas or prejudices: homosexuality is ‘unnatural’; reproduction is the natural goal of every species, and only men and women can reproduce themselves, so homosexuality must be wrong; only a man and a woman can form a family; children need a father and a mother in their life and not two fathers or two mothers; homosexuality is a (loathsome) choice because in some cultures there are many more homosexuals than in others; and homosexuality spreads more and more and destroys societies (for an overview of these arguments and possible responses to them, see Blokland 2019b). Almost all these arguments were also brought forward by one or more pupils in class. Two boys also cautiously pleaded for transversion therapy.

As we have noticed many times before, most children and adults do not know much about homosexuality. They also are not always able to defend this sexual orientation with facts or reasons when they have a liberal attitude towards homosexuals. It was no different with the children in our two classes. They were stunned to hear that in “nature” homosexuality was widespread. When we presented a short overview of the animals with homosexual or bisexual tendencies, a girl inquired whether we were “shitting” them (“Wollen Sie uns verarschen?”).

Asked about how many homosexuals were living in our society, the estimations ranged from 0.5 to 30% of the population (“but in the USA there are more”). There were no homosexuals in school, though, at least nobody had come out (apart from a girl of 17 that once had brought her girl-friend to school). Coming out would also be unwise since there were some big guys at school that would not tolerate the presence of homosexuals.

This observation was later confirmed by one of the social workers of the school we interviewed. Homophobia was widespread, he witnessed. He did not know of any adolescent that had dared to come out (statistically, though, there must be about 25 to 50 gays or lesbians in the school). He suspected that for kids it was also reason to leave the school for another one or to drop out.

The discussion on the question whether homosexual couples were able to raise children was forcibly influenced by a very outspoken girl of 14 who made her classmates clear, that what ultimately mattered was whether children got love, affection, security and support. She herself would have preferred two loving gay fathers or two lesbian mothers above the divorced, mainly indifferent parents she had to deal with now.

In our survey, we asked two questions about homosexuality and one about transgender.

“Homosexuality is an illness”, is the first question (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). In the second round, almost nobody shared this opinion: 17 pupils “totally disagreed” and 3 “disagreed”. The average score was 1.15. In the first round, the mean was a bit higher: 1.32. One person agreed that it was an illness, one was undecisive, and two “disagreed”.[40]

As remarked, when we visited the school for the first time, in the spring of 2019, 30 other pupils filled in the survey. Their answers were much less liberal as those of the groups we worked with in the autumn of 2019. The mean of their answers was 2.8. Seven of the thirty respondents at the time “totally agreed”, three “agreed” and eight were undecided.

As in the society at large, more disagreement existed on the second question: „Homosexual couples have the ability to raise children” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The average answer in the first round was 3.77.[41] Four people (totally) disagreed, and four people were undecided. In the second round the average went up to 4. Ten people “totally agreed”, six “agreed” and two people could not decide. The doubts were especially present in the boys. This had also been the case with the group of thirty pupils that we talked to in the Spring of 2019. The average of their answers was 2.9. Nine people “totally disagreed” four “disagreed” and six were uncertain.

A next group that today is asking for respect and equal rights are transgender people. The group is small (the estimates range from 0.2 to 0.6 per cent of the population) and so is the knowledge about its members. The attitude towards transgender people says something, though, about the general respect for “others”. We asked, “I think it’s silly if a man prefers to be a woman or vice versa, a woman prefers to be a man” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The mean answer was 1.8 (down from 2.45). Five people did not answer, probably because they had no clue what transgender people are.

6.10 Roma and Sinti

As another important example of groups that are usually discriminated, we went into the fate of the Roma and Sinti during the Nazi era. As with other topics, we first watched together two small documentaries about the fate of this group, told via the stories of two prominent Roma.[42]

The Roma and Sinti are the largest ethnic minority in Europe (8 to 10 million people), living already about 500 years in this part of the world. They originated in the Indian subcontinent. Like the Jews they were considered by the Nazis as an inferior race, that had to be extinguished. In the Romani genocide (or “Porajmos”) between 220.000 and 500.000 people were murdered. Some estimates go as high as 1.5 million.[43] It took West-Germany until 1982 to formally recognize this genocide.[44] The Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism in Berlin that we visited with the children, was erected in 2012.

Obviously, the discrimination of the Roma goes much longer back than the Nazi era and did not stop after 1945. In the Weimar Republic, for instance, the Roma were forbidden to enter recreational areas like swimming pools and parks and in 1929 a “Law for the Fight Against Gypsies, Vagrants and the Work Shy” was enforced, trying to coerce the “gypsies” to give up their nomadic way of life, to live in designated areas and to fully adjust to what was considered proper, decent and respectable.

The Roma have been habitually seen as criminals, social misfits, beggars and vagabonds. In many countries that were occupied by Germany or that were allies, the local authorities enthusiastically supported the prosecution of the Romani, as they regularly also did with the Jews.

In the survey we asked one question about the Sinti and Roma: “Sinti and Roma are prone to crime” (1 = totally disagree; 5 = totally agree). The average of the answers was 2.2 (first round 1.94). Nine people “totally disagreed”, four people “disagreed”, four were undecisive, three “totally agreed”.

6.11 Disabled people

In our last session in Hamburg we told the horrific story of the so called “Krankenmorde”.[45] The justifications for these brutalities were explicit racist: the German, Aryan “race” had to be kept pure and superior by killing or castrating all those people that had disabilities. Between 1933 and 1945 almost half a million people with psychological disorders or with relatives with disorders were sterilized. And in total about 250.000 disabled people were murdered. Thousands and thousands of medical doctors, clinical academics, nurses, caretakers, bureaucrats in hospitals and administrations had been involved in this. Most of them were never brought to justice and stayed in their professions after 1945.

As remarked, the enormity, cruelty and ruthlessness of this program is hard to believe and to swallow. The consequences of racist trains of thoughts can hardly be made clearer, also because anybody could have been a victim. Especially when we visited the memorial in Berlin for the “Krankenmorde”, many pupils seemed to be horrified by this history.

7 Dark Tourism

After our workshops in Hamburg, we visited four memorial sites in Berlin: the memorial for the Sinti and Roma; the Holocaust memorial; the memorial for homosexuals; and the one for the victims of the “Euthanasia” killings. This “Dark Tourism“ increasingly has become an independent research field in social science.[46] Dark tourism can be defined as “visiting places associated with death, violence, tragedies, death scenes and crimes against humanity”. Research focuses on questions such as, “Which experiences, emotions and knowledge are conveyed in which ways to which target groups at these memorials?”

The aim of visiting the memorials was to bring topics we discussed before (freedom, discrimination, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and others) into the area of commemoration. Visiting dark places of death, atrocities, and tragedies could increase the cognitive, ethical, and emotional awareness of the issues involved. The hope expressed in the Dark Tourism literature is that a confrontation with memorial sites strengthens the motivations of visitors to engage into a (literally) painstaking, conscientious and honest exchange on topics like ethnocentrism, xenophobia, racism and antisemitism.

All the sites we visited in the inner city of Berlin are within walking distance from each other. For each we took about 45 minutes. We had prepared for the visits in Hamburg by explaining the fate of the groups for which the memorials had been erected, and the justifications that the Nazis had given for their crimes. In Berlin we concentrated on questions like: What are the motives for visiting such memorial sites? What do visitors expect from such a visit? What do other visitors expect from them, according to our participants? What is appropriate or inappropriate behavior at such memorials? What is the purpose of these memorial? For whom are they erected? What could be the message of the artists that created the memorials? How authentic are large memorials, attracting crowds of tourists? What is the role of autonomous, critical thinking, deliberation, civil courage, responsible action to prevent such terrible events?

Not all participants were able to make it to Berlin. One had broken her leg. One was unable to catch the train on time. One did not get permission of her parents, which was the reason for two others to stay home as well. And two girls declared in Hamburg that they did not see any use in visiting memorials. We invited them to stay home. Three girls who had chosen to stay in Hamburg, stated later that they regret this deeply, after they had heard the stories of their classmates about the Berlin-visit.

The fifteen pupils that visited Berlin were focused, thoughtful and contemplative. They listened attentively to our guide and tried to answer his difficult questions. What to make of the Holocaust memorial? Why these stones? Why was the artist (Peter Eisenman) refusing to explain how the memorial could or should be interpreted? What interpretations could they give themselves? Was it allowed to sit, climb or jump on the stones, or tombs, or whatever? Would they have made a different memorial?

Even the aesthetically maybe least sophisticated memorial, the one for the “Euthanasia” killings (the so called Aktion T4[47]), was attended thoughtfully. Much time was devoted to reading the texts and watching the pictures on the multimedia-panel. The ruthlessness, meticulousness and mind-boggling indifference of the involved “desk criminals” (“Schreibtischtäter”), is hard to digest, and so were the reactions of many kids.

8 Feedback

The workshops aim to demonstrate to the participants that deliberating with fellow pupils or citizens about the issues we put on the agenda could be enlightening, bonding and sometimes also entertaining. Hopefully, they have the feeling they improved their understanding about particular issues and about how these issues hang together. Hopefully, after about sixteen hours of deliberation they have the feeling that it is worthwhile to communicate with others about these issues. And hopefully, they would like to participate in this kind of events again.

A feedback form was filled in by 16 children. We asked six indirect questions. Direct questions like “Did you learn something in the workshop?” or “Do you think the moderator did a good job?” often predominantly measures how nice or polite the different groups of participants were. Therefore, we asked them instead:[48]

“The most important points on each topic were dealt with in the group discussions” (1 = completely disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = agree nor disagree; 4 = agree; and 5 = completely agree). The mean answer for this question was 4.2. Only one respondent gave a negative answer (a 2).

“I found many of the comments of other people helpful for my own perspective on these issues”. The average answer for this question was 3.8. Likewise, there was only one negative answer (a 2 again, but from a different person).

„I’ve found that people with different views often had very good reasons for their views.” As with the previous feedback question, the ability to not only learn from but also to understand the reasons for someone else’s opinions and views is the desirable outcome of deliberation, fundamental to a democratic mindset. The average answer (3.6) was here relatively lower than the answer to the other questions and that of other groups. This is not surprising, considering the fact that certainly at the beginning of the project many children already had big difficulties just to listen to others.

“I believe that I have developed a better understanding of some subjects” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). The mean score here was 4.4, which is very high. Eight children even answered “completely agree”.

„I believe that I have developed a better understanding of how certain topics are related”. The average for this answer was 4. Nobody gave a 1 or 2.

„I would like to participate in a program like this again” (1 = completely disagree; 5 = completely agree). The mean score was 4.1. Only one person “completely disagreed” and another one “disagreed”. The first person gave negative answers to almost all the questions. Seven people answered “completely agree” and five participants answered “agree”.

When we compare the answers of the both groups, we cannot observe significant differences between the younger and older participants. Likewise, the answers are not fundamentally different than those of the adults (social workers, teachers, volunteers) we worked with in other projects (cf. Blokland 2018b). The most important difference is the answer to the fourth question: even more than adults, the children had the feeling they had developed a better understanding of some topics (4.4 to 3.9). Obviously, this is not surprising.

9 Conclusions

It is a great habit of academics to conclude that more research is needed. We do not only have this habit to keep us busy. The problem is complexity and change: the number of relevant (interacting) variables is enormous, the variables at play vary in different environments, and environments change all the time.

We have worked about 20 hours with two different groups of a volatile school in Hamburg. The children volunteered and must have belonged to its most engaged pupils. Therefore, they are probably not representative for the entire school (we presented several indications for this). The school is of course also not representative for all the schools in Germany. Consequently, to get more robust results, repetitions in different schools with different groups of participants, are welcome. We are working on this.

Moreover, we only interacted about 20 hours with our participants. In comparison to the numbers of hours we can usually spend with our participants in many other projects, this is an important improvement. Still, this intervention is rather insignificant taking all the other influences into account that work on the people we cooperated with. When kids, for instance, are occupied with school for 35 hours per week and for 40 weeks per year, the school yearly shares more than 1400 hours with the children. Of this time in 2019, we only consumed 0,014%. Even this percentage we had to defend in almost every workshop against competing teachers convinced that their own interactions with our participants were more urgent.

What have we learned? First of all, we have met some wonderful kids. Now and then, they were impolite, they behaved badly towards each other, and they made some foolish remarks, but still, when they have shortcomings, it is foremost politics and society that is to blame. In many ways we are failing them.

We wanted to find out what insights the children had regarding democracy, freedom and discrimination in general, and regarding specific forms of discrimination: Antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, Ableism (disability discrimination), and Antiziganism. On top of that we wanted to research whether a deliberative project would make a difference. Did the kids get a better understanding of some concepts and did they, when needed, become more open minded towards some often discriminated groups? And did they enjoy this kind of deliberation, so different from what they usually get at school?

As is the matter in most other schools in Germany, political education, the preparation for citizenship, seems poor in this school. Even the pupils we talked to (pupils which, as remarked, probably belonged to the most interested ones of the school), could also have lived on the moon: they are hardly connected to the world that surrounds them. To a high extent they have no idea what is going on in German, European or international politics and society. The chance that they catch up later in life, is small. The seeds have not been planted. The political interests developed during adolescence, hardly change later in live (Kranendonk 2019: 29-30).

We talked only for a short time, too short, about politics, democracy and civil society, but our experiences and the results of the survey give reason to believe that political education is wanted. The ideas on these topics are superficial and often derogative. The ability to think on these matters in a substantive way, is in short supply. Fundamental democratic values (the rights of minorities, the separation between church and state, the importance of civil society and political pluralism) are insufficiently understood. The children would be very interested in political education, though. They welcomed, for instance, the idea to start every day with a group discussion about what was going on in the world at the time. Their feedback to the deliberation workshops was also very positive: they would badly like to attend again. Research shows too that this kind of safe environments offered by a school class are of great importance for the development of democratic interests, skills and attitudes (Kranendonk 2019: 34-5).

Regarding the issue whether the participants became more open minded towards particular discriminated groups, we saw improvements on the topics of, among others, homosexuality, gender equality, and Antisemitism. We insufficiently addressed the biological backgrounds of racism. Too many children still seem to believe that different human races with different qualities can be designated. The discussion of identity had a bigger impact on the older group. More than the younger children they were tempted to define their identity less on ethnicity, which we read as progress.

Other than one might expect, listening to the current public debate on this issue, we did not encounter a widespread antisemitism among our participants, or a higher degree than among other adolescents. The kids basically had no idea what Judaism or Antisemitism were. Obviously, like in other spheres, to make their open-mindedness more robust and less vulnerable, this lack of knowledge has to be countered.

The children in our workshops were already rather open minded on many topics we discussed. Consequently, the progress that we could make, could be bigger if we had the chance to work with a more representative group of children for this school. We need to research this. On the other hand, it might be that the impact on the school climate is higher when we empower the groups that participate voluntarily.

How to go forward? As said, more projects with different groups of participants would give the opportunity to have more robust findings. The results we have now, though, give ample reason to continue with deliberations in schools. The children appreciate the opportunity to talk in deliberative settings about the topics we addressed. The results are encouraging. Additionally, we need to talk much more, as we had the opportunity in this project, about politics, democracy, civil society, social and political pluralism. And the idea of racism needs to be addressed much more via biology and genetics.

We also had the opportunity to talk with several social workers about the present situation in the school and the changes they would implement. Unfortunately, no teacher could find time to share some thoughts. The main point of the social workers in this school and of those of comparable schools we talked to, is that many problems can only be solved when one is willing to question the entire framework of the school and the educational system of which it is a part. Instead of implementing needed structural changes, the tendency is there to react to symptoms. Asked about what he would do if he had the power to decide, the respect coach of another school where we have worked, replied: I would immediately close the school, because the situation is beyond repair.

The social workers in this school were less frustrated, but still saw the need for substantial changes. To name just a few: way less “Frontalunterricht” and much more “project education”; much more education outside the school; much more education about society and politics; no more homework (parents have very different capacities to help their children so homework furthers social inequality); much more use in the school of media like YouTube; much more media training, especially regarding social media; and much more educational use of the present diversity in the school.

We agree with these recommendations. We would add something very practical: adjust the school times beyond what has already been done, to the sleeping habits of children in puberty.

All in all, there is work to be done. We are excited to be a part of that.

I thank Oktay Tuncer, Philipp Bautz, Zak Reimer and Özlem Tiras-Hazer for their comments on a draft of this article. Obviously, all remaining mistakes are mine.


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[1] The project has been made possible by IN VIA Hamburg ( and the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend. We thank the school, the respect coach Özlem Tiras-Hazer, and especially the children for the cooperation.

[2] In the workshops, we were always present with two people: Asaf Leshem (two times), Oktay Tuncer (two times), Anne Flake (one time) and the author (5 times).

[3]  Later in life, they catch up, though. The omnipresence of references to Auschwitz in German media (especially in public broadcasting) might explain this.

[4] For the original quotes in German, see the German translation of this article „Warum gab es eine Mauer zwischen Ost- und Westdeutschland und nicht eine zwischen Nord und Süd? Reden über Diskriminierung, Antisemitismus, Rassismus, Sexismus, Homophobie in Brennpunktschulen in Hamburg.“

[5] In an interview in the weekly Der Spiegel (14 December 2017), Tim Engarten, professor in the didactics of political education at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt observes: “Political education is sacrificed in favor of economic education. Pupils should only learn what has a concrete benefit for their later professional life.”

[6] “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

[7] Compare here the experiments in the USA with teaching racism in the context of biology and genetics (Donovan 2019; Harmon 2019).




[11] The numbers are for the area Bergedorf, Harburg and Wilhelmsburg.

[12] pp. 216-8.



[15] In total, nine people answered with a 5 (very important), five people with a 4, one with a 3, two with a 2, and three with a 1 (not important at all).

[16] For the questions in German, see again the German translation of this article.

[17] Discrimination could be defined as “the process by which a member, or members, of a socially defined group is, or are, treated differently (especially unfairly) because of his/her/their membership of that group” (Collins Dictionary of Sociology). Kenneth Smith (2017) adds: “I might well dislike a particular individual for some reason and hence avoid their company, but this is not discrimination unless the reason I dislike them is because I claim that they belong to a group of people who have the characteristic in question which I dislike… I am prejudiced against someone – I literally prejudge them – because I believe they are a member of a group which I say has certain characteristics which I dislike, but I do not discriminate against them unless I act on the basis of my prejudices.

[18] Zick et al. 2019. Verlorene Mitte: Feindselige Zustände. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

[19] Aussiedler and Spätaussiedler are ethnic Germans living in Russia and Eastern Europe that have the right to come back to Germany and acquire German citizenship. Regularly their forebearers left Germany centuries ago. It is interesting or peculiar that the persons in question are per definition seen as “Germans”. Many other migrants might have much more in common with contemporary Germans.


[21] On 9 October 2019 a heavily armed 27-year-old right-wing extremist tried to enter the synagogue of Halle (Saxony-Anhalt) during Yom Kippur. The door hold, whereupon he at random killed two people in the street and in a kebab shop.

[22] For an overview of the themes and the ideas brought up in other workshops, see: Blokland. 2019.

[23] See the article above for data and sources.

[24] Comparative research indeed shows that German children of 14 hardly know how to read „news” on the internet and that they have great difficulties to differentiate between “fake news” and “news”. In comparison to other countries, schools also make barely any use in their curriculum of the available internet opportunities (only a quarter of the schools even have W-Lan) (Spiewak 2019; Götzke 2019).

[25] As remarked, the two groups we are predominantly reporting about engaged in a much more intensive program and the children also had to ask permission of their parents for their participation.

[26] A further indication that the people we worked with in this project belonged to the most liberal pupils in the school is a comparison with another volatile school in Hamburg that we visited for two days in December 2019. In this school we worked with an entire class of 30 pupils of 14 years old. The mean of their answers was 2.15, and that of the answers of the following two questions 4.6 and 2.3.

[27] In the survey of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, from which we took this question, 9.6 to 12.1 % of all the respondents “agreed” or “totally agreed” with this statement (2019: 68). The mean of the answers was 1.61. Sexism, for which this question was one of the two indicators, was the least found among the people between 16 and 30: people between 31 and 60 score twice as high and people older than 60, four times as high on this index (2019: 89). Consequently, the children in our project did not differ much from the average youngsters in the study of the FES.

[28] BBC. 2017. Girl toys vs boy toys: The experiment – BBC Stories.

[29] Always. 2014. Like a girl.

[30] MullenLowe Group. 2016. Inspiring the future – redraw the balance.

[31] The mean of the answers of the second school was 3.94. Nobody of the 16 children that answered the questions (totally) disagreed. Seven kids were indecisive.

[32] The mean of the answers of the second school was 3.67. Only one of the 18 children that answered the questions disagreed. Eight children were indecisive.

[33] The mean of the answers of the second school was 3.45. Three of the 20 children that answered the questions disagreed. Nine kids were indecisive.

[34] Arte. Mit offenen Karte: Die Entstehung des Rassismus.

[35] See Blokland, Hans. 2019. Talking straight to youngsters in Hamburg.

[36] Donovan suggests that biology courses even implicitly and unwantedly further racism. Research has shown, he writes, “a cause–effect relationship between the treatment of race in the biology curriculum and the development of racial biases (Donovan, 2014, 2016, 2017). When students learn about the prevalence of particular genetic diseases in specific racial groups during middle or high school biology classes, it can unintentionally lead youth to perceive more genetic variation between races than actually exists (Donovan, 2017) and thus infer that racial groups differ in intelligence for genetic reasons (Donovan, 2014, 2016, 2017). In turn, this learning appears to affect students’ support for policies that redress racial inequality by influencing how students explain racial disparities (Donovan, 2016, 2017). A biology curriculum that perpetuates racial bias by unintentionally increasing inaccurate beliefs about racial difference is inhumane because it harms those who suffer from racial discrimination” (2019: 530).

[37] The average of the answers in the second Hamburg school was 3,12. Of the 17 children that answered the question, only four (totally) disagreed. Seven were indecisive.

[38] The mean in the second school was 2,11. Nobody of the nine respondents answered affirmative. Four totally disagreed with the statement, five were indecisive. The number of respondents is small because, other than in the first school, most children were not able to concentrate that long that they could finish the survey.

[39] Mit offenen Karten: Homosexualität – Welches Recht auf Anderssein?

[40] In the second Hamburg school, the average was 1,26. 23 children answered the question. Nobody agreed in any sense with the statement. Only two people did not know. The liberal attitude of the pupils in this class towards homosexuals was remarkable.

[41] In the second Hamburg school, the result was comparable: 3,73. Three children totally disagreed, one disagreed, five were indecisive, three agreed, ten totally agreed.

[42] Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung. 2017. Werden Sinti und Roma diskriminiert? Zwei Frauen erzählen. Flutertv; Deutsche Welle. 2012. Romani Rose – das Gesicht der Sinti und Roma in Deutschland.

[43]; ;

[44] The explanation for this is given by the historian Karola Fings in an interview with Anna Ernst in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “After 1945, those who organized persecution during the Nazi era continued to pursue their professional careers. They sat in the administrative and criminal police departments… Members of the minority and survivors denounced officials and criminal police officers at an early stage, but all attempts to bring the perpetrators to justice were thwarted. The investigations came to nothing, because there was also a high level of continuity within the judiciary. If judges had ruled at the time that there had been racial persecution, the perpetrators would have had to expect criminal prosecution. This recognition of genocide was very skillfully circumvented by the police, judiciary and politicians. As a result, society has not at all questioned racism against Sinti and Roma. The people who survived the concentration camp received little or no compensation at all. And the following generations are still very much affected by this persecution.“

[45] This was done by Oktay Tuncer. I use his notes for this and the previous paragraph. In class we showed two small documentaries on the subject: BR24. 2018. Die Opfer der Euthanasie; and SWR. 2017. Euthanasie und Krankenmorde. Sequenz 2.

[46] Our fellow Asaf Leshem is our expert in this field, acting on a daily basis as a tourist guide at memorial sites in Germany and Poland and writing a dissertation on the subject. He was our guide in Berlin too. See his articles on our website in 2017 and 2018.

[47] The killings were organized from an office located at the Tiergartenstrasse 4. Exactly at the same spot is now the memorial.

[48] The first three questions were inspired by Fishkin (1996: 223).

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