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«Chaos in the classroom or is everything under control? Education after and about Auschwitz. Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Schwendemann, Protestant University ...»

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Chaos in the classroom or is everything under control?

Education after and about Auschwitz.

Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Schwendemann, Protestant University Freiburg/Germany (30/09/2004)

schwendemann@eh-freiburg.de - profschwendi@t-online.de

Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the faculty and student body, distinguished colleagues

On April 18th, 1966 Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno gave a speech on German radio in the state of

Hessen, a speech which would cause a stir within the academic community like few others have managed to do since that time. The speech was entitled “Education after Auschwitz”, in German “Erziehung nach Auschwitz”. It contains Adorno’s Categorical Imperative.

According to Adorno:

“It is the highest aim of education to prevent a return to Auschwitz. It is of such absolute and primary importance that I do not see the need to justify it. What I fail to understand, however, is why we have devoted so little time and energy to confronting this atrocity […] Auschwitz was pure barbarism. It is barbarism which education seeks to dispel. There are many of us who warn against a return to barbarism. Yet we need not fear a return to barbarism. There exists no such threat- what happened at camps such as Auschwitz was pure barbarism. Barbaric acts will continue to exist as long as the conditions which make them possible continue to exist.” In the opening lines of his speech, which have often been quoted, Adorno is clearly speaking as a philosopher of the Enlightenment, one who sees the dialectic of the Enlightenment within the forming of civilization. Adorno’s Imperative is meant for the education of society, a society in which “a spiritual, cultural and social climate exists, which eradicates any chance of repeating such mistakes. As such, it is an environment which makes us aware of the motives which ultimately led to such horrors.” In his speech from the 18th of April, Adorno not only addresses the topic of Auschwitz (Schweitzer, Boschki 1997, 22ff.). According to Adorno, the entire philosophical framework itself had been transformed. 200 years after Kant and amidst the horrors of genocide, Adorno reformulated the concept that the individual is autonomous, possessing the ability to reflect and, therefore, the power of selfdeterminism. Generalities are realized in concrete, individual situations. Adorno hoped that the autonomous individual would be able to face the facts and to resist the didactic model of hardness and coldness. Adorno criticizes the Nazis’ didactic principles and their violent image of man.

He says that:

“The extolled virtue of stone-coldness, which education attempted to instill, means an absolute indifference to pain. Yet hardly any distinction is made between oneself and others. Whosoever is hard on himself has the right to be hard on others and he takes his revenge for the pain which he feels but cannot show and which he seeks to drive away […] Education must take into account a concept which is well-known in philosophy, namely that one should not attempt to ignore one’s fears. Thus if we are allowed to be as afraid as reality justifies us to be, then the destructive effects of fear ignored- both consciously and unconsciously- will partially disappear.” The message for educationalists is loud and clear: avoid teaching methods which are akin to those used by the Nazis at all costs. Posterity would become a victim of the exact same mindset which it is trying

to clear up. Truth cannot persevere in falsehood. At a further point Adorno says:

“It is high time that all political education serves to insure that Auschwitz never happens again. Yet that is possible only when education can deal with this topic of topics- without the fear of awaking a sleeping dragon. Education must transform itself into sociology and elucidate the social power game which takes place beneath the surface of politics. A concept worthy of criticism is the highly-esteemed ‘reason of state’: as long as the rights of nations are above those of its citizens, such horrors remain potentially possible”.

Adorno’s speech, especially the part quoted at the beginning of this lecture, evolved into the starting point of a new didactic principle- a teaching doctrine which was clearly a preventive measure, but at the same time helping to form a new political correctness. This is because the social, economic and political problems, which go hand in hand with the school lessons about the Nazi regime, can be isolated and taught to those suspected of being deficient in their knowledge of these topics. We are reminded of

Kant’s doctrine that:

“A person becomes a person through education. We are nothing except that which education makes out of us…” (Kant 1966, 699f.) Adorno’s philosophy of education is not nearly as optimistic as Kant’s, all the more since he viewed Auschwitz as the Enlightenment’s ultimate failure. According to Adorno, barbarism is inherent in the process of civilization. An even more uncomfortable question is perhaps whether modernism gave birth to the rationality which made it possible (Baumann, 1999). In that case, it is not sufficient to simply teach what happened under the Nazi regime, but to demonstrate the connection which exists between modernism and national-socialism in which we can recognize an attempt to create the world as we would have it. In order to recognize the mechanisms of nationalsocialism, the learner must be capable of critical self-reflection and must find themselves in a learning environment which in no way repeats or resembles the mechanisms of national-socialism.

A closer look at how Adorno’s speech has been interpreted exemplifies this very danger: Auschwitz is reduced to an educational problem and is used for didactic purposes (Meseth, 27). Adorno draws attention to the boundaries of education with regards to Auschwitz, and he also says that the didactic dilemma must be tolerated. A further problem, which I will only briefly touch upon today, is the relationship between four generations- four generations with a completely different understanding of, and relation to, German history, especially concerning Auschwitz (Schweitzer/Boschki, 26). Here we should not underestimate the traumatic experiences which have been passed along from one generation to the next. In another study, we examined the way in which dealing with such traumas have been passed along within the family- almost always within the male lineage, as we discovered. Members of the younger generations are faced with working out the problems which they have inherited but which they do not really understand (Schwendemann/Marks 2003).

II. Whenever historical events are covered at school, it is often the case that protest arises from those who feel that although the standard lessons concern themselves with the Holocaust, national-socialism and anti-Semitism, they fail to instill values which will have a prophylactic effect on the pupils. Instead we notice difficulties in communication and learning blockades at school which can lead to prejudices (König 1997) or to illusory feelings of superiority (Brendler 1991, 1997). Furthermore, education can contribute to raising interests in national-socialism (ibid), or can lead to a second form of anti-Semitism based on socio-psychological phenomena (Wagensommer 2002, 2003): “an anti-Semitism existing not despite but because of Auschwitz” (Erb 1991, p 215). Many pupils and even teachers respond to Auschwitz in a dismissive way by saying that they are sick and tired of hearing about it (Heyl 1996, p 61). In fact, it seems to be the case that ever since Nazism became a fixed part of the curriculum, it has been greeted by pupils with more and more disapprobation- at least concerning the length at which the subject is discussed (Schöneberger et al. 1997, p 24).

Looking back historically, we see that problems with dealing with this topic have existed from the very beginning. In the 1960s, two renowned German professors, Rumpf and Tjaden, pointed out a reluctance to hear about the (Tjaden 1962, p 239) and a defensive attitude which could be observed among pupils (Rumpf 1960, p 692). In the same manner, Bayer criticized the overzealous analysis of the historical events and believed the past to be minutely scrutinized to the point of “excess” (Bayer 1963, p 175).

Such argumentation, however, was contradicted by empirical analyses which documented a sizeable deficit in pupils’ knowledge (Wiesenmüller 1972 and Filser 1973). Students almost always saw the socalled Third Reich within the context of Hitler’s person. Clichés and prejudices against the Jews were common in the classroom, so that researchers such as Filsner posed the question of “whether or not a latent anti-Semitism is evident within part of the curriculum.” (ibid, p 51) Current studies show that the national-socialist past is not a historical event which fascinates young persons for merely historical purposes. What still remains to be learned is something about the motives of Nazi perpetrators; this essentially means that thought processes taking place in the classroom- even concerning pure factual information - are connected with emotions which, if they are not properly dealt with as Adorno indicated, could quickly lead to irrational behavior and to feelings of guilt. On the one hand, lessons about Nazism must not lead to indifference towards the victims and to solidarity with the perpetrators of the Nazi regime- which is a real danger if only the facts are communicated to students.

On the other hand, lessons about national-socialism must make teachers and students aware of the human abyss- the depths to which humans can sink- by analyzing the psychodynamics of Nazism.

Furthermore, anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudices should be dealt with in such a way that contributes neither to the creation of further stereotypes nor to anti-Semitism because of Auschwitz nor to counter-productive classes. But is Auschwitz, in other words the annihilation of millions of individuals, a topic to be taught at school? Can something which defies comprehension and baffles the imagination- that which unfolds behind the word Auschwitz- even be a point of orientation for teachers?

Can Auschwitz be dealt with and worked out emotionally within the context of factual knowledgea concept which implies a tendency towards relativism? How are we to teach the historical facts and events of national-socialism? The results of our studies at the Protestant University of Freiburg correspond with studies conducted within the last few years concerning this issue (Dan Bar-On, 1997).

We have seen that teachers who try to explain the historical facts and developments have a different approach than those who attempt to analyze a pupil’s inner conflicts and ability to deal with this subject.

In the first case, success is measured in terms of how well the teacher was able to provide the facts. In the later case, it is more important to measure the emotional and psychological effects of the Holocaust on pupils of the current generation. Answers to questions about how students feel about audio-visual material which deals with Nazism remain, to date, unknown and are not seen as belonging to the realm of factual knowledge. During a series of interviews which we conducted with pupils (Schwendemann, Marks 2002), it was important for us to observe the level of emotional-cognitive knowledge possessed by pupils concerning Nazism before they dealt with the topic in their history and social studies classes.

The next step was finding out the sources of this knowledge, for example school, family, peers, the media. The term “Nazism” was used freely and openly in order to give the interviewees enough latitude when giving their answers. It was striking to see how Nazism was reduced to the person of Adolf Hitler, the person widely seen as being solely responsible for what took place. The fact that adolescents focus on Hitler represents a mythological view of the world which, in turn, reproduces nationalsocialist thinking if it is not kept in check, even when the premises are completely reversed. In other words, the view that Hitler was called upon to be the Führer and the embodiment of national-socialism. The pupils interviewed demonstrated, on the one hand, a dislike towards Hitler, whom they described as being cruel without further qualification, but whom they found to be intelligent on the other hand. The scales are balanced here between good and evil, and it is this ambivalent mixture which has a latently fascinating effect upon the students.

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