[The following post documents a Twitter thread )originally in German) from 27 February 2022: Together with the origal replies, it can be found here: https://twitter.com/An_Koer/status/1498053798983614470?s=20&t=Oqax0VSWvSQ8qwLEUeVvSg].
The German collation on this blog is here: https://historischdenkenlernen.blogs.uni-hamburg.de/ukraine-konflikt-und-beutelsbacher-konsens/
Many institutions and accounts in several countries are currently compiling advice and materials on how to talk to students about the war in Ukraine. This includes valuable advice on how to deal sensitively with fears and anxieties as well as on political education. One example is the padlet with materials from the Hamburg State Institute for Teacher Training and School Development. There, the cover letter refers to the principles of the Beutelsbach Consensus, i.e. to the principle of controversialty 1 (“Treating Controversial Subjects as Controversial”) and the prohibition of overwhelming the pupil, in the spirit of German political didactics.
In contrast to the latter, the former is perhaps not so obvious in view of the unanimous and justified assessment of the war as a breach of international law. Nevertheless, it is not only justified but necessary. One must just not make the mistake of assuming that under the “principle” or even “commandment” of controversialty there is some kind of neutrality or an attitude that “both” (or all) sides are somehow equally right. It cannot be about a formal “balance” — and according to the Beutelsbach Consensus it is not.
The “principle of controversialty” states that what is controversial in politics and society needs to appear as controversial in the classroom — neither as “inconsiderable”, nor as “not to be decided” or even as not to be withdrwan from evaluation. So it is not “the Russian” vs. “the Western” side and view that form the controversial topic, but some of the many issues that are quite rightly (albeit not simply symmetrically) controversial in our (and the world’s) society. These points must not (and must not) simply be reduced to value judgements, but must always be based on questions of factual judgements, such as, e.g. the question of the character of war as a breach of international law, as a breach of international treaties, etc. Even though (and maybe especially because) these latter questions are largely unambiguous and appear to have have been decided — still they have been discussed: Not whether, but why and to what extent this war is wrong — there were and are factual judgements on this.
Likewise, questions of the legitimacy of Germany’s reluctance to supply arms, of the possible effects of support or lack thereof, of forms of support for civil society can be discussed and considered — even and especially without arriving at a single common and predetermined answer.
The principle of controversialty thus means a non-formally balanced discussion and consideration of questions with the possibility of different assessments (and also evaluations), but it also means that arguments and judgements are considered and weighed up, whereby strengths and weaknesses can certainly be named. This can — and in many cases must — also include clearly criticising the acceptability of some argumentation, but without automatically prescribing exactly one single counter-argument as correct.
In such conflicts, the controversy referred to in the principle of controversialty does not mean the seemingly neutral confrontation of the parties to the conflict, but rather concerns more and more clearly a whole series of questions about the interpretation of causes, the plausibility of strategies, etc., which are intensively discussed in our society. It is precisely such questions that can be discussed in open societies with an open and plural media culture — which (hopefully) distinguishes this society from others — and in this conflict from that of the opposing side. This certainly requires teaching units and preparation of varying scope — and often also cross-curricular or interdisciplinary learning.
For example, the question of what is and can be meant by “Russian security interests” from different sides, and in what relation they can and must be placed to the interests of Ukraine, is certainly debatable — but requires material. One last point: The principle of controversialty also includes avoiding the impression that in the context of teaching, but also in life in the forums in which such questions are discussed, one could ever arrive at answers that would be conclusive in any way, that could not require re-sharpening (up to revision) with new information, under changed conditions, also with more life experience and other perspectives.
For another reason, the principle of controversialty does not demand that decisions, final or provisional judgements be reached and that arguments always be weighed against each other. Already the realisation that there are different positions, perspectives, factual and value judgements together with their underlying world views, concepts, values etc., and (better:) how they (or some of them) look like and “function”, contributes greatly to the ability to orient oneself. Moreover, their knowledge also requires judgements that can be discussed.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to collect a few questions/topics that can be honestly (considered) controversial?
- What can participants in the public discussion mean when they speak of Russia’s “security interests” and argue whether they “should” be taken into account?
- Putin’s policy as “traditional great power aspirations” or as the result of “loss of reality” or even illness, insanity? What do these interpretations mean, and what do they imply for expectations and possible reactions?
- Germany’s “historically conditioned” restraint in foreign policy — what is/is meant by this? What is/are the reasons for this? To what extent is it judged to be (no longer) appropriate? Which (different) ideas of a new orientation are justified and how?
- In contrast to well-established practice of using “controversy”, I use the possibly neologist “controversial(i)ty” in order to match the character of the German term “Kontroversität” as referring not a manifest controversity, but to the characteristic of a question, a topic to be discussed about in society and in academe. As will be visible in the following, this differentiation is crucial in our case at hand. It is not necessarily the war against Ukraine which is the controversy to be covered and to be addressed from different and open perspectives (although in other cases, wars and their interpretation can form such controversial topics, and some aspects even of this war may be considered to be legitimately open to debate), but rather questions relating to this war.