Saturday, July 22, 2017


Two freshmen in Germanistik (German studies) are looking at a painting showing Heinrich Heine. One of the guys queries: Is this Schiller or Goethe? Bonehead, his colleague answers, that is Goethe; Schiller was a composer.

German studies were and still are a stopgap study. In addition there are theater arts and even worse political science. This more so since in Germany the number of young people in a year with Hochschulreife (higher education entrance qualification) is now over 60 % whereas 50 years ago only 6 % of a school year went on to university studies. So embarrassed youngsters - the first thing they want is to become a university student*- are flooding the universities (75,000 freshpersons in 2016/17). Without much guidance they choose Germanistik, some of them with only a rudimentary knowledge of German orthography, grammar, and linguistic style.
*of those 6 % graduates of my time not all went to university. Only one half of my classmates studied.

Peter Philipp Riedl, professor of modern German literature at Freiburg's university, admits: Since I started teaching I have noticed that there is a good and even excellent top group but the so-called good middle field is becoming thinner.

Lucky America, you do not send your high school graduates to advanced studies at universities right away but to college first. This system is based on the medieval baccalaureate where in olden days the Seven Liberal Arts* (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) had to be mastered first in preparation for serious studies of theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. Such an approach to higher education is much better suited than the Humboldt idea of a free study at any university. The Humboldt brothers started with an assumption that no longer holds nowadays. They entered the university as two extremely well-prepared young men whereas nowadays German high schools are under pressure to graduate many pupils with good marks irrespective of their basic knowledge.
*Note the preponderance of science subjects

Coming back to the US; on the one hand I always admire the top-level researchers collecting most of the Nobel Prizes whereas on the other hand I am told that mass-education in the US leaves much to be desired. While German Nobel Prizes remain rare I fear that with respect to the general education of German kids we are approaching the States.

Well, I am an old man. Whenever I deplore young people's lack of basic knowledge I am told that times have changed. Still, it is sad to see that high school graduates staring at their iPhones take Schiller for the Apple marketing director. Guys, it's Friedrich and not Phil.

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