Thursday, March 25, 2010

Education Part 3: Germany's Graduation Problem.

The Economist recently ran a special section on Germany. What caught my eye was an article on how Germany's education system is seriously deficient. This is Germany, home of the much boasted "german precision equipments", home land of Volkswagen, of BMW, of Mercedes, Carl Zeiss (leading optical instrument maker), crucible of Quantum physics, country of Einstein and Max Planck. We often tend to think of the Western developed world in broad strokes especially when it comes to educational opportunities. The article began with a shocker "Germany invented the modern university but long ago lost its leading position to other countries, especially America. These days the land of poets and thinkers is prouder of its “dual system” for training skilled workers such as bakers and electricians. Teenagers not bound for university apply for places in three-year programmes combining classroom learning with practical experience within companies. The result is superior German quality in haircuts as well as cars.."

When it came to % of population with degree level education Germany had a pathetic 12% compared USA's 31%. In an age when a country's competitiveness in the global market is decided on how many 'employable' graduates they can produce, Germany's focus on churning out 'technicians' is severely flawed.  The dual system (academics + vocational training) has served Germany very well in providing an edge for an export oriented economy but then China is threatening that front. China is still a far cry from dethroning the vaunted German manufacturing that is known for sterling quality that cannot be replicated on a large scale.


What is worse is  that the dual system has a characteristic German rigidity. Economist, notes, "The type of secondary school a German attends, the degree he obtains and the exams he passes classify him for life. The distinctions are made earlier and more rigidly than in other countries. ...Many children are typecast at age ten, which is when most German states decide which of three kinds of secondary school he or she will attend. ..The state bureaucracy acknowledges four career paths: the simple, middle, elevated and higher services. Bureaucrats in one category can rarely aspire to careers in a higher one. "

That kind of feudal rigidity is alien and even an anathema to the average American. Resiliency, the ability to reinvent ones own life, choose different careers at various stages of life etc form the bedrock of this country. I remember visiting Princeton university when a student guide remarked that he was doing some course and that he got disinterested in it finally moving on to Political Science. He was writing a thesis on "Role of primary elections in JFK's election".My dad asked me if he would get a job. I said, maybe, but in all probability he can choose many professions that would use the 'talent' of a political science graduate.

To make the irony sweeter I shall turn to a book I am reading "Great American University" by Jonathan Cole, former Dean of Columbia University. Johns Hopkins university is considered the precursor of a great American tradition, 'the research university'. John Hopkins was referred as "Gottingen of Baltimore" after the University of Gottingen in Germany. Eric Kandel, Nobel Laureate in medicine, notes that the American research universities "had all been inspired by model of German research university in which Geheimrat, the great Scientific leader, ordered the hierarchy of his subordinates". So what differentiated the American research university and what catapulted the American education above its peers?

Thomas Hunt Morgan, trained at Hopkins, working on genetics on the famous fruit fly at, Drosophila Melanogaster, at Columbia University who revolutionized how work is done in a laboratory in a collaborative manner rather than a power hierarchy. Eric Kandel summed up his observation with "Morgan, however, based laboratory governance on democratic principles of merit rather than seniority..and to this day foreign scientists are amazed that students working in a laboratory call professors by their first name". Morgan got the Nobel in 1933.

The role of US government is setting ambitious goals to further education is an undeniable factor too. Lincoln created the "National Academy of Sciences" in 1863. Cole says that the Morrill Act (1862) and the Hatch Act (1887) were instrumental in the spread of literacy by making it easy for colleges to be established with land grants. Take a pause. We see a liberal democracy making spread of literacy as laudable goals in the 1860's. The next real big jump was the GI bill of rights (1944). Right in the midst of a world war FDR and the country worried about how to repay the millions of fine men and women who were sent to defend liberty. Also they worried about how to 'educate' the returning veterans. By 1956 7.8 million graduates owed their education to GI Bill.


The Great American University:Its Rise To Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it must be Protected --- Jonathan R Cole. (Pages 19-29)

1 comment:

Geethakrishnan said...