The Rambling American: Bad Education

Are schools forcing kids to grow up too fast? Locke McKenzie observes that, in Germany, they don’t have to.

“Who doesn’t have their homework this morning?”

In this class of 30 German tenth graders, about fifteen hands go up.

When I think back on high school in the United States, a number of images still hang in my memory—drinking in some hidden basement before football games, visiting the principal, reading nauseating amounts of Charles Dickens. Having a teacher ask who does and does not have his/her homework was not a part of that experience.

If school had come down to the honesty policy, my classmates and I would have thought we had just gotten away with murder. Only a sucker would raise their hand.

But education in Germany is a different story.

Thinking back again on my high school years, it seems that my teachers were assigned the role of second parent as much as educator. When the grown-ups sent us to school, they handed over our lock and key as well. Where my parents would ground me, my teachers could give me detention. When Mom found it necessary to send me to Dad for a talk, my teachers would send me to the principal. And teachers checked homework with the same unrelenting strictness that my parents applied to my curfew. There was no question, at home and at school, that responsibility was a matter of getting caught or not.

After working in a German Gymnasium for a year, I can affirm that German students are given much more wiggle room in dealing with day-to-day issues.

Bars are where students drink (sometimes with teachers), the principal is a decision-maker not a disciplinarian, and even grades are a matter of dispute. At the end of each marking period, the teacher gives each student his/her grade, and the student then has the opportunity to argue a case for why the note is unfair.

Wiggle room is probably the wrong term here. German society understands child development differently than we do in the States; from their mid-teens onward German students are treated like adults.

Their development is a series of open dialogues rather than a set of commands.

While this may seem like a frightening amount of discretion to thrust upon a 16 year-old, here in Germany it works.

What is most striking about the democratic grade-giving process is that the majority of the grades go undisputed, even when the note is poor. In a class of 30, about ten students dispute their grade, and three or four are changed. The students recognize what they deserve, and they accept it.

One would think, as the stereotype suggests, that Germans take the fast track toward order and adulthood after high school. Instead, this is when the responsibility levels of Americans and Germans switches. Americans are stuffed into the cannon of adulthood and shot through their early twenties at a breakneck pace. Germans take this period at a long, slow stroll.

As Americans (and I am speaking in gross generalizations here), we are channeled from high school into college, and from college into our career. By age 25, many Americans have already joined the work force (financial crisis notwithstanding). Some already have a spouse and a house and a dog and maybe even a bun in the oven.

By our mid-twenties many Americans are already full-time adults.

In contrast, it’s not uncommon to meet Germans in their late twenties who are still full-time students. They are not tracked through the system of education and job acquisition as quickly as we are. Post-high-school options lay open at their feet, and therefore only a small percentage go directly to university. Some do a year of community service, some get practical job experience, some travel, and some live with their parents.

Many do go to university, but not until they know if and what they want to study. Marriage, children, and property are not a common topic of discussion until well into one’s thirties.

So where does that leave us? The more I think about it, the harder it becomes to say one is better than the other.

At 24, I like the fact that I am financially independent of my parents. It’s nice that I’m responsible for my own life and that I can make my own decisions, but that doesn’t mean that I want to plunge into this frightening rabbit hole known as my career or that I’m ready for a family or a house or, God forbid, children.

These are all things that should be figured out after I’ve had a chance to understand myself. In this realm, I think the Germans have things under much better control. They may enter the world of independent responsibility at an earlier age, but they also seem to know how to pace themselves. When one is still studying at 25, 26, or 27, the expectations for what’s next are much less oppressive, and it shows on their faces. The average German on the street looks and acts five years younger than the average American.

In the world of skin creams and age-revitalizing peels, I guess we could all use some advice on how to look a little younger; but in the event of a disastrous economic meltdown, we could all probably benefit from a bit of financial independence too.

When it comes down to it, I guess neither country really has it totally figured out. I’d better hold out on having a kid until one of these two places gets it perfect.

I wonder if I’ll still be potent enough to reproduce in the next century.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.