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Federal President Roman Herzog Calls for a Reform of the German Education System (November 5, 1997)

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On the first point: I want our education system to be value oriented.

I know very well that any laundry-list of values rouses suspicions of ideology, at least if it doesn’t devolve into platitudes. But education cannot be limited to conveying knowledge and functional skills! Character formation not only entails cultivating sensitivity, creativity, and critical faculties, it also involves imparting values and social skills. Here, I also mean imparting virtues, which aren’t nearly as old-fashioned as they might sound: reliability, punctuality, and discipline, and above all respect for one’s neighbors and the ability to care for others.

We should also be more aware of the connection between certain values: there can only be tolerance where individual viewpoints also exist. Encounters with foreign thought and value systems presuppose a knowledge of our own heritage and the traditions that influence us. Other cultures tend to view the creative potential of our freedom-based occidental society much more consciously than we do ourselves. This is the basis of our strength, and we should not downplay it. But we also need to teach our children that freedom without goals leads to a lack of orientation, and that no polity can be founded on individualism without solidarity.

So we need the courage to assertively reintroduce educational values into the classroom. At the same time, our educational institutions have to return to the knowledge that one cannot foster achievement without also demanding it. Of course, that means we need to acknowledge that there is no such thing as an effort-free life. If we agree that one educational aim is to prepare young people for a life in freedom and self-determination, then a laissez faire attitude does not suffice; instead, we have to make it clear that freedom is strenuous, because everyone is responsible for his or her own freedom.

In short: we need a new culture of independence and responsibility! And neither can be imparted by abstract theories. Instead, parents and teachers must set a daily example.

Second, I would like our education system to be grounded in practice.

This does not mean advocating a kind of “educational materialism” that only emphasizes knowledge that is primarily valuable to the economy. But I am dismayed by complaints that as many as fifteen percent of young people who apply for apprenticeships fail to meet the basic prerequisites, not least because they lack the necessary reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. And I am concerned that a considerable portion of our college graduates cannot find a job in keeping with their training.

Given the level of economic and administrative specialization that exists today, I am well aware that no educational program can teach a young person everything he needs to know for his first job and that on-the-job training will therefore remain unavoidable. But that is no reason to totally separate formal education from real life. A brief look at textbooks already shows how far removed they are from reality. Schooling sometimes prepares students for other subjects or educational paths but not necessarily for real life.

Not every school subject needs to prepare students for an academic course of study. Universities already offer enough physics courses for physicists and linguistics courses for linguists. In a world that is splintering into smaller and smaller professional spheres, where experts and specialists communicate in their own specific jargon, we shouldn’t promote specialization too early. The spectrum of required subjects must remain broad; or rather, it must be broadened once again. But this doesn’t mean that secondary school students will face an even more densely packed curriculum. On the contrary: this is about concentrating on what is essential and giving students a broad general education, whether they want to eventually become lawyers, doctors, technicians, or police officers.

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