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The German Education Crisis (1963)

Georg Picht, an educator who made a name for himself with the book Die deutsche Bildungskatastrophe [The German Educational Catastrophe], criticizes the narrow-mindedness of the traditional German academic community and argues for a reform of the university system, which, as he writes, would have to include both an overhaul of the curricula and better planning for the future.

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The Tradition and Future of the University

[ . . . ] The reasons for the internal weakness of our institutions of higher education are not difficult to recognize. The problem already started with the First World War, a terrible bloodletting that has come to be symbolized by the name Langemarck; the younger elite of German science and scholarship was senselessly sacrificed.* During the Weimar period, the state, burdened by reparations and the economic crisis, did not have the financial means to initiate the college and university expansion necessitated by global developments; we are still paying for those failings. With National Socialism, catastrophe befell German institutions of higher education. By the winter semester of 1934-35, 14.8 percent of all college and university lecturers had already been dismissed. By 1938, according to an estimate from that year, one-third of all faculty members had been dismissed, transferred, or forced to retire. The regime’s hostile attitude towards scholarship caused student enrollment for the winter semester of 1938-39 (55,300) to drop to about half of what it was for the winter semester of 1928-29 (111,600). This also applied to the natural sciences and technical subjects. Thus, at a time when a country’s international status was becoming increasingly dependent on its scientific capabilities, German scholarship was deliberately dismantled and ideologically poisoned. Science and research, already weakened externally and ensnarled both morally and intellectually in a wretched, prolonged illness, were then subjected to the Second World War, which claimed huge numbers of new victims, destroyed irreplaceable institutes and libraries, and ended in the loss of a number of the country’s most significant colleges and universities.

A simple conclusion can be drawn from these facts: the older generation, which is running our institutions of higher education today, experienced such great loss through emigration and war, had its self-confidence so shattered by the experience of Nazism, and was forced to waste so much energy on tasks not related to scholarship during the war and postwar reconstruction period that it cannot be expected to rebuild the German higher education system. If we still hold out hope that German science and research will regain international prestige, then this hope lies with the younger generation. The future of German universities depends on whether the intellectually agile minds among the young faculty and the student body will recognize and accept the challenges presented to them by a new world. What do these challenges look like?

1. In all areas of public and private life, scientific research determines the world of technological civilization. It has become the basic law governing the modern world to an extent that we have yet to fully grasp. The economic and political competitiveness of a country is therefore utterly dependent on the number, and the standing, of the scientists and scholars at its disposal. Since the growing academic demands necessarily penetrate all levels of education, all the way down to elementary school, a substantial expansion of the entire education system is also necessary – for the productivity of society depends on the state of its education system. In order to meet these demands, we must be prepared for an expansion of academic institutions of higher education that goes far beyond the current plans of the Council of Science and Humanities. We have reached that hopeless position where an increase in quality can only be achieved through an increase in quantity and the drop in standards associated with it, because the numerical relationship between [the number of] qualified instructors and the size of the student body has become so absurd that quality [education] can no longer be imparted. .

* At Langemarck in Flanders (Belgium) approximately 1,500 young German war volunteers were killed in October 1914. The battle has been interpreted as either a heroic attempt by young Germans or the senseless slaughter of innocent young people – eds.

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