Hitlerism and the German Universities.
Many of these German revolutionists are still in the process of being educated at some institution of higher learning. Three-fourths of the student bodies of the universities are estimated to have National Socialist leanings, and a large portion are filling the ranks of the Brown Army as storm troopers and shock troopers. The students are making history, while their professors have to take the back seats in the political arena. Many of the latter are perhaps in sympathy with the new leadership; if they are not and were foolish enough to say so, they have probably lost their jobs. For the Nazi students owe implicit obedience to their party leaders, most of whom are outside the universities, and their revered commander-in-chief is Adolf Hitler, who finished his schooling with the eighth grade of an Austrian elementary school.
At the University of Berlin, world renowned for its brilliant faculty and at one time the mecca of American scholars, the student body is overzealous; it marches in the forefront of the movement, setting its pace. On the campus of this university there was conceived the grand idea of burning books with inimical contents in a public bonfire. There the students compelled the rector of the university, a man of international reputation, to resign because he refused to accede to their demands. Gone is the time-cherished tradition, equally respected by the republican and monarchial rulers of Germany for decades, which vested the university with absolute freedom of teaching and research, thus making it a state within the state. The ruling party has already announced that it will not tolerate any expression of opinion which is at variance with its own proclaimed philosophy of life. At some future time the government may make some profound changes in the organization and educational routine of the higher institutions of learning. If so, the views of the faculties will be ignored; the reform will be imposed, as it were, at a top-sergeant's command; for the doctrines of the National Socialist party are the supreme law of the land to which everyone must bow.
All this should give pause to educators abroad, as the astounding news emerges from a country whose educational plan seems to have made a deep impression on many American educators. In research, at least, the accomplishments of this system are undisputed. How was it possible that the German professors lost their hold on the minds of the students so completely? Why is the leadership of the great men of learning so conspicuously absent from the movement that is about to deflect the stream of German life into a new bed?
As a product of higher German education, I shall attempt to expose some of its intrinsic shortcomings so as to build up a plea for the curbing of certain pernicious tendencies in American education. To achieve this purpose it is necessary to illuminate the prominent differences in the philosophy and routine of the American and German universities. Let us suppose a student from an American college be transferred to a German university. What will impress him most strongly will be the great independence of the German students. He will heave a sigh of relief, for here the student is treated like an adult; he is given freedom. No attendance record is taken at any lectures; none of the red tape of securing excuses stings his scholarly pride; no dean of men or women exists. The auditor, for such is the student's official designation, does not debase his lofty intentions by working for credit. He studies, he imbibes at the spring of pure learning, he nestles avidly to the bosom of his Alma Mater whence he wishes to suckle the unadulterated milk of wisdom. He is held responsible for his work through examinations, to be sure, but nobody cares when he will take them; this, as is everything else, is left to the student's own discretion and initiative. At first sight, such a system must seem alluring to one who is repelled by the petty routine of the American undergraduate system of instruction. The underlying theory, as stated by its Continental exponents, is that a student who enters the university is to be considered a mature person by virtue of his having graduated from a secondary school, which is indeed incomparably more selective and exacting than the average American high school. But is a young man of about twenty years of age really mature enough to be his own master? Possibly not, the German educators will reply tartly, in which case he will eliminate himself and thus relieve the university of the thankless task of casting its seed on barren ground - Charles Darwin's axioms applied to higher education.
Self-contained and convincing as this theory seems to be, on close examination, it reveals itself to be specially adapted to the by-gone days when it was the sole purpose of the universities to prepare a select group of people for the professions. That such a definition of higher education would be too narrow under modern conditions will be demonstrated later in this article; but even if it held true, is not the vaunted student's independence a specious false front behind which the faculty glibly hides its indifference in respect to the student's well-being and spiritual progress? Does not such a system overemphasize the training of the mind while falling short of other objectives such as the building of character and the development of a wholesome civic attitude? Is it not likely to produce technicians in place of liberally educated men? No one who is familiar with both the German and the American school systems can fail to recognize that the problem of the undergraduate student in its enormous complexity has never been faced by the German educators. To let the students educate themselves means simply that the faculty is "cutting" its responsibilities.
The poverty of the undergraduate's social life in Germany seems pitiful to one used to American standards. The universities sponsor practically no extra-curricular activities. Cicero's famed dictum that he considered everything human his business is not part and parcel of the philosophy of faculties who busy themselves only with research, consider teaching a side line, and live in complete ignorance of and indifference toward the spiritual problems of their pupils.
Naturally, there are shining exceptions to this verdict. Fruitful contacts are made by advanced students in the seminars, where they work out their dissertations in a constant give and take between pupil and teacher, somewhat after the pattern of Mark Hopkins' ubiquitous log. There are also many professors, notably in the small provincial institutions, who take a personal interest in their students outside the seminars and get close to their hearts. But these cases are not the rule. During the first three years of their studies, at least, the majority of the "auditors," who are, in the main, young men and women between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two, impressionable, emotionally unstable, and quite immature despite the eight years of Latin and five years of Greek they may have had in the Gymnasium, are severely handicapped by the absence of guidance and scarcity of inspiration. The latter is to come from the lectures, but unfortunately many of them are as dry and dusty as old church registers. In this aloofness of the faculties from the actual problems of the students I see one great weakness of the German university.
Another lies in the tendency toward overspecialization. In Germany, as in most of the countries of Continental Europe, the liberal-arts college, as we have it in America, has never found a favorable soil. In place of the American plan with its four divisions, elementary school, high-school, college, and postgraduate studies, there are on the Continent three types of schools which are to fill the gap between illiteracy and the Ph.D. degree. These are the elementary school, the secondary school - Gymnasium or Realschule - and the university. The secondary school is highly selective and requires such exertions of the pupils as would set many American college youths agog. The average student finishes this school at the age of nineteen, winding up his studies with a comprehensive examination, to which great importance and solemnity is attached. On successful passage of this "examination of maturity" he is entitled to admission to any university of the country; no further hurdles in the form of entrance requirements can be placed in his path. In point of knowledge, he is probably on a par with the average American college student at the end of the sophomore year. The German student's liberal education is now completed; immediately on entrance into the university he takes up a specific line of work with a closely integrated curriculum, for example, law, medicine, engineering, or chemistry. Such a compact system of education trains with great thoroughness; it utilizes the students' time to the fullest; it makes, however, for vocational misfits, fosters professional priggishness, and aggravates the overcrowding of the professions. Admittedly, it does not aim to equip young men and women with broad and liberal opinions which will make them adaptable to the ever changing situations of modern life. Thus higher education in Germany departs fundamentally from the objectives of the American college. Which system responds better to the exigencies of our times?
That the universities have been the most immutable feature of German life during a century of unprecedented changes should arouse our suspicion. The ideology of higher education in Europe can be traced back to the Middle Ages; it has stood still for decades. Entrenched behind the liberalistic phase of the freedom of teaching and research, the universities have balked every effort at reform which was repeatedly urged upon them by outside forces that wished to bring them more in line with modem social conditions. Thus the gulf separating the places of academic wisdom from the highways of German life widened constantly till today their prestige is largely predicated upon research in specialized fields while the nation at large does not look up to them for leadership in a crisis, and their own graduates and undergraduates are turning away from them to follow other gods.
The purposes of an educational system are functionally determined by the sociological formula which expresses the Zeitgeist within a certain nation. As this formula suffers evolutionary changes, the ends of education must vary accordingly. A live system is constantly redefined in consonance with the requirements of a kaleidoscopic age. On the contrary, where we find a system stubbornly clinging to the shibboleths of the past, we may expect it to be weighted down by a good deal of dead timber. The hyper-conservative record of the German universities would immediately suggest such a conclusion. Let us, however, avoid a jump unwarranted by the laws of logic; let us rather put the crucial question: What is the purpose of higher education in a highly industrialized civilization?
What is not the purpose, Germany has painfully found out in these post-war years. When she opened the doors to unrestricted democracy by the revolution of 1918, the equalitarian spirit invaded the domain of education. Higher education was no longer regarded as a privilege of the few; it was to become the prerogative of the many. Special means were conceived to make the upper brackets of the school system accessible to gifted and deserving children of the poor. Opportunity for everyone, regardless of the accident of birth, became the battle cry of the democratic reformers. The state lent a helping hand. The enrollment figures in the big universities mounted, but university authorities soon began to sense the danger. They called attention to the rapid filling up of the professions, whose ranks had been somewhat depleted by the war, to the scarcity of openings in industry, to the general shrinkage of opportunities because of the territorial and commercial losses imposed by the peace treaty of Versailles. In vain, the flood of aspirants to higher degrees rose steadily, irrepressibly. The credit inflation, incident to the execution of the Dawes and Young plans of reparations, staved off the disaster, but it swooped down with its full ruthless force during the ensuing economic crisis. The devastating effects of overeducation, deliberately encouraged and planfully stimulated, stood out in grim relief. Thousands of graduates, doctors of philosophy, of medicine, and the like, laboriously trained for specific lines of work, faced a hostile world which had no use for them. The enemies of democracy gloated, for another soap bubble blown by the theorists of equalitarian democracy had burst. Many of the victims turned radical. Swelling the ranks of the malcontents, they furnished a powerful shock troop for the party of revolt, Hitler's Nazis.
It is doubtful whether the graduate of an American liberal-arts college would face exactly the same situation. His education was liberal, not narrowly professionalized; in a way he resembles the man who used to preface his remarks on various topics by the words: "Unimpeded by any knowledge of the subject, I think." He is adaptable to many different lines. He will, for example, not resent working at a simple sales job while the graduate of a German university, deeply hurt in his professional pride, will be most unhappy at it.
By this account I do not wish to create the impression that the National Socialist insurrection had its primary cause in the described conditions. Certainly, there were many other and more important factors which contributed to its success. But it should be noted that the universities were hotbeds of Naziism, that its revolutionary fanaticism provided a welcome opportunity for self-expression to a large portion of the student bodies, that the educational authorities were spectators and in some cases sufferers at the hands of the revolutionists, and that the passivity of the educational leaders, their lack of foresight, their Bourbon aloofness from the actualities of a changing social scene, helped to produce a revolutionary attitude among the academic youth of the country.
Germany teaches a pellucid lesson as to what higher education should not be for. In a democratic, industrialized society it must not purpose solely to prepare for the professions. Such a society requires higher education to be diffused among a large number of people, first for the sake of democracy, and second to relieve the labor market of congestion. As the openings in the professions are always limited to small numbers, professionalized mass education must result in a perilous disequilibrium with the inevitable concomitant of discontent and potential revolt. Our age, characterized by the prevalence of the machine power and penetrated with the recognition of human equality, calls for a type of higher education which trains broadly, liberally, and non-professionally, with adequate emphasis on those parts of the curriculum which aim at the development of the body, the character, and the civic attitude of the learner.
At no previous moment in history did such an opportunity wait on higher education. Will educators let it slip by? If they continue telling their clientele that a college education is worth so many dollars and cents in enhanced earning power, which was a perfectly correct statement in the past, but is now true only in a greatly restricted sense, they are using a shoddy sales argument which will come back at their heads like a boomerang because of the public's observation that the professions are already overcrowded, and the rate of output in the graduate schools is bound to exceed the demand for degree holders, even after the somewhat problematical return of prosperity. If the spokesmen for higher education, however, can show the public that a broad-sweeping educational program on the college level, far from producing sophisticated, over-educated malcontents, is capable of sending sound, open-minded, able-bodied youths, possessed with a high civic attitude and morale, into the world, then the social value of such a higher education will not have to go begging for recognition. Unfortunately, the German educators did not meet the problem with rifles in hand. Too much engrossed in research - from whose value no one wishes to detract - they underrated the danger. The omnipotent Nazi party declared categorically that the overcrowding of the universities must be stopped, and at the writing of this article a decree was promulgated by the Ministry of Interior barring some thirty thousand graduates of secondary schools from entrance into the universities and establishing a ratio of ten to one between the numbers of men and women enrolled.
It is my purpose to demonstrate to American educators that in the genesis of the Nazi revolution, the unresponsiveness of German higher education toward the problems of a changing civilization played an important part. American educators will have to marshal all their energy in order to check a similar development in this country. In the preceding exposition I labored to prove the soundness of the theory on which liberal college education has been based. I also stressed the dire lack of spiritual guidance which vitiated the work of the German university. It is difficult to shun the conclusion that the liberal-arts college constitutes the most valuable element in higher American education, and it is lamentable that recent trends have been playing havoc with this part of our educational system.
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|Author:||Neureiter, Paul R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Higher Education|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1999|
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