Education and Society in Germany

By H. J. Hahn | Go to book overview
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A discussion of education in relation to social change may inevitably evoke reminiscences of the 1960s and the height of German modernism and give rise to accusations of anachronism and an outdated methodology of Education Studies. However, both pedagogics and modernism are deeply indebted to the Enlightenment, an age which discovered the childhood psyche, the process of growing up, of self-reflection and self-awareness.

The experience of the Enlightenment and the tradition of education in Germany are different from those of its Western neighbours: the German concept of Bildung concentrated on character perfection within an artistic and secularized Christian environment, but at the expense of social, economic and political considerations. The German Bildungsroman (novel of education) is unique in European literature, portraying adolescence and the organic, psychic, artistic and intellectual maturation of the artist hero, with little reference to the social and economic themes contained in the roman social or its British equivalent. As a result of this elevated and aesthetic approach to education, German scholarship tended to be lacking in positivist and empirical research. Despite its often abstract and theoretical nature, however, its more metaphysical and epistemological outlook has made an invaluable contribution to the furthering of empirical knowledge.

An entertaining introduction to the tradition of German education--as seen through British eyes--is Thomas Carlyle Sartor Resartus ( 1834). 1 This biography of Professor Diogenes Teufelsdröckh from Weissnichtwo describes an apparently aimless, badly organized and rather inert education system, a Gymnasium where 'hide bound Pedants, without knowledge of man's nature' cram their pupils with 'innumerable dead Vocables' (R. 99). At university, young Teufelsdröckh encounters 'controversial Metaphysics, Etymology, and mechanical Manipulation falsely named Science' (R. 99). And yet, such an atmosphere, free of the serious constraints of more disciplined studies, allows him to read and expand his mind at leisure, so that he matures into a supreme product of that 'learned, indefatigable and deep thinking Germany [. . . ] where abstract Thought can still take shelter' (R. 3). Teufelsdröckh's life-work becomes the 'Philosophy of Clothes', 'a masterpiece of boldness, lynx-eyed acuteness, and rugged independent Germanism and Philanthropy' (R. 5f). In spite of Carlyle's benignly satirical description, one has the feeling that Teufelsdröckh's research would pass today for a major sociological study, introducing scholars to empirical fieldwork.

Mark Twain, a satirical American commentator, often prepared to cast a critical eye on matters German, is moved to describe German university life, however, in terms of benevolent admiration, praising an academic freedom which produces


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