Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Secondary Schools and Social Structure in 19th Century Germany

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Secondary Schools and Social Structure in 19th Century Germany

Article excerpt

Ever since the 1977 publication of Detlef K. Muller's massive study of secondary education for boys in nineteenth-century Berlin, Sozialstruktur und Schulsystem,(1) efforts to test, revise, or challenge its controversial theses have been a major focus of research for scholars interested in German educational history. The three books under review, despite their great differences in length, topic, and sophistication, all contribute to this ongoing debate. That by Lundgreen, Kraul, and Dirt does more, establishing a new standard for scholarship on education and social mobility.

By shifting attention from governmental decrees and "required" curricula to the realities of enrollment patterns and informal tracking in the schools, Muller discovered that until around 1870 the classical Gymnasien in the Prussian capital served a much more diverse clientele than had previously been suspected. He argued, in fact, that during this period the Gymnasien functioned more as "comprehensive schools" than as institutions devoted primarily to preparing graduates for the universities. From this perspective, Muller viewed the development of a more differentiated system of Prussian secondary schools - the creation of the semiclassical Realgymnasium after 1859 and of the modern Oberrealschule after 1882, as well as the granting to their graduates of nearly equal privileges in the universities and civil service after 1900 - not as a broadening of access and an encouragement of pluralism, but rather as a strategy of social defensiveness on the part of the educated elite of Imperial Germany. As Muller put it in an English summary of his book, the effect of the reforms of the Wilhelmine era was "to replace a system which promoted social mobility and involved educating school children in socially heterogeneous groups by types of schools designed to reproduce specific classes and social groups."(2) He supported this assertion with extensive statistics concerning the social origins of pupils and graduates of the different types of schools. In subsequent publications, Muller has applied this general thesis to developments in nineteenth-century Germany as a whole.

Exner-Seeman's work, an unrevised dissertation from the University of Heidelberg, is concerned only with the last aspect of Muller's interpretation, the social origins of secondary school graduates. As the subtitle of his book indicates, he focuses primarily on the graduates of the semiclassical and modern schools in the rapidly industrializing Rhine province during the second half of the nineteenth century. Because the provincial records have not survived, he had to reconstruct the numbers and origins of the Abiturienten from the annual reports of schools in eighteen cities, ranging from Saarbrucken in the south through Trier, Koblenz, Aachen, and Cologne to the booming urban areas of the Ruhr.

The first one hundred pages of Exner-Seeman's book provide a capsule history of the development of the various Realschulen in Prussia, one written without reference to my own work or any other relevant publications in English.(3) The second half of the book reports his findings in a repetitive, city by city account. His results depend very heavily on his model of social stratification, especially his insistence, in contrast to Muller, that "not all university graduates belong to the upper class." (p. 125) By relying on income levels more than professional prestige as criteria for social status, Exner-Seeman arrives at the somewhat surprising conclusion that in most Rhineland cities a higher percentage of Realgymnasium graduates than of Gymnasium graduates came from the upper class. Thus his work does not confirm Muller's view of the creation of alternative tracks in the late nineteenth century as leading to a more socially exclusive Gymnasium.

The fatal flaw in Exner-Seeman's work, which his own data reveal, is that, given the much larger numbers of Gymnasium than of Realgymnasium or Oberrealschule graduates, a significantly higher number of upper-class sons graduated from the classical than from the semiclassical or modern schools. …

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