Germany needs an elite

Stefanie Müller, Wirtschaftswoche Correspondent in Madrid

26 April 2004

After the terror of the Nazis, it became a taboo issue, but now Germany needs it more than ever: an elite.

After the Second World War, the Germans put modesty, strict discipline and unrestrained diligence before all else. The country’s economy was thus able to recover swiftly and, despite the terrible material destruction and psychological depression of the Second World War, in the 70's it became the third strongest economic force in the world. German education was considered in-depth, practical and very solid. German engineers were the very best. They developed cars, electrical appliances, telephones and televisions, whose brands are now household names all over the world.

On average, Germany was rather better than other industrial nations, but not when it came down to detail. There was, and indeed still is, hardly any elite in Germany. Except for sport, where cadres, boarding schools, sponsorship funds and maximum performance are not frowned upon. For a long time, the dominant theory was that fostering an elite is contrary to the notion of equal opportunities for all. This evidently results in talented children, who go to school with children of normal intelligence, having their chances reduced.

Any elite implies selection and this still reminds many in Germany of the Nazis, who wanted to concentrate on the best Germans and get rid of those they felt were the weakest in the cruelest manner. The aim of the successive democratically elected governments of the 60's and 70's in Germany was to ensure that this should never – not even to a certain extent – happen again. For this very reason, the disabled nowadays are integrated, in a truly exemplary fashion, into society at large, admission to German schools is not denied to immigrant children with a poor knowledge of the language and both school and university education is free, so that everyone has an equal opportunity.

However, there has been less consideration for those children who demonstrate extraordinary talents and do not, therefore, fit neatly into the mainstream school or university system. As a result, in Germany there are very few private or specialised schools, let alone elite universities.

For historical reasons, and given the major economic problems facing it, Germany can no longer afford to swim against the tide. The number of patents applied for in Germany is falling progressively every year. France has its Grandes Ecoles, Great Britain its elite boarding schools and Cambridge, and Spain has its business schools and private universities. Germany, likewise, requires educational centres for the best in its society, as well as a milieu that proves positive for their progress. “Every nation requires maximum performance and this calls for a selection process”, is also the opinion of Andreas Schleicher, an OECD education specialist.

Gerhard Schroeder

Also aware of this fact are the governing Social Democrats, who have been the strongest opponents of the idea of an elite to date, given that they had associated it, above all else, with unfair privileges for the wealthy. “He who has to govern ten million unemployed workers must also start to rethink his position”. This was the explanation of party members to justify the fact that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder now makes some mention, in nearly every comment to the press, of an elite. It is essential for job creation. What is required is further companies like Siemens, Allianz, Miele and Mercedes, which have become successful multinational enterprises and created many thousands of jobs.

First of all, this issue was studied by the government and then the media started to analyse the matter; and the first reforms have already been introduced in this field. Many Lands within Germany, for example, have reduced by one the number of years of schooling required to enter university, which now stands at twelve. Moreover, in many places, it will be simpler in future for exceptional pupils to skip a course. A youngster can thus start university at the age of 16 or 17. Good students could thus leave at the age of 23, compared to the present average – also attributable to lethargy – of 27 for students finally graduating. The education minister, Edelgard Bulmahn, has proposed a limit: those who do not pass within the normal period of study must pay student fees. The idea is thus to convert five German universities into internationally renowned elite institutions within the next few years.

Detlef Mueller Boelling, head of the Gütersloher Centre for the development of superior education, believes that this calls for greater competition among public education facilities, which, in turn, requires more funds to be provided in order to personalise the current mass education system: “Sooner or later, all students will have to pay”. However, this measure alone is not sufficient to solve the problem, as an elite is not solely created in universities; it is not just a question of those with above average intelligence or creativity, but should also include those with outstanding merits in terms of ethics and responsibility.

This country of poets and philosophers should once again take a good look at its roots. It should not merely copy an elite system ‘à la Harvard’, which has led to one financial scandal after another in recent years, but rather it should lay down its own distinctive principles, which must begin in the home. The social-democratic government should also seize the opportunity and foster an elite from non-bourgeois academic circles. Moreover, in this sense, a political elite should once again be encouraged. Nowhere is this more necessary than here and nowhere is it so rarely to be found as in Germany.

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