Germany – A Week In The Public Schools

THE public buildings and public institutions of Germany are by no means open to the public. It is difficult to obtain entrance to them ; it requires so much ceremony, delay, form — yea, diplomacy, that we often prefer to miss entirely places hedged in by such rites and ceremonies. In America, the public buildings belong to the public, and we may enter even the great Capitol at Washington, and wander as we will from House to Senate and thence to Supreme Court. To obtain a glimpse of the German National Assembly the Reichstag you must, first, go to the office in the Reichsgebäude, or Parliament building, and deposit a postal card, addressed to yourself on one side, and with your request for admittance written on the other. If the officials here see fit to grant your request, this card, with the official seal and the date on which it can be used, is returned you by mail in a week’s time. Frequently ten cards are deposited before a favorable answer is returned. It depends upon the number of applicants and the names you may mention as reference. Second, on the appointed day, you go an hour before the door is opened, and place yourself in a long line, that extends down the square, and, even then, when the ponderous doors swing back, the big stout German, unaccustomed to American deference to womankind, pushes ahead, until you feel you must push and run, or be left behind in the race. After all, you. obtain a miserable position for observation, as the visitors’ gallery is directly above the Speaker’s chair ; and, although you have a good view of the body, the various political factions, yet you can only obtain glimpses of the Chancellor, by leaning far over the railing, — not a polite, comfortable, or a safe position, but one to which you are constantly tempted as you hear his nervous, almost irritable voice when-ever anything is said at all contrary to his aristocratic will. Then, as you pass out and down the halls, you naturally wish to make the most of the opportunity, and reconnoitre, as in the Capitol ; but a bemedalled and uniformed officer waves you back, and you return exactly the way you came.

It is the same with the Public Library. You may be introduced by a friend, or you may sound the bell for an official to take charge of you. You will never dare to saunter through these rooms without the ceremonial safe-conduct at your side. If you wish to refer to a book, you must deposit a card of application on one day, and then call for the book a day or two later. All the galleries and museums, however, are open to the public, with no other requirement than ” No umbrella, no cane.”

The public schools are most difficult of access, for, as a rule, visitors are not admitted — the work cannot be interrupted ; there must be nothing to distract, nothing to injure the concentration of the pupils. And if there is one thing that reigns above all others in the schools, yea, in the education of Germany, it is CONCENTRATION. And it is this concentration that is the secret of the, scholarship in this land of scholars.

I had tried, in various ways, to obtain entrance into the schools, with no success. I became acquainted with several teachers, but none seemed to think it desirable for them to be visited in their school-rooms. Probably, if I had applied directly to the principal, I might have gained my aim ; but that is not so easy in a land of conservatism, — especially for an American girl, resting under the peculiar opinion concerning them.

One Saturday evening, as we sat at Abendbrod, a visitor for me was announced. The visitor was one of my classmates at the Lyceum, a teacher in the public schools. She had come to ask me to be Dolmetcher for the Prince of Siam in her school, the next week. Dolmetcher ! Was there ever a sweeter sounding word ? At that time, it was magic to me, and I hastened to assure her that I would be happy to be Dolmetcher, and to so high born a creature. It chanced that this Prince of Siam wished to visit the schools, and, as he spoke no German, but was well acquainted with English, and this German Fräulein spoke fluent English, she had been requested to act as interpreter or, as Mark Twain puts it, interrupter for the Prince, converting the unintelligible Teutonic into the purer medium of Anglo-Saxon. My friend had consented, but, as the time drew near, her courage failed, and in her distress she came to me for assistance. Would I be Dolmetcher ? I refused to be as modest with regard to my German as she was with her English, and I gladly consented. This was all the more gratifying to me as I had been made unhappy so often by the disparagement put upon American English, and now my English was recognized, and was accepted as pure currency in the language, aye, lifted from its scorned obscurity to play Dolmetcher to the Prince of Siam.

The family were as delighted as I and my approaching nearness to a royal office gave me new charms in their eyes. They have always assumed a personal pride in any seeming honor to me. When Miss Sargent calls, and sends up the liveried footman, no words can express the gratification of Herr Hauptmann. The next Sabbath day, we all seemed to have stepped into a higher world, — just the shadow of royalty, falling on us, had elevated us! Even I democratic American even I, devout in church service, how could I refrain from thoughts of the morrow, or keep my eyes from wandering to the royal box, and comparing the kingly figure of the Prussian Crown Prince with that mental picture of the scion of the House of Siam !

Monday morning, I crossed the inner court, also the school-yard, just as the children were drawn up in orderly lines and about to enter the building, which they did with military precision and perfect order. It was examination time, and I was conducted to the hall where these examinations were held : they are oral and open to the public. I found a large assembly of the parents, fathers and mothers, of the pupils, and those interested in education, — the latter, a large class in Germany. At one side of the hall was a long table, at which sat an important-looking body. This was the School Committee. They have an intelligent interest in methods of school work, some of them make it a study, and their office is to them a high trust, which they faithfully fulfil. Incapable, ignorant, low class people cannot hold office, and it is not dependent on politics. Upon this table the drawing and copy books were placed, and each one carefully examined. Writing with a pen and drawing with a pencil are begun in the lowest grades, and, as the pupils advance, the drawings become more complicate, and in the higher grades the sketches from life and models are highly artistic. Some bright colors across the hall attracted me, and here I found a wonderful array of the handiwork of the girls. Piles on piles of garments, made most exquisitely, and with the finest hand-sewing, and a most bewildering mass of knitting and embroidery, —huge, coarse socks ; delicate, fleecy, snow-flake laces, — sewing, stitching, knitting of every kind and description. Awards are given, — prizes of small value, but most precious to the receiver. Some of the mothers were “blessedly happy,” as the Germans say, over the bit of red or blue ribbon testifying to the skilful fingers of Marie or Gretchen.

The various classes were brought into the hall,— one class at a time. After respectfully making their courtesy to committee and audience, the catechization began. The examination in numbers fairly made my brain reel. They have a system, which I believe is adopted also in our country, of dividing the tens into parts, which facilitates computation to such a degree that numerical processes which in. former days required much ciphering with the pencil are now solved mentally, and the results of an intricate addition or multiplication are seen almost instantaneously. The children would promptly deliver an answer while I was still laboriously halting through the first steps of the calculation. Each child had several questions, the teacher darting one question after the other, — practical questions, too, in addition to the abstract calculations about the common weights and measures in use the kilos, metres, litres, grammes. I was much impressed, yea, imponirt by the system !

One class after another was brought in, the catechization of each lasting about three-quarters of an hour. The geography was made practical by the use of globes and maps, and its connection with history ; still, I had been so often vexed with the German ignorance of the geography of the Western Continent, that, while acknowledging the philosophy of their method, still my own experience made me question whether the teaching was not narrow. Europe is known in detail. They say this is one of the reasons of the German success in war, — familiarity with localities. This, with their study of modern languages, makes them at home in the enemy’s camp. They have many flat or table maps, representing the State, with hills, streams, towns, and every natural feature. In the study of history, such maps are made of a single battle-field, and thus all its details can be explained and understood. In connection with the history and geography, much of the German literature is taught. There surely never were people with the faculty of memory equal to that of these Germans ! They can recite poetry hour after hour, day in and day out, and yet not exhaust their store. The dramas of Goethe and Schiller are familiar as household speech, while the longer poems, as the “Lay of the Bell,” are complete in every memory. The memory, thus carefully trained from childhood, becomes a wonderful power to a scholar. Professor Richter, in his lectures on the “History of the City of Rome,” talks on uninterruptedly for over an hour with names, dates, dimensions and not a scrap of paper for reference or help. It is the same thing in “History of the Present Day”; Professor Breslau never has a note, and gives days and hours and exact words ! — and you know they are perfect in point of accuracy. Exactness is the law of their mental being. It is the result of their early education, when perfect mental habits were formed. We in America are so quick, and have such fine intuitive power, yet all natural gifts fail without this training — this severe discipline. We admire drill, but we hate it. It takes courage to put yourself in the harness.

These public examinations, however, reveal results rather than working systems ; and I was anxious for the Prince to arrive, that I might enter the working-rooms. My friend bade me meet her in her recitation-room the next morning, and there I saw her give one of those celebrated picture-lessons. The underlying principle is that in young children the first faculties to be awakened are perception, observation, which leads to thought, and then the language is to be developed.. It was a charming lesson, and I never knew German children could be so effusive. Before strangers in their homes they are properly kept in the back-ground. The children were wild to tell all that could be seen in the picture, which was a snow scene. And then a story was developed from it, and several little verses of poetry taught, also a dialogue, and finally a song. I admired the ingenuity of the teacher; but she showed me a little book in which were twenty lessons prepared, questions, verses, all, so that the teacher is care-fully guided in the work. In our Normal Schools, the pupil teachers are trained to give such lessons ; they are part of the primary course in the schools. But the teacher has no help ; and such work re-quires a gift not possessed by all nor many primary teachers.

In a number lesson which followed, the children used various colored balls that were fastened on each desk. The teaching of spelling is phonetic, as the German language in sound and orthography is perfectly consistent, and admits the system with no confusion in following its principles. In reading, the children make the words from cards, as little ones do with building-blocks. In the higher classes, there is a marked characteristic in the reading books, the principle of teaching loyalty, the use of this means to train German citizens with love and pride for the State. The public-school teaching has this as one of its aims — to train citizens for the State, –and there is not a branch taught that cannot, in some way, tend to this purpose. Religion is taught daily, as any other subject, with equal time for its study, year after year. The Bible is known from cover to cover, in its history, chronology, narrative, prophecy, and such parts as the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, the Luther Psalm, the Mars Hill address, are known word for word. Later, in these schools, doctrines are taught. It is amazing, with all this religious teaching, that Germany should be considered skeptical. All the hymns are taught, — the same hymn-book is used all over the Empire, in every church, and these same hymns, words and tunes, have been sung for decades of years, one generation handing them down to the next. Thus it happens that every one in church can sing, and into whatever church one may chance to enter, there is that part of the service in which he may join.

Modern languages are taught, as also the ancient. The boys begin the study of Latin the third year after entering, and continue it for years, — and thus, beginning at nine years of age, and with constant practice and years of discipline, it is not strange that among scholars there is such familiarity with it. Modern languages alone are in the course for girls, Latin is, therefore, unwomanly.

The reasoning faculties of woman, too, are considered limited ; at least, they are not worth a mathematical training, and her study of Mathematics is curtailed. She receives enough to enable her to calculate her little household expenses ; but why should she measure her lord’s whole estate ? Six hours a week, the time for extra mathematics for the boys, is devoted by the girls to needle-work. It may be a good thing to have some handiwork in the schools, but to me it was exasperating beyond measure to see those boys at work with their brains, while the girls plied the needle, —work that a machine could do better in less time, — this sewing were better a lost art when supplied by better agencies. These girls would know enough of such labor, and little enough of intellectual work, and one bright little miss, with the independence of thought of an American, ventured to say, “My mother makes me do this all the time at home; I wish I could do something else at school.” It was with difficulty that I obtained entrance into the sewing-room ; I believe the teacher must have felt my antagonism. However, the lesson gave me some new insight into the advantages of this branch in the schools. It was made more than mere unthinking labor. A certain garment was to be made. A girl at the blackboard began to draw the figure geometrically, and thus the whole figure was outlined according to geometry, and the demonstration was logical.

This was copied into their book of patterns, — all geometrical figures. This will be of advantage to them in home-cutting, and has scientific method to it. Next, the cloth was taken according to the plan, and cut. The work on this would continue until the garment was finished. The girls learn how to make a complete wardrobe, and general family sewing, during the years at the Gemeinde Schule ; and fancy work, embroidery, knitting, fine stitching, —all this is learned in extra time, by those who finish a garment first, and as a reward for good plain work. There are three lessons a week, — each two hours long. By this time my interest in the work had thawed the little sewing-teacher, and from the closet she brought out pile after pile of clothing, tied up in ribbons, that the children had made.

I made a General Outline of the course of study, in order to see the relative importance of the studies.

In the Gymnasium, or Middle School, where pupils attend from the age of nine until about eighteen, after which they go to the University, the great body of German youth is educated. The Lehrplan, or course of study, is fixed for all the schools throughout the Empire by ministerial authority, as in France and Italy. It does not arrange the detailed programme, but fixes subjects of instruction, the hours allotted to each, and the gradual development in true order from grade to grade. Within the limits of this general plan, the greatest freedom is left to the teacher. Some years ago, the hours of work were thirty-two a week. This was found too heavy, and has been changed to twenty-eight or thirty : from 7 to I i A.M. in summer, 8 until 12 in winter,— in the afternoon, 2 till 4 the year around. There is but one half-holiday in the week, and that in the middle of the week. Latin, during all these years, receives the most attention, having given to it ten hours a week. Mathematics has four; Greek, the only optional study, six ; the mother-tongue, two ; French or English, three : Geography and History, two ; Science, two ; Drawing, two ; Religion, three.

All schools, whether public or private, are under the government, and controlled by the Minister of Education, and a Board of Councillors of scholars (some of the most noted of Germany), and in every local Board there must be at least one man who has given special attention to the subject of education. The schools and all officials are vested with a State dignity. Every teacher is considered a benefactor to the State, and, after a certain number of years of service, is pensioned by the government, in token of the good rendered the State. Education is a serious matter of care for the State. In Germany the State supposes itself responsible to see that the education given to all classes be wholesome and solid, and to ward off the perils of having its young incompletely or inefficiently instructed. That is to say, “the education of the country is taken, like the postoffice and railways, into the hands of the State. It will guarantee to the country that no man unqualified shall physic their bodies or educate their minds ; it supervises the butcher-shops that no diseased meat shall be sold, and the schools, that no unwholesome teaching shall be imparted. The nation, collectively and individually, is strained to get the utmost knowledge. No chance for these little ones to play truant. Education is compulsory. From six to fourteen, the child must go to school, and I have seen a big officer marching a tiny delinquent to his unwilling task. It is all right in principle, but one feels sorry for these little German children ; they must work so hard, and seem to lack that exuberance of life, spirits, and childish glee that make American children harder to train, but leave them the memory of a happy childhood. But there must be play some-where among the German children, for such toy-stores as are in Berlin I have never seen. — A list of the absentees is sent to the Board, the Board admonishes the parents, and, if this is in-effective, they are fined or sent to jail. Every day missed during these eight years must be made up afterward. The children in the German schools work as no other children in the world, and the chief reason is that their future –one or three years of military service — depends upon the final examination. It is humorous and yet pitiful, the serious, earnest way in which the little men devote themselves to study. Yet, while the final end and the future is determined by this great examination, the great aim in the educational system is to develop the reasoning powers, to make thinking men, to create intelligence rather than give knowledge. It calls forth the exercise of the functions of the mind, as averse to the cram system. The examinations are so held as to be a test rather of intelligence and ability than of knowledge or script.

Assuredly, the German knows everything. Yet he is not bright nor quick. The much learning has made him thoughtful, and his jokes are stupid and heavy. Moreover, the University labor, which calls for seven or eight hours of brain-work a day, is too hard on the mind, and the strain on the eyes alone has made a nation wearing spectacles.

In the meantime, as I gathered information, where was my office as Dolmetcher the reason for my existing on that spot ? Impatiently I passed the first hours of each day awaiting him, but forgot my disappointment in the work before me. Yet the Prince came. His Highness appeared just before the close of school one morning. The pupils arose in respect as he entered, with the indispensable officer in the State uniform.

With greatest gravity bows were exchanged. It was a Geology lesson. Could. there be a more unfortunate time ? Chemistry or Metaphysics only could have been worse. Think of translating Geology into another language ! — as taught by a German speculative scientist, too ! The professor was giving a most philosophical account of the theory of the formation of certain rocks, which were piled up before him, and rapidly took up one after the other in illustration or proof.

Did I not understand him, or did the Prince not understand me ? Did I not understand German, or did the Prince not understand English ? Was he disappointed that his Dolmetcher was not a German Fräulein, or was he stunned at this close relation to that mystery of mysteries — the American woman ? I do not know. I can never tell you. It may have been only the custom of the lords of Siam toward the women in the land of the white elephant. I only know that never by glance or change of his dark countenance did he once betray interest or intelligence in my rapid deliverance of the lecturer’s remarks — and, beyond the profound bows at greeting and parting, he gave no manifestation of his consciousness of our presence. Silently as he came, he left.

Our great expectations had proved a delusion, nevertheless, the Prince had served me a good turn, and had gained for me a week in the Public Schools. When the time was over, the Rector expressed himself pleased at an American’s interest in the German schools. He had heard so much of our grossere Verhaltnisse in rich America, and feared we would despise their poorer accommodations. He was happy when I told him (in true German style) that I was so imponirt with the system and teaching that I had not noticed the geringere Verhaltnisse. I told him, however, that we knew more about ventilation in all our public buildings. The school-houses are old, poorly furnished, as I noticed when my attention had thus been called. Yet I think that all people, as well as all educators, will endorse the opinion that all our magnificent buildings can in no degree outweigh the value of the philosophy of education that has come to us and to the world from the land of Froebel and Pestalozzi.