Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/January 1885/Studying in Germany



THE tangible influence of Continental Europe, and especially of Germany, upon our thought and life, our education, habits, and morals, is perhaps greater than we are wont to grant or appreciate. This is in part due to the annual transfer of large sections of the German population to our shores and their absorption into our social system; but it is owing still more to the migration of Americans to Germany, where they come in contact with institutions that seem usually to impress them favorably. We often find ourselves speaking, with some chagrin at our own achievement, of German schools, of German purity in municipal government, of German stability and efficiency in the civil service, and of the self-respecting modesty of German boys and girls. Besides the hosts of tourists who jostle each other on the beaten courses of travel between the Rhine and Vienna, there is a steadily growing class of Americans who visit Germany to spend from one to five years in study. The American students at the great German universities now outnumber those from any non-German nation of Europe; and their number is greater than that of all other non-Continental states together. We may divide the American students in Germany into two classes: 1. Boys and girls sent or accompanied thither to get their preliminary education, and ranging in age from twelve to twenty years. These should be subdivided into—first, special students of music; and, second, students of such branches as are taught in our high-schools. 2. Young men, usually graduates of college, who wish to push their studies in special departments. Among the latter are often men who have already practiced their professions. The second class chiefly contains students of philology, medicine, and physics or chemistry. In any case this residence of several years in a foreign country acts profoundly upon the character of the student, and in ways quite outside of his book-knowledge.

First, let us consider those who go to prepare for college, or for a profession, or it may be, in the technical language of society, to "finish"; to study with private tutors, or in the gymnasium, or the Realschule (real-school). Though many of these students are girls, and many of the objections given also hold good in their case, we shall confine ourselves to boys. Of course, no careful parent would permit his daughter to reside in a foreign country, save under judicious chaperonage; no young girl should be personally subjected to the trials of making her own way among the officials and the managers of pensions in a German city. Some parents place their sons in Leipsic or Berlin, because they have observed that it is the thing to do; others, because they honestly think their children will profit by it—that is, more than they would at school, during the same time, at home. The fame of German schools and teachers may justify the latter view. In scope, purpose, and magnanimity, no schools surpass the German gymnasia and real-schools; and if we take the system throughout the nation and set it beside our school system as a whole, as applied in town and country and in various States, it is far superior, in all that education means, to it and to any other existing system. But, after a residence of over two years in German cities, and after some study of their secondary schools, I am convinced that our best high-schools and academies, public and private, are equal to the best German schools. The question, however, whether a boy at a German school would be better taught in his languages and mathematics, his sciences and his history, is not here pertinent. Grant for the moment that he is better taught; is he, by his German training, better fitted as a man to meet the questions of American life, and to succeed in his calling in America? At the age when his mind is most plastic, when those impressions are received that are to abide by him longest, he is transplanted to a society whose salient features are in reality startlingly unlike those amid which he is to make his way in life. I shall not attempt to decide whether these traits and ideas are preferable to our own; it is enough that they are different. Certain it is, for instance, that a boy in Germany is made unpractical; and that is a fatal quality in an American boy. He is filled with a love of research for its own sake, not for the sake of its bearing upon direct practical results. I should say that this is the chief quality which the boy is sure to get, and which will, in varying degrees, unfit him for the demands of his later work in any calling at home. He will be made impractical and speculative. The Germans are discoverers and recorders of facts, but they are poor at applying them. The boy also loses his sense of the value of time. Where all men, business and professional, move slowly, where it is the rule for the merchant, or the editor, to spend two hours at midday at his dinner and coffee, where "soon" means half a day, and "at once" an hour, the native boy does not suffer if he grows up in an atmosphere of deliberation. But this will not do in Broadway. Again, German boys are overworked. The American boy's school-life is easy com pared with the steady drill of the gymnasium and real-school, and he must compete with students who not only seem proof against poor ventilation and poor food, but are used to hard labor and short vacations, and he must do it in a foreign tongue. All gymnasium students must do work during the short summer vacation, requiring not less than one hour, and not more than two hours, daily. The course of the gymnasium lasts nine years. During the first seven years, there are ten hours per week of recitation in Latin, and, throughout the last seven years, six hours per week of Greek. The number of hours of recitation per week can not exceed thirty-two, and it can not be less than twenty-seven. There are no Saturday holidays, so that the time spent in recitation at school averages five hours a day. The law permits but ten weeks of vacation in the year: four weeks beginning on the third Saturday in July, two weeks at Christmas, two at Easter, one at Whitsuntide, and one at the end of the summer semester. The morning session begins at eight o'clock, and lasts until twelve, when there is a recess of one hour. Lessons are then continued until six o'clock. This is the plan every day, save Saturday and Wednesday, when the afternoon session is omitted. Compared with the work of an American high-school, this is stupendous, and it must tend to endanger the health of any pupil.

A symptom of overwork among German boys is short-sightedness and other diseases of the eye; this is so general that most travelers note it as a national characteristic. Not only do the majority of men who have studied wear glasses, but it is safe to say that a third of the school-boys wear them. This is said to be due to the intricacies of the German type; but poor ventilation, close application, and bad lighting can not fail also to weaken the eyes, and the American boy escapes none of the primitiveness of German home and school life.

Another loss which our typical boy suffers is in his Americanism. I am not fully prepared to say that in many respects this loss is not a gain, if you consider the boy as a sort of ideal abstraction; but, as regards his patriotism, his working power as a force in the community where he is to live, and his success in life, it is an actual loss. Imperceptibly he comes to regard the peasant, the servant, the hand-worker, as an inferior being. The sight of women helping dogs draw carts, or sawing wood in the streets, soon fails to shock him. In the larger sense he ceases to be a democrat; the grown man resists the forces which inevitably stamp the school-boy. And in the narrower sense, touching manners, personal habits, and speech, the boy is more markedly affected, and in ways which at home may lay him open to the charge of snobbery or pedantry. Although the rules of the gymnasium forbid beer-drinking and smoking, and teachers are responsible for the observance of these rules, the very atmosphere of a German town is so redolent of beer and smoke that the boy acquires a laxness regarding these habits which makes him out of place, and puts him at a disadvantage, in a country where public opinion calls drinking a vice and where total abstinence is possible. He learns to shrug his shoulders in order to express the slightest doubt or innuendo, and he may easily learn to eat with his knife and make a noise at his soup. He will get methods of thought and points of view in themselves lofty, catholic, and public-spirited, which will, nevertheless, in his own country, as things are, retard rather than advance his career. The relations of school-boys, and even of men, with each other are so different from the intercourse of American students, that a boy may forget how to live comfortably with his fellows on his return. Again, a boy, well brought up and conscientious, when placed with liberal allowances of money in a German city, far from the restraints of home and associates, may get into ways that are unmistakably vicious and immoral. This is a danger that many parents discern when it is too late. The young man's position is perilous, especially when he is merely in the hands of private tutors, and lives in a pension or an hotel. I have myself known several boys who in two or three years in Leipsic and Berlin went from bad to worse—boys who at home in school or college would never have lost their footing. In German cities there is also a certain all-pervading tone of cynicism as regards religion, taken in the stricter sense. It is not fashionable, as with us, for the more intellectual people to go to church. Prussia is a Protestant nation; even Bismarck may be "evangelical" when occasion requires, and churches and preachers are not lacking. But the people whom the school-boy meets are usually agnostics or liberals—those who admire Luther as a man detest the raving atheism of the social-democrats, and are quite respectable. These are influences which few parents wish their boys to meet before they are matured.

Now, what is gained to offset these drawbacks and dangers? We will assume that the pupil could attend a good school at home, and that the expenditure of foreign travel and tuition would support him at such a school: the only real gain is a knowledge of German. He will certainly learn German. But on this point bears one fact which few appreciate. In his residence of from one to five years in Germany, speaking, reading, and writing little but German, the boy suffers a great loss in his English. This is the period when at home he is enriching his vocabulary and forming his style by English composition and the reading of English books. I would not undervalue the power one wields who has at command a great modern language, especially a language like the German, whose intrinsic beauty and force, and the wealth of whose literature, may go far to form the culture of any man. But, in making up a balance for the boy whose parents wish to have him trained abroad, this sacrifice of the mother-tongue must not be ignored.

These are some of the conditions suggested by the first class of students abroad. What is to be said as regards university students. who are usually adults and specialists? In their case most of the foregoing objections do not hold; in fact, the situation is nearly-reversed. We have no institutions which are the original fountains of scholarship, as are the German universities. The character, language, habits, of the men who study in them are in a measure formed. From observation I should say that the average age of Americans studying at the German universities is twenty-five, A graduate of one of our colleges or leading academies is ready to get and appreciate the best that the universities offer, as well as to observe and weigh the political and social elements in which he moves. His vacation travel is itself a delight and an education. The benefits of such study to men are so well understood that to point them out more in detail would be needless. But practical information as to the conditions of study, as to courses and degrees, is so vague, and in newspapers and magazines often so erroneous, that some facts may be given here. The graduate of any American college may matriculate, in full standing, at a German university on the presentation of his diploma and a passport. These take the place of the certificate of maturity (Maturitätszeugniss) from the gymnasium or real-school, which the German candidate must submit. Men who have no college diploma may attend lectures and have access to all privileges, but they may not become candidates for a degree. There is an impression that American students must encounter special difficulties in seeking a degree, and that few succeed in gaining it. This is an error. Many students do not choose to take the required subsidiary studies, lying perhaps outside of their special field, and hence do not try to get the degree. But it is a fact that fewer difficulties beset the American in this quest than the German himself. The university is the regular and essential avenue to the professions and many civil careers, and competition is very keen. But the faculties well know that the American does not seek promotion on German soil; they recognize the compliment of his long pilgrimage to their shrines, and they are willing to encourage him, avoiding the appearance of anything like a protective tariff. In the range of my acquaintance, as many as nine Americans have won the coveted title of Doctor of Philosophy, the degree now common to all departments; in some cases it has seemed that they met fewer difficulties than the German candidate, and in no case were the tests severer. The usual time necessary for this sort of graduation is six semesters, or three years. The student may spend each semester at a different university or all at the same one, if he chooses. And he may stand for a degree at any university he may select. The system is like that of a great society having many co-equal chapters. He must fix upon a special department of learning, and must follow two subordinate branches closely related to the main subject. During two or three years he "hears" lectures in the faculties dealing with his specialty. There are no examinations whatever before the final examination for the degree, and no regular account is kept of attendance at lectures. He must give due notice of his intention to be a candidate, and must present a list of the lectures he has heard, the list certified by the signatures of the professors and of the quæstors; the latter officer vouches for the payment of all fees. But, most important of all, he must present a dissertation which shall be an original and thorough investigation in some portion, no matter how minute, of his general field of research. Though he is treated to a rigorous oral examination, this written work has the greater weight in forming the decision of the examiners. But the degree is, after all, of little importance to the student; the question is, whether be would do well to study at the German university at all. In general, we may answer that the center of the world's scholarship is there, and, if a young man knows that be wants learning, there is the place to get it at its best. the allowances to be made for pedantry are not so grave as we are wont to imagine, and the fruits of ripe and patient investigation are offered, with a generous band, in both lecture-room and pamphlet. there is, after all, no paradox in the conclusion that, while the boy may lose promptness, alertness, manners, fluency in English, and even health, the man gains, besides knowledge, incentives and standards that may make him a better citizen.