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This week in my German class, we talked about the difference between the US and German school systems. And I learned that, in Germany, students are sorted at the age of ten. About half go to a Gymnasium, which is for university bound high schools, and the rest go to a Realschule or a Hauptschule, which are secondary schools from which one is expected to go to a pre-professional or vocational school and learn a specific trade. And while, theoretically, one can go from a Realschule or a Hauptschule to a Gymnasium, in practice this is very difficult.
It is always tricky to look at a system that is different from the one that you know and not pass any sort of value judgment. And I’m not sure that I would or will ever be able to do that. To think objectively. But here is the way in which I did think.
On the one hand, Germany has a system in place for people who don’t want to or shouldn’t go to university. There’s a structure for them. And, because it’s part of the structure, there’s less stigma against those who don’t go to university, as there is, in my opinion, back home. Not everyone has to go to university.
But that’s because not everyone can go to university. And whether or not someone can is largely decided when those someones are ten years old, incapable of realizing that, if they don’t settle down and focus in class, the repercussions will reverberate for the rest of their lives.
There was an op-ed in the New York Times not too long ago that my mother showed me that was about the ways in which primary and secondary education fundamentally misunderstand young boys. What if Shakespeare’s Henry V, one of the bard’s most appealing characters, the piece asked, went to school in the Western world today. He’d be in trouble constantly. Not because he’s bad, and not because he’s stupid, but because the school system is made for Hamlets, not Henry’s. And I thought about this regarding my own younger brother, who is so much smarter than I will ever be, but who is also an immature boy. What if Henry V, or my brother, was in a German school when he was ten? Would the teachers—because the decisions are made by the teachers—send him to a Gymnasium, to go on to University and be all that he can be?
Or would they save those spots for the Hamlets?