As an undergraduate linguist with an Erasmus year abroad as part of my studies, I relished the opportunity to experience life abroad and benefit from a transnational and pluralistic approach. Luckily, I was already familiar with Germany and the Germans as a people, having visited the country upon holidays and various exchanges since my early teenage years. I was keen to study at the Free University of Berlin and sample the delights of the capital—particularly since my peers at Cambridge slaved away at their third and final year dissertations or exams, and I was lucky to enjoy a 15-month hiatus away from work.
I had already experienced a cultural shock upon my arrival at a UK university. Although I had attended an international secondary school in the Parisian suburbs, I was stunned at the obvious divergences between French and British education. Aged only 16, my British peers had chosen their A-level specialisms while I had ploughed through a ludicrous number of subjects, so I thought I knew a little bit about everything. It soon dawned on me that my superficial understanding of mathematical statistics would not get me very far in my languages degree. British education, I noted, relied heavily on specialised learning, paid little heed to hierarchical formalities and encouraged students to voice personal opinions orally and in writing. Despite its credentials as a traditional university, Cambridge encouraged this at the higher education level, too: I went to lectures four or five times per week, attended language classes and sat through supervisions with fantastically qualified teaching staff—often one-on-one, which greatly facilitated the learning experience; but although structure was my forte, as I concentrated on organising my ideas in tripartite fashion following a French ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ dialectic, my essays seemed to churn out expository detail without being critical enough. To put it plainly, I felt my work was satisfactory academically, but slightly dull on a personal level.
I was well aware of the reason for this: the French system placed emphasis on breadth of knowledge rather than personal critical ability, as giving one’s opinion in the first person plural ‘nous’ — let alone the first person singular ‘je’ — was totally out of the question. Phrasing was always highly impersonal and essay structure was codified down to the most minute subsection of this or that paragraph. I distinctly remember our Economics teacher telling us to abide by the rules of bipartite essay structure in his subject, while in the next period our History teacher insisted that French historians only ever wrote essays in three sections. Rigidity of modes of writing was in line with the centralised ways of the French Ministry of National Education, which issued a yearly bulletin strictly outlining the curriculum which teachers and headmasters from any administrative region in France were required to cover during the academic year. Aside from this, there was also a palpable hierarchical distance between teacher and pupil: in addressing a teacher, one always used the customary ‘vous’, and students themselves were addressed using the same pronoun, often with their last names. It took me a while, therefore, to adapt to a demand for more critical, personalised approaches in Cambridge — but eventually I started getting there.
At the Free University of Berlin, however, I was confronted with a radically different system. Many of my peers had taken a few years between school and university to work small jobs, to engage in their Zivildienst and volunteer with their local community, or simply to reflect on what it was they truly wanted to study. Several were already in their early twenties, and some had studied for a previous undergraduate degree elsewhere. Since higher education is free in German state universities, first year students arrived in October because they had explicitly chosen to study the course. If they wanted to leave, they could. If they decided halfway through the semester that they were better suited to a different course of study, they could start something different from scratch. If academia simply turned out not to be their short-term goal, they could turn to something more vocational. Degrees in the European system generally amount to 180 ECTS credits overall. At many German universities, there is a limit on the number of semesters one can take to finish a degree — generally 8 semesters or 4 years for a Bachelors, and 6 semesters or 3 years for a Masters—and students are often required to obtain a certain number of credits over two to four semesters (1-2 years). However, extending one’s course does not signify coughing up extortionate tuition fees every year; and, as a result, university becomes an edifying and chosen experience rather than a stress-filled, elitist educational formality. My classmates, for instance, took the time to enjoy Berlin city life, held part-time jobs and would complete their degree when their schedule allowed them to.
If the burden of financial responsibility in studying was almost non-existent in comparison with university systems in the UK and USA, what truly struck me was the uniquely lax teaching ethos of the German university. Lecturers were endowed with authority to impart knowledge over the course of an hour and a half, but happily accepted questions from students. In seminars, teachers chaired conversations among us: we exchanged ideas based on the set reading, using questions determined by the teacher only as guidance. As such, there was very rarely a right or wrong answer. Coming from a high-ranking university where essay-based subjects encouraged personalised approaches but supervisors remained dedicated to arbitrary marking — and coming from a French system, which unreservedly struck down with right or wrong arbitration — I initially perceived this as absurd: how would I know whether I was going in the right direction?
I was curious as to the history of this ethos. I soon learned that these teaching and learning methods had their roots in the profoundly anti-authoritarian traditions of Berlin student politics, but also in the efforts of German theorists, educators and philosophers in 1960s West Germany to rehabilitate German education. The decade was characterised by pedagogic deliberations which sought to address how a reformed education could serve to overcome German obstacles and dilemmas after the Holocaust. For instance, the famous Frankfurt School theorist Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) developed educational ideals in a series of radio debates broadcast between 1959 and 1969 on the theme ‘Bildungsfragen der Gegenwart’ — or ‘contemporary questions of education’. Adorno and his friend, the education theorist Hellmut (actually spelled with two Ls) Becker, suggested the loosening of school bureaucracy in order for teachers to establish a less authoritarian relationship towards their students; more autonomy granted to the pupil, enabling him to acquire the faculty of critical judgement; and that the pupil co-determine the nature of his school life.
Naturally, the anti-authoritarian movements of the late 1960s and 1970s across the world were essential in implementing a tradition of teach-ins and sit-ins in all universities among student bodies themselves. But the theories of the philosophers provided the theoretical basis for this desire for autonomy. Still today, this tradition is strikingly obvious and visible at German universities, and stands in stark contrast to the mildly authoritarian methods of French republican education, or to the liberal, tailored curricula of British or American school systems. And, in my opinion, it is a fantastically efficient system if one considers quality of teaching and personal development in relation to the cost of studying – which, I must repeat, includes low administrative fees, but amounts to no tuition fees whatsoever.