The Good On Paper Germans.

“We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Since the group has no real purpose, there is no natural measure of performance for status to depend on. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank ends up depending mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another’s opponents in an inexorable zero-sum competition.”

This was the most remarkable one paragraph summary of life in an institution we call school that I ever read. It has been written by Paul Graham in an article called “Why Nerds are Unpopular“, but in fact it’s a very eloquent essay about the institution we call school and it’s functions, dysfunctions, causes, and effects in a modern world with highly specialised separation of labour. It’s a long article, but one well worth reading.

Sure, a lot of what he explains is likely unique to the United States or even to the kind of suburban public school (not the English meaning) that he has in mind. But the paragraph I quoted above is, in my opinion, universally applicable to secondary eduction institu­tions, whenever, whereever. When I was in high­school (or rather, the German Gymnasium), I have been pretty involved in school politics, but I never thought about school as some kind of hopeless Hobbesian state of nature in which no stable cooperative behaviour between the “inhabitants” could ever develop because there is a fixed time horizon for interaction and all real incentives are seriously discounted. Combine that with teenagers’ social inexperience and you have a seriously dysfunctional social institution. One that is indeed not adapted to anyone’s needs. One in which Golding’s “The Lord of The Flies” is on constant replay, as Graham remarks.

In a time when a society’s well being is largely depended on the human capital of its members, dysfunctional schools are likely more than the beginning of the end. No wonder most people in Germany were shocked by the mediocre performance of the fifteen-year-olds in the OECD’s PISA assessment of secondary eduction, one and half years ago. By now, the discussion has ebbed a bit, as expected. But the shock has indeed freed resources to do some thinking.

Yesterday, I stumbled over an article by Ursula Ott in Spiegel Online that tries to explain why Germany is a nerdless country. In fact, not only do we not have nerds, we don’t have geeks either. Of course, German schools feature a similarly hieararchically structured social environment among pupils as do shools in other countries. The Lord of The Flies rules everywhere. But, apparently, there is something different about the selection mechanism over here that is even more dysfunctional than elsewhere.

In his article, Paul Graham, doesn’t actually mention marks, but he does say that

“In the schools I went to, being smart just didn’t matter much. Kids didn’t admire it or despise it. All other things being equal, they would have preferred to be on smart side of average rather than the dumb side, but intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.”

While the latter is certainly true all over the world in the hormone crazed age of wanting sex and not getting any, in Germany, a lot pupils deliberately try to be bad in school to avoid being branded as “Streber”. A Streber is a social category that has much in common with nerds and geeks, but doesn’t need to. The literal translation seems to be “swot” but that doesn’t quite cut it, in my opinion, and in Mrs Ott’s. A Streber can be all of the above combined or simply someone who is good at school – because he works for it.

The noun “Streber” originates from the verb “streben” which I think, even after a lot of vowel shifts, is still audible in the English word “strive”. Quite opposed to any stereotype about Germans, achieving by discipline is not a quality German pupils admire. According to Mrs Ott’s article, in a recent study comparing American, Canadian, Israeli, and German pupils it was shown that this is a uniquely German feature.

And as far as I can tell, this is – to some extent at least – true. From the seventh grade on, just getting by in school without much work was the primary aim for me as for just about everyone I knew. Brilliance was accepted, work wasn’t. If you had good marks, the burden of proof was on you that it wasn’t because of too much work. This behavior did not change until the age of, say 17, when marks became degree-relevant. But even then, hard work was suspicious, in a way.

According to Mrs Ott’s article, Klaus Boehnke, who coordinated the study mentioned above, believes that this is partly becasue of german teachers, who, in his opinion, despite grade inflation, are far too careful about giving out top marks, thereby a priori isolating those getting them.

But what about the other part of the story? No indication so far. If there were true admiration for achievement, not simply for brilliance, how could such disrespect develop? This is a real puzle for me, I have to say, despite having gone through the system, even at a school with a notoriously hard grading system. I played the hand that I was dealt, in a system I rarely questioned.

Why is having bad marks and indicator of being cool when you’re 15 in Germany? Is this a “revolutionary” counter-reaction to previously prevailing Prussian secondary values? Or simply another dysfunctional consequence of the German 1968 experience? Or Is it because teenagers exploring their sexuality have different choice standards than those trying to find someone to feed the breed with – what “Sex and the City”-Carry Bradshaw with respect to boys once referred to as the problem of the “good on paper” guy – the guy that is always left for the other one who ownes a Harley but no checking account. Why is having a lower discount rate for the future bad at this age when it means that you could not get the job at McKinsey ten years down the road? Because it would prevent experimenting?

Intriguing questions I can’t answer (yet).