It was in the fall of 1967 when I embarked on my 10-year school career in Germany. My mother dressed me in a short white skirt, knee-highs, and sandals. She twisted my unruly hair in a set of pigtails adorned with white ribbons. The leather satchel I carried on my back was a gift of my grandmother. In my hand I held the famous Schultüte (school cone) whose content of goodies was to sweeten my anxiously awaited day.
The small schoolhouse still conformed to the old way of holding school with three or four grades sharing a classroom. Centralized school reform hadn’t hit the rural parts of Bavaria yet until the following year. Only 23 years earlier my mother was a first grader in the same schoolroom. Her morning greeting to her teacher was a dutiful "Heil Hitler" in the Roman Imperial fashion. The schoolroom, as did every private household and institution, featured the idolized image of the Führer on the wall. Morning prayer remained a tolerable function for the schoolchildren.
Unlike in my mother’s days, the idolized image of the State had disappeared from the wall. Prayers were still allowed in this dominant Catholic state at that time. The imagery of the National State no longer had a visible presence in my classroom (no picture of a head of state, no national or state flag); however, its legal and constitutional influence over all German school children remains anchored in Article 7 of the German Constitution. It reads:
- The entire school system shall be under the supervision of the state.
Little did I know that starting my Elementary school years was "in the best interest" of my legal guardian over education, the state. I was being, after all, sozialisiert. In laymen’s terms, this meant that I received my first compulsory and obligated introduction to a life outside the security of my family unit according to the conventional wisdom of pedagogical experts and academics on how I need to properly adjust and develop to the social order of society and as such to the imagery of a good (National) citizen.
Like all children, there were times when school just seemed like a nuisance to me. "I don’t want to go to school today" is the common reaction for children going through this phase. The standard answer of my mother has always been: "If you don’t go to school, then I will have to go to jail." I thought she was joking. She wasn’t joking. The German school system upholds compulsory schooling, which demands that all children of school age must physically attend a public or private school whose educational system is under the supervision of the individual state (Bildungshoheit).
The law enforces compliance with financial fines to the parents and eventual imprisonment if they persist in keeping their children out of school. One religious organization received fees as high as 130,000 Euros in the state of Hessen for homeschooling their children. Parents have been imprisoned for not paying the fines they received for keeping their children out of state schools. In 2005 state authorities forcefully removed a 15-year-old girl from her family for psychiatric evaluation because her parents chose to teach Math and Latin at home to avoid having her repeat a grade again in school. A 16-year-old girl was sentenced to two weeks in jail for missing one month of school. Three large fines did not bring her back, thus imprisonment is to be used for disciplinary action. Another family was fined 150 Euros for not letting their child attend a school play, which was against their belief, and the father was later imprisoned for not paying the fine.
This is the dilemma in which several German families who wish to homeschool now find themselves. Their decisions to homeschool do not necessarily have to be religiously motivated. If a family wants to avoid the teaching of evolution or wants to spare their child the rigid drill of school conformity, they should be able to do so. Also parents should be the ones who best know their children’s interests, talents and how to motivate and guide them into the right direction to fulfill their potentials. Good parents want the best for their children, and if they find the time and energy in teaching them "…within responsibility before God, the spirit of Christian charity, humanity and love of peace, in the love for the People and homeland…" — as the state of Baden-Württemberg had it once quoted in their school law book in 1983 — then they are actually upholding their responsibility as legal guardians. Accountability then falls on the parents, since it is neither the right of a child nor the right of the state to conform the young to their own image.
The issue is not highly publicized in German news, nor does the right of parents to educate one’s own children find favor in the German courts, nor with politicians and the general public at large. The German states and the Federal Government do not see a conflict with compulsory schooling upon religious grounds. The constitution again cancels out that right in Article 7:
(2) Parents and guardians shall have the right to decide whether children shall receive religious instruction.
(3) Religious instruction shall form part of the regular curriculum in state schools, with the exception of non-denominational schools. Without prejudice to the state’s right of supervision, religious instruction shall be given in accordance with the tenets of the religious community concerned. Teachers may not be obliged against their will to give religious instruction.
Several European states have compulsory education laws which do not enforce the physical presence of a child in public schools, but which require the child to be educated according to the standards of the sovereign state. Austria permits homeschooling with a state-approved curriculum, and a state-approved school periodically supervises testing. Switzerland allows families to homeschool children with occasional visits by a state official as long as the sate school plan is upheld. Denmark hasn’t had compulsory schooling since 1855, and gives financial aid in the purchase of materials to parents. Other countries that allow homeschooling are Australia, Sweden, France, Great Britain and the United States.
Germans greatly pride themselves in their educational system. Their country is, after all, known as the "Land of Poets and Thinkers." The Germans’ intelligence is largely reflected in their engineering, inventiveness and the quality of their craftsmanship. But so is their love for order, their almost obsessive-compulsive cleanliness, and the creation and maintenance of a large state bureaucracy. They masterfully cultivate and thrive on making life sometimes more complicated than it really needs to be. Permitting the right of parents to educate their young at home does not quite fit into the mind-set of a state-educated German Citizen and his collective teachings.
It seems as if they think that the liberty to deviate from a “National Plan” will threaten their very existence, as it has been known since 1871. This is when Imperial Prussia first instituted a nation-wide compulsory schooling to help form a national identity in a land that yearned for democracy and national unification after the Napoleonic wars. Young Germania needed an educated and obedient Volk in order to provide the work force to prosper and a strong, obedient military to defend itself.
Germany was also the first country to introduce state certification for teachers, which had the intended effect of that raising the standard of teaching. Germany’s children were now under the influence of continued reform such as Neuhumanismus (New Humanism) and psychobabble academic philosophies with Kantian influence. Streamlining the mind of children in accordance with these “intellectuals” established the ground for a socialist mentality, which is still prevalent in the German population.
John Taylor Gatto boldly explains the Prussian motive for compulsory schooling in his book The Underground History of American Education:
The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.
Germany’s vocational schooling and education has its roots in the Middle Ages. It was during the 12th Century where guilds organized the teaching of their profession so that craftsmen could become masters. Parents taught their children the craft and gave them the education. As far as academic education went, the first university was founded in Heidelberg in 1386, and the remaining educational organization was under the control of monasteries and Latin schools. Education was mostly reserved for nobility, clergy and bourgeois upper class.
In 1524, during the Reformation, Martin Luther began to emphasize the need to establish and maintain Christian schools. In his letter "To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools," he addressed the civic leaders of Germany and all beloved German citizens with the urgency that councilmen possessed — more than parents — the resources to establish schools, and that it is their moral duty to promote the kingdom of God (from their position of power). His good intentions created a conflict between Church and State, which was eventually settled by the Kingdom of Prussia. During the 18th Century, Prussia became the first country worldwide to establish a free and compulsory primary education. The guardian over Germany’s future school education was now under state control. The mentality carried on through history until it found its way into Germany’s Fundamental Law. Hitler only refined it during the Nazi era by indoctrinating Nazi ideology into the curriculum.
In 2000 Germany received a major blow to its school system. A study conducted by PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), showed that Germans scored very low in Math, Reading, Science, and Problem Solving. These were embarrassing results for a country that prides itself in its intellectualism, which systematically erased the basic function of parents and gave it to the state in the form of welfare.
The results were somewhat better in 2003 but still haven’t risen to a satisfactory level.
Surprisingly, the study also showed that the less money a country spends on education, the better the scores. Free education does not necessarily raise the standards of achievement. Germany is now feeling the backlash in their society. Its top university ranks 45th place worldwide. This places Germany in 4th place with seven universities ranking in the top 100. A recent decision to allow individual states to charge a basic fee of 500 Euros was met with major student protest throughout the country, thus proving that a sense of entitlement is a major characteristic of socialism.
Although Germany’s individual states have autonomy of their school education, the line between Federal Government mandates and state regulations have become more and more blurry. In the aftermath of the shock of the PISA study, officials called for further school reforms that would unify the educational system across the states. The Federal Government supplies half of a state’s school finances with the rest contributed locally. Funds are never adequate since most states find themselves bankrupt. A recent survey of the population shows a major support for centralizing the educational system across the states. The fact that so many parents rely on the state to raise their own offspring is a sad legacy for the future.
At this time roughly 80 families in Germany are being persecuted for choosing to educate their own children. It is estimated that maybe as many as 300 children are being homeschooled. The concept is gradually taking root throughout the country with strong support coming from the US and from religious groups that are not of the state-sponsored Churches (Evangelical and Catholic). Germans are still very skeptical toward religious groups such as the Baptists and Pentecostals, especially now that Christian missionaries are settling in their country. These independent denominations are often viewed as cults since their communities seem to prosper outside the mainstream culture.
It is not only religious groups that wish to have a choice in homeschooling their children. There are many parents who are dissatisfied with the way their children are brought up or treated in contemporary German schools. The threat of drugs and the casual attitude toward early sexuality may be enough reason for a parent to protect their child from early u2018sozialisieren’ according to the opinion of a PhD academic. However, the fear that homeschooling can create a parallel society warrants no proof, since neighboring European countries permit homeschooling quite successfully.
Germans are very studious by nature. If parents want to spend the time educating their own children, which many mothers already do by helping with homework, then the capacity to flourish in a "living room environment" can only stimulate the curiosity of a child. Parents are, after all, an idolized image to the child. It is this sacred image that the state is now distorting with its constant meddling in family affairs and disrupting the authority and guardianship parents have over their children.
None of these families are seeking to abolish the educational system. They only wish to have a choice in the techniques and content of their children’s education. Knowing about evolution or how to protect against sexually transmitted diseases isn’t making anyone a better welder, banker or auto mechanic. Neither will the daily interaction with one’s peers in a classroom provide the foundation of moral character, nor will it develop the characteristics that make us virtuous creatures.
The fact remains that families — parents and siblings — provide the foundation for children’s abilities to interact with their immediate environment. If a parent provides this labor of love for a child, then all of humanity is to rejoice in their decision. An independently thinking child is capable of making decisions when presented with choices, and is able to solve problems and figure things out for himself. He or she will be less reliant on state charity, and probably will want to emulate the ways of his parents — marry and have children.
Several homeschooling families have left Germany and gone abroad. They find refuge in the United States, Australia or Ireland. Over 150,000 Germans have left the country in 2004, and more leave each year in order to find better opportunities for themselves, shows that a good part of the educated population is saying Auf Wiedersehen to their homeland. The declining birth rates aren’t helping the welfare state either. Only 1.34 births per woman aren’t enough to facilitate the cost of social welfare, social security and socialized health care. The Federal Government calculates that maintaining the present level of benefits will require an average rate of 2.1 children per woman. The gap is being filled with asylum seekers and immigrants who often aren’t willing to integrate, neither into their society nor into their school system.
Judges and politicians are in denial about the benefits of homeschooling and are determined to enforce the law. Evidence shows that homeschoolers score higher in almost all categories when tested against public or state-educated students. Germany still relies on certificates and diplomas for graduates to be successfully employed. Their four-system education determines the type of career a young person will be able to enter. Prestige also comes with higher education. A doctor, teacher or attorney still carries a lot of status in the German society and receives the ear of the policy makers.
Now 40 years later I find myself facing my own school history. The recent events over homeschooling have left me shocked to say the least. I was still educated in the drill of repetitive study and memorizing. I was never good in Math. I lacked the confidence. My German writing was satisfactory, though grammar was never my strongpoint. The greatest asset I was left with was a foreign language: English. It was in the English language where I excelled in later years. I began to study Math at a local Junior College, took English grammar and writing classes, and aced them all. Natural curiosity led me to study more history, science, and my own religion. During the process I discovered freedom. The self-taught knowledge became mixed with my personal experience and I began to accept certain truths to be absolute. I realized I had to make choices in life, and self-education became the best defense against that which wants to extinguish the reverence of life. In my lifetime this always included parents and God. I have u2018unschooled’ myself ever since without becoming a hermit or a social dropout.
German families and their homeschooled children are way ahead of where I was. They are taking great challenges and risks in order to give something to their children that many of us never had nor ever will have. They give the sort of time, energy and love to their offspring that can never be found in a sterile school environment or with teachers that expect all children to act, think, and talk alike according to the outdated school model of an Imperial Prussia that has long since ceased to exist.
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.