A Critique of the Germanic Model of Education

A Critique of the Germanic Model of Education

April 2, 2023

An Introduction

The “Germanic” model of education, often known as the “Humboldtian” model, is the primary educational model utilized by the universities and accrediting agencies of America today. The model was introduced and widely adopted in the United States at the height of the Industrial Age in the late 1800s and reflects that age.

At Excel College, we’ve departed from this model as we don’t believe it has shown itself to produce wise, mature, and productive adults who live purposeful, fulfilling lives. 

The following is a critique of the Germanic model of education. We don’t often seek to critique models outside of our own, but, as an institution operating “outside of” the traditional (and most prevalent) system, we feel it necessary to explain why we don’t wish to participate in the system as such and have elected to carve out our own path via an alternative model. 

For our curriculum designers, style and prose communicate as much, if not more, than facts and figures. What is written below flows out of an ocean of literary context and academic experience that most will never have the privilege to be a part of and the style reflects that.  In short, it may take work to fully grasp the message communicated herein - and we like it that way. It calls us to a higher standard. You will get the most out of this paper if you read it several times and keep the headings in bold in mind as you are reading each section. Enjoy.

This Model Causes Much of the Educational Deficiency Today because it Assumes that…. Reason is  the Rule … Leading to the Fragmentation of Learning  

At root, the Germanic approach to education is an abandonment of the ancient and medieval practice  of appealing to reasoned argument AND respected authorities (e.g., Aristotle, Scripture, Philosophers,  Church, etc.) as reliable educational guides. Instead, this new education model boasts of "reason  alone" as its measuring rod for all truth claims. With reason thus moving from a "ministerial" to a  "magisterial" role in learning, we now find ourselves in a situation in which whatever cannot be  rationally demonstrated cannot be responsibly believed.  

In addition, this methodology's systematic and sustained application has not resulted in the utopian  state that many of its early adherents anticipated. Instead, the ever-increasing application of this  method has generated an unprecedented fragmentation of the various branches of human learning. For  even when "reason" aids us in understanding what we're studying and/or how it might function, it's  singularly unsuited in helping us explain where the objects of our study fit into the larger scheme of  things. As such, it fails to provide a unifying center for our learning.  

Man is the Measure … Leading to the Secularization of Learning  

The Germanic approach to education is essentially a product of the combined influences stemming  from the European Renaissance in the fourteenth century, the birth of Modernism in the seventeenth  century, and the subsequent intellectual Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Like other areas,  education underwent a Copernican revolution during this period that fundamentally altered the way  Western thinkers perceived the starting point of learning. Unlike the ancients or medievals, who  took God (or the gods) and his revelation (or their myths) as the basis for knowledge and learning,  "enlightened" approaches (and their Germanic offspring) reject any testimony to truth not directly derived from human experience. Consequently, realities not immediately accessible and/or  verifiable to the five senses (e.g., God, values, etc.) are deemed irrelevant at best and fallacious at  worst.  

The long-term effect of this educational strategy has been the near-total secularization of the  academy in the Western world. As such, religious assumptions about the world and religious  contributions to knowledge are deemed off-limits in the university lab, library, and lecture hall  today. So, like Pierre-Simon Laplace (Napoleon's scientific advisor), the contemporary college and  university often find God to be a "hypothesis" it no longer needs in its attempted explanations of  reality.  

Quantities are the Quest … Leading to the Dehumanization of Learning  

With reason enthroned and science in charge, the Germanic approach to learning centers its research  and teaching agenda on those aspects of reality that can be cut, counted, and calculated. Since  nothing else can be accessed, nothing else needs to be investigated. So, learning becomes a matter of  (exhaustively) accumulating (and transmitting) quantifiable information about a (completely)  quantifiable number of objects in the (ultimately) quantifiable universe. Master the data, according to  this approach, and you've thus mastered the discipline.  

This approach has undoubtedly given us unprecedented knowledge of the world we live in and  unanticipated technological achievements. Consequently, we're living proof of Bacon's claim that  "knowledge is power." 

But we're also sad witnesses to an equally valid truth: Knowledge isn't wisdom. In part, this stems from the Germanic approach's marginalization of the more "human" goals  and aspects of learning. So while we often possess the power to harness the wind and waters (and a  million other things), we often lack the principles to wisely steer them into paths of personal, social, and natural flourishing.  

Morality is on the Margins … Leading to the Degeneration of Learning  

The Germanic education model is strategically suited to fill the head with measurable information  and data about our world but not to form the heart by moral transformation for life in our world.  Without shame or regret, it concludes that the "good" lacks the objectivity possessed by, say, the grub  worm and thus exists (if it does at all) beyond the pale of rational analysis and definite identification.  Consequently, we can speak more knowledgeably and dogmatically about the dirt crawler than we  can about correct conduct or valid virtues. For these, personal preference and/or social consensus  must suffice. And any attempt to introduce (or worse, "impose") values, virtues, or moral verities on  today's university campus is deemed morally misguided or even malicious.  

Thus moral relativism reigns in many academic communities today. Worse, in something like an  ethical coup d’état, scholarship and learning is often employed in the service of unprecedented moral  philosophies and behaviors to express "academic freedom" and "personal self-expression." Ironically,  the unshackling of scholarship from all moral constraints, long advocated by the Germanic approach,  has sadly resulted in its enslavement to an array of (often conflicting) moral agendas. In the exchange,  both morality and learning have suffered. As University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter  has demonstrated, the end is a thinly veiled nihilism.  

Occupation is the Object … Leading to the Commercialization of Learning  

The educational goal of the medieval university system to prepare well-rounded AND skilled servants  of the common good was replaced in the Germanic system with a rigorous concentration on training  students for vocational posts after graduation. In addition to many vo-tech schools and community  colleges dotting the landscape of American society today, the effects of this approach are even felt in  the major "research” universities across the country. A changing global economy and a highly  competitive job market conspire to elevate the training of students' hands above either the sharpening  of their heads or the shaping of their hearts.  

Without question, the Germanic approach to education has produced the most technologically skilled  and professionally equipped societies in human history. But in the process, students have often  become mere educational consumers who frequently leave college with more credentials than  character. And universities now tend to market themselves based on the saleable skills they impart  rather than the educational values they offer. Essentially, the passion for understanding is lost above  the "price of fine gold" (Prov. 3:13-14). 

Autonomy is the Aim … Leading to the Privatization of Learning  

Lehrefreiheit ("freedom to teach") and Lernefreiheit ("freedom to learn") are the two dominant watchwords of the Germanic methodology. According to the first, professors should be unconstrained  in their intellectual pursuits and their philosophical positions. Likewise, the second points to the  student's "right" to investigate his/her own intellectual curiosities unchecked. The conviction that  education arises from and aims at the individual's total (rational) self-determination is at the root of  both. Education, by these lights, provides the necessary equipment and/or opportunity for such  autonomous existence.  

Of course, the ability to think critically and independently is a value most educational strategies  prize. But the Germanic system tends to privatize education so that legitimate social concerns and  constraint are entirely jettisoned. The only binding law of this approach is that no law should bind the 

scholar in his/her self-expression or the student in his/her self-determination. Beyond the apparent  contradiction within the method itself, one wonders if such autonomy is either fitting or attainable for  a finite and fallen creature – scholar or student.  

Study is Specialized … Leading to the Compartmentalization of Learning  

The Germanic model's unparalleled success at generating new knowledge and detailed analysis has  resulted in the ever-increasing specialization of academic disciplines over the centuries. Each emerges  with its own specialized methodologies, questions, experts, journals, applications, etc. The result has  been a rich and robust industry of investigation leading to finds that have enabled us to fight disease,  communicate instantaneously across the globe, and even leave it to begin space exploration.  Specialties and subspecialties abound, and no end appears in sight.  

But such knowledge comes with a price. In a word, enlarging our view of any subject or discipline  has correspondingly diminished our ability to catch a vision of its connection to all the others.  Consequently, learning has been forced to compartmentalize itself, lest handling our knowledge  becomes too unwieldy. In turn, this compartmentalization has led to a splintering of knowledge that  often leaves us with unmatched clarity of vision concerning any particular insight but totally devoid  of even a clue as to why it matters.  

Content is the Commodity … Leading to the Depersonalization of Learning  

The Germanic approach is robust in amassing data, cataloging facts, organizing observations, and  measuring phenomena. Consequently, it frames the educational quest as one of acquiring mastery of  (more) such data, facts, observations, and phenomena. At the same time, it denounces any attempt to  discover or disseminate commodities lacking weight, extension, or empirically identifiable properties.  Naturally, the transmission of these sorts of "educational products'' is not much affected by the  character of the teacher and student. Likewise, the relationship between the scholar and student need  be no more profound than, say, that between a local butcher and one of his/her regular customers.  After all, the cut of meat is the thing that matters.  

Yet knowledge, it turns out, is more robust than facts, figures, and formulas. Consequently,  teaching (and learning) requires a more "personal" approach if education is to avoid becoming  something other than mere fact farming. However, the rigorous application of the Germanic model has left us with facts disconnected from each other, students disconnected from professors, faculty  disconnected from colleagues, and scholarship often disconnected from society. This is what  follows, it seems when education turns from shaping people to sharing perspectives.  

Government is the Guide … Leading to the Exploitation of Learning  

The Germanic model was born in a historical context that was searching for a way to strengthen  German national identity and improve social conditions for the German citizenry. As a result, the  university system was (and still is in Germany) a nationalized phenomenon aimed at serving the  needs of the German people as defined by national policymakers. And though the Germanic model  doesn't always incarnate in a nationalized form in other societies, its government-guided and  government-nurtured status seems a near essential feature of the system. Even in the U.S., our  federal, state, and local authorities oversee our universities, colleges, and other learning institutions.  

But, as the history of Germany itself attests, this relationship between government and educational institutions isn't always the healthiest – or even benign. Consequently, the Germanic education  system is most vulnerable to governmental exploitation and/or censure, primarily when the  educational apparatus significantly depends on government subsidies for its maintenance. This  vulnerability only worsens when a society's educational institutions are not adequately protected from  the reach of special interests, which exploit the government's privileged relationship with universities 

and colleges. Unfortunately, "propaganda" is not too strong a word to describe the product sometimes  issued by such institutions.  

Science is the Sovereign … Leading to the De-Valuation of Learning  

If reason is the rule in the Germanic system, then science is the sovereign that wields it. In other  words, science tells us what's real, what's right, and what's relevant. But it's the reason she used to  decide. Moreover, it's assumed that every facet of reality is accessible to science – or it's not really a  facet of "reality"--and science should not be barred from investigating any facet of society. To deny  the former is superstitious; to question the latter is prudish (or worse). Ultimately, we're told,  science will unlock nature's secrets and produce the world we all desire.  

It's beyond dispute, of course, that science has made tremendous strides in discovery and development over the centuries. Yet, science’s very strength provides her with her most noticeable weakness. She is unparalleled in her ability to analyze the observable and answer the 'what' and 'how'  questions about it. But move beyond the observable, and science grows dim-eyed. And even within  the range of her vision – the observable – she's unable to answer the most pressing question of all – 'why?'. As a result, science leaves us with a world full of wonders we cannot wonder about. At best, this seems a significant loss of value for the student seeking to explore the world around him/her.

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