German pupils in 1904

Education in Germany before and after the First World War

Posted on on 02 February 2014
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Centenary News contributor Claire Wotherspoon reports on the education system in Germany before the First World War and how it was changed by the conflict.

In this two-part discussion I will explore education and schooling in Germany and the impact of the First World War on attitudes towards the education system as well as schooling for boys and girls. Part One focuses on education during the German Empire; the different experience of children depending on location and gender, while Part Two will explore the same themes in the post-war era and examine the extent of change.

Before the First World War

Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries saw some fundamental developments in the education sector, but it was perhaps in Germany where the most significant advances were made, creating a model closely watched by other countries. However, progress was limited by a number of factors, including the way in which schools were run, the subjects taught and the time devoted to study. Also limiting progress were the differing experiences of boys and girls, as well as children from different social classes.

In the German Empire, education was centred on an all important ideal: providing an ‘all-rounded education’. In principal, this concept should have provided a balanced education and in some ways succeeded. Secondary schools became more centralised, which meant the government had ultimate control over what was taught to students and ensured that young people were learning in a similar way across the country. By 1872 the first secondary school for girls was established in Prussia, although there was still a long way to go for female education. More and more secondary schools were established countrywide, to cater for the more demanding needs of professions for well educated students. 

Because of this centralisation, there was a more unified curriculum at secondary level. Education at this stage was intended as a basis for further study, so practical knowledge gained could be applied to higher education. To complete their education, students had to pass a final written and oral test, which included writing an essay in German and answering mathematical questions.

Flexible ideas

Self-study was an essential component of this idea, calling for more spontaneity from students, which created individualism through invention of new ideas. This provided wider scope for students with different abilities, because they were able to choose which subjects they wanted to study. 

The system was flexible enough to allow for students who attained varying levels according to subject. They were not forced into continuing learning subjects in which they were under-achieving, but could instead make up their grades by achieving highly in alternative subjects. For higher achievers, some schools organised classes specifically designed for them, to maximise their grade and better prepare them for a life in academia.

During the nineteenth century, new universities were established in larger cities such as Munich. Many of these new establishments were aimed at students of science and mathematics, and in these subjects Germany attained a leadership that was important to the rest of Europe. A university degree was a prestigious qualification and was a requirement if individuals wished to work in the civil service. Centralisation did not apply to universities as it did to secondary schools, which meant that taught subjects and curriculum were largely dependent on which university students chose to attend.

In this way, the German education system was fairly strong and had clearly stated aims. However, there were areas that still needed improving, including the organisation of primary schools and gender differences. Although primary education was compulsory in the German Empire, secondary schooling was not, and as such was largely attended by children from a more prosperous social class.

Unlike secondary schools, elementary schools were not centrally run, which meant that each separate state had control over what was taught. There were considerable differences in education levels between village and municipal schools, due to various factors. Usually village schools had only one class for all ages and abilities, as well as very limited facilities, whereas city schools benefited from large, splendid buildings and strong educational facilities. Even though primary education was compulsory, there remained a problem, particularly in the countryside, of non-attendance. Instead, many children were put to work and child labour increased.

A serious problem of German education before World War I was the rigid differentiation between primary education, received by all, and secondary education, received mainly by the children of the more prosperous classes. This division meant that most children of the poor had no access to secondary schooling and subsequent study at the university level. So not only were there differences in attainment levels for children depending on whether they lived in towns or the countryside, but also the economic stability of families played a part.

Sexual segregation

One area that also limited progress was attaining gender equality. Education in the German Empire provided a very different experience for boys and girls. Whereas for boys schooling was centred around the importance of academia, for girls there was a focus on preparing them for lives as wives and mothers. If academic subjects were taught to girls, there was widespread belief that this would cause ‘mis-education’, the concern that instead of accepting their role in the home and managing a household, they might develop ideas and gain some form of independence.

Although the 19th century saw a considerable rise in the number of schools opened for girls, actually using this opportunity to attain a higher education could often cause problems in other aspects of their lives. For the first time, women were permitted to be trained up as teachers. However, the German government promoted the idea that scholarly women, or women who had a strong educational background, would make unsuitable wives. This was because it was believed that they were more likely to pursue personal aims, therefore neglecting their motherly duties.

In terms of taught subjects, the distinguishing feature of girls’ education was the teaching of foreign languages, in particular French and English. Unlike boys, their aims in mathematics and natural science were of a modest nature. So, girls were trained for a largely domestic role, very focused on language and literature to create cultured wives. In this way, education was preparing girls to enter the world of the home, to rely on their husband to bring home the money needed to support a family.

This was very different for boys, where education was promoted as a way of getting a better job, in order to fulfil the ideal of supporting a wife and family. Schooling for boys centred about creating all-rounded, morally conscious individuals. Whereas girls could expect many hours devoted to learning Latin, for boys the amount of time spent on it decreased, while practical subjects such as mathematics and natural science were promoted.

So, education in the German Empire was fragmented at this stage. There was a little progress; women could now be trained as teachers and the schooling system was flexible in terms of taught subjects, allowing students to decide what they wished to study. However, there was still inequality between girls and boys in the education system and the difference in how primary and secondary schools were run resulted in grade discrepancies depending on gender, economic situation and location. 

In Part Two I will focus on how the First World War impacted on education and whether the situation changed because of this.

Images in the public domain

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