Halls of Ivy May Receive Miracle-Gro in Germany
May 9, 2004
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
HEIDELBERG, Germany - No doubt Max Weber, the founder of
modern sociology, walked along the leafy Philosopher's Way
above the Neckar River here in Heidelberg, home of the
university that is Germany's oldest and one of its most
renowned. The philosopher Hegel, 100 years before, probably
strode the path as well, maybe thinking about the ruse of
Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher and coiner of the
term "the banality of evil," studied here, and Rupert
Wilhelm Bunsen, inventor of the burner still used in
chemistry labs, was a member of the faculty. So were seven
winners of Nobel Prizes in Physics, Medicine or Chemistry.
It would not be right to say the Ruprecht-Karl-Universit‰t
Heidelberg, to give the place its full name, has lost its
luster. More than 26,000 students study here, in a town of
narrow streets, slate-roofed steeples and a vast library
with a collection of medieval manuscripts that practically
reeks of Germany's tradition for academic excellence.
But there is also a recognition that Heidelberg University,
founded in 1386, is not as great as it used to be, and that
illustrates a problem becoming more and more widely
acknowledged in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Over the
last few decades, on the higher rungs of higher education,
the United States has been outpacing pretty much everybody,
especially in science and technology.
While some American scientists worry that the United States
may be losing some of its edge, there is a recognition here
that something basic has to change if Europe is to regain
the luster it lost some time ago.
"It is definitely the case that we have not kept up the
reputation we had in the past," said Peter Hommelhof,
Heidelberg's rector. He quickly added that Heidelberg did a
good job of educating its students, despite classes that
are too big and financing that is too low, and that it had
had major successes in the sciences, medicine and law,
three of its strongest areas.
Still, there are many signs that at the very elite level,
the international upper crust, Heidelberg, like the rest of
Germany, has fallen behind.
In recognition of that problem, Chancellor Gerhard Schrˆder
and the education ministers of the 16 German states have
announced a plan to form a group of what are being called
elite universities (and elite departments at other
colleges) with about $300 million from the German
government, starting in 2006.
"It is our common goal to raise the performance of German
universities and research to an international top level in
the next few years," said the federal education minister,
Edelgard Bulmahn, acknowledging that in fact, they are not
at the international top level at the moment.
In other countries such a proposal might seem like either a
good idea or an inadequate one, but the principle of it
would not shake the foundations of the culture. In Germany,
where an egalitarian ideal has an almost theological
status, the very idea of an elite has a subversive tinge.
"This became especially predominant in university policy in
the 1970's, based on Supreme Court decisions that meant
there was a development toward mass universities," Mr.
Hommelhof said, speaking of the egalitarian ideal.
In 1972, the German courts ruled that any graduate of a
gymnasium, the more academically oriented part of the
German high-school system, had a right to a university
education entirely paid for by the state. At Heidelberg
this led to a jump in enrollment, from fewer than 10,000
students to more than 30,000, before it settled to its
current level. "The whole notion of an elite was
practically taboo," Mr. Hommelhof said.
Not everybody is happy with the idea of elite institutions,
in large part because the government's proposal would
involve not just money but, in the sharpest departure from
the egalitarian ideal, also a much higher degree of
selection of some students over others.
That idea has produced a few scattered demonstrations and
placards like the one declaring, "Elite for Everybody." But
there is little of the continuing, vociferous opposition
that other changes, like cutbacks in pensions or medical
benefits, have provoked, probably because of a dawning
realization that the country has, academically speaking,
been living on its past glories.
Germany's production of Nobel laureates is often cited as
evidence of the decline at the upper echelons of the
system. In the first third of the 20th century, Germany
produced 25 Nobel winners in chemistry and physics alone,
the most in the world. Between 1984 and 2003, the Americans
won 10 times as many Nobel Prizes as did the Germans.
Then there is the annual ranking of universities by the
Center for Science and Technology Studies in Switzerland:
in 2003, not a single German university was named among the
top 50 of the 575 universities studied by the center.
Heidelberg came in at No. 71.
"When you have language courses with 40 people, you don't
open your mouth," said Lars Scheithauer, an undergraduate
in political science, voicing a common complaint at
Heidelberg: too many students and not enough teachers.
Kirsten Heike Pistel, a graduate student specializing in
medieval Latin, said, "You have students who took their
second-year exams and who never talked to a professor."
There are complaints that efforts to improve teaching, for
example, by publishing student ratings of professors have
been vigorously opposed by the university staff. That has
led to some black humor on campus:
Question: What can a professor do without having serious
Answer: Burn himself alive during his lecture.
matter of money and research support," said Jurgen Wolfrum,
a professor of physical chemistry and one of Heidelberg's
most celebrated science faculty members, speaking of the
reason the university has fallen behind other great
universities in the sciences.
Mr. Wolfrum, whose students included Wolfgang Ketterie, who
won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001, said Heidelberg was
full of very good students and professors. But, he said,
the sciences are hemmed in by too much bureaucracy, too
many controls, too frequent evaluations that produce no
change ("It's the bureaucracy entertaining itself," he
said) and not enough sustained financing of projects.
"To be in the top, you have to be continuously supported,
and I must say that my colleagues in the U.S. have a big
advantage there," he said. "If you're at the top, you have
much more freedom to go into new areas. Here it's very hard
to start new ideas and to get support for new ideas."
But Mr. Wolfrum and others, including Mr. Hommelhof, agree
that another element in the picture was a dilution of the
old German culture of discipline and hard work. The
dilution was a perverse byproduct, they say, of the
country's extensive welfare system, its idealization of the
35-hour workweek and its collective yearning to work until
60 and then retire to the Costa del Sol.
"Most people in Germany have forgotten the classical
tradition that it's hard work to be good," Mr. Wolfrum