Daily Rant: The Horrible Problems of German Universities

Dr. James Thompson, who runs a fine blog on cognitive ability and psychological measurement, sent a questionnaire out to various professors asking them to comment on the teaching environment at their universities. He got this response from the (psuedonymous) Prof. Dr. Schweinsteiger, from an unnamed German university. I haven't seen all of the problems he describes, but that is probably because I'm teaching law, which is a world of its own. Anyway, here is Schweini's rant, almost in full:

Even though in Germany education policy is determined by the federal state, Leberwurst University is a fairly typical German university, and its educational policies and standards are similar to most of the many other German universities that I know.

Before I go into the horrors of Leberwurst education standards, first a bit of background, so the reader knows “where I’m coming from”. In my admittedly layman’s view (I am not an expert on education), the central aim of education is that students acquire certain skills and or knowledge which they did not possess before. In order to achieve this goal, two things need to happen. First, students go to an institution (for instance, a university) where they engage in intensive interactions with qualified experts who will teach them the required new skills and knowledge. Also, in order to facilitate the learning process, the students also do home assignments etc., supervised by the teacher. Secondly, in order to ensure that the students actually have acquired the desired skills and knowledge after the educational experience, the students are tested, for instance by taking verbal or written exams, doing home assignments, writing essays, etc. These tests enable the institution to establish the degree to which the student has become skilled and knowledgeable, usually with the help of a ‘grading system’ that quantifies the level of expertise that the student has reached. Testing students serves the purposes of quality control, both at the student level (universities, and presumably, the students themselves, want to know how competent a particular student has become) and at the university level (universities want to know how effective they are at educating students).

You may perhaps be yawning already, but trite as this all may sound, the German higher education policy does not share these assumptions at all. Generally, the aim is not to change students into more competent and knowledgeable people, but rather to give as many members of the population as possible a certified university education. The difference between educating people and giving people a certificate of education is comparable to the difference between a country increasing its GDP on the one hand, and simply printing more money on the other. This rather odd goal is motivated by the noble political ideology of Chancengleichheit (“equal opportunity”), which is also why our students have to pay nothing at all (as in: zero Euros) for the privilege of receiving a university education. At the end of this essay I will explain why and how the German education policy nevertheless manages to severely obstruct equal opportunity.

In Leberwurst University, the simple education strategy outlined above completely and utterly fails, for the following reasons.

First, it is forbidden for teachers to require their students to be present. I do not mean “mentally present” here; I mean, “physically present at the location where the education actually takes place”, e.g., a classroom or a lecture hall. It is forbidden to record the absence or presence of the students, and it is most certainly forbidden to use presence or absence of students as a criterion for grading, or for deciding who ‘passes’ or ‘fails’. This is not only the policy of the management of Leberwurst University (although it is) but it is also official federal state policy. We even got an official letter from the Federal Ministry of Education that told us that we are not allowed to require students’ presence, as this would violate educational law in that it would restrict the students’ Studierfreiheit (“freedom of study”) and even more serious, it would violate constitutional law because it would restrict the students’Handlungsfreiheit (“freedom of action”). So if we as teachers require students to be educated at a certain location, we are illegally restricting them in their personal freedom. The consequences of this policy are disastrous. First of all, a very large percentage of students actually hardly ever show up in their seminars. Usually they drop by once or twice to get a bit of a taste of what’s going on, and that’s about it. For large lectures this is not much of a problem, because if students really believe they can pass the exam without the lectures, that’s their problem (more on this later). But for small and intensive seminars, where texts are discussed, techniques demonstrated, exercises explained and discussed, etc. etc., it is simply not possible to engage in meaningful educational interactions if the majority of the participants in this interaction is physically not present. Also, the few students that do show up occasionally are usually different ones every week, so it is not possible to build on material that has been covered before, forcing the teachers to make little stand-alone sessions without any cumulative coherence whatsoever. Another interesting consequence is that students sometimes enlist in two or three simultaneous courses, reasoning that if they don’t need to be present, they might just as well be absent at three courses at the same time. Finally, student evaluations of teachers become irrelevant and even absurd, if the students filling in forms about what they thought of the quality of the teaching have never even showed up at the actual teaching.

Now some may argue: why not just do a tough exam at the end of the course, and then the students who weren’t there will simply fail. Fail they will, but there are three reasons why this strategy does not work. First, a large majority of courses do not require a grade. For instance, in the BA program I teach, students will have to complete 25 courses (i.e., seminars, lectures etc.). Of these 25 courses, only four require a grade. The other courses require instead something called aktive Teilnahme (AT), “active participation” which is a very Orwellian name because it neither involves activity nor participation. To get AT, the students have to do something at least vaguely related to the content of the course, usually give a short talk about one of the articles they read, or hand in a summary or protocol. But the thing is: we are not allowed to judge (grade) the quality of the work that is handed in; we are only allowed to assess whether they have done it. The important legal criterion here is whether they have “put in some effort” (which the students can always claim to have done, and we can never disprove it). So if their requirements for AT in Wurstology 101 are “hand in an essay about the contemporary pricing policy of German wurst” and the student hands in a text saying only “I never eat wurst because I’m a vegetarian, so I have no idea”, they have formally complied with the request. And then there is literally nothing the teacher can do to stop this student from getting the AT certificate. Even if the student has otherwise never even been present at the course at all, doesn’t even know the name of the teacher, and everyone knows that the student’s knowledge of Wurstology is absolutely zero.

Second, even for those courses where grading is still allowed, you just can’t get away with failing 95 out of a 100 students. The management will sternly tell you that either your standards are too high, or you are a bad teacher, or both. And if you then tell the management: “no, but they just don’t show up when I teach”, the common reply by the management is “well, then your courses are apparently not attractive and student-friendly enough”. Also, failing students often results in legal procedures initiated by the students (which they very often win) and in any case in having more students to deal with in the next semester, because at Leberwurst, students can repeat courses indefinitely, as often as they like. So there are many strong incentives for teachers to give up their academic standards and just pass everyone at some point in time. The management’s pressure to pass students is to a large degree caused by pressure from the federal state government to lower the quota of students who fail to get a degree, so failing 95% of the students, no matter how justified, will lead to all kinds of (usually financial) negative consequences for the university and the faculty.

Which brings us to the next point: grade inflation. The German grade system is numerical with 1 meaning “excellent”, 2 “good”, 3 “satisfactory” and 4 “sufficient”. But giving someone a 2 or worse often results in either suicidal or legal behavior by the students, so the actual realistic margins are between 1 and 2. Even then, students getting a 1.7 often angrily demand an explanation why they didn’t get a 1.0. So when some funding organization once asked us to give them the list of the 5% best students on the basis of grades, we could not comply, because if a massive majority has an average of 1.0, the best 5% are simply not definable. So we were then asked to “intuitively” identify the best 5% of our students, which we can do, of course, but it obviously defeats the purpose of using a grading system. Even more absurd is the grading system of PhD theses. In our neighboring country The Netherlands for instance, the qualification “Cum Laude” is rather rare and indicates an exceptional performance of the PhD candidate. In Germany, the same qualification “Cum Laude” actually means: “dear candidate, please take your thesis and please discretely take the back exit and never show yourself at this university again, because we are extremely disappointed in your thesis”. We now have “Magna Cum Laude” and the highest, “Summa Cum Laude” for the acceptable and the good thesis respectively. At least, that was the case 15 years ago. Now the Summa is becoming the new norm, and it is seen as an “affront” to give someone anything lower than Summa. Interestingly, many German applicants who only have the default “Cum Laude” are undeservedly seen as geniuses in other countries, where this inflation has not taken place.

It is also not allowed at Leberwurst to require students to have successfully completed course A before one can follow some course B. So we cannot require any foreknowledge for any of our courses, except for the first year in which a few elementary courses have to be completed. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to go deeper into complicated topics, because there are always some students lacking the necessary background, slowing the entire educational process down to a near-halt.

Generally, the students are very powerful at Leberwurst, and most of them are interesting in doing as little as possible while still getting their certificate as fast as possible. Professors are perceived as authoritarian relics from the past whose only elitist goal is to prevent students from getting the degree they deserve as a birthright. Students are fundamentally against any form of testing for which they can fail, and often have the political power to get to a large degree what they want, because the German educators are very reluctant to compare students and judge them qualitatively. The very idea that there are better students and worse students is strongly discouraged in our current educational ideology.

A good illustration of the mentality of the German student at Leberwurst is the following anecdote. A teacher was very annoyed by the fact that her students didn’t read the texts they were supposed to read. So she said: OK, you know what? Go home, read the text, and we’ll discuss the text next week. Instead of feeling ashamed about not having read the text, the students immediately went to the Dean to complain that the teacher was not fulfilling her legally required 9 hours of teaching per week.

The consequences of this type of educational environment are catastrophic. Leberwurst University is getting a very bad name in German industry (as are German universities generally), the students that leave Leberwurst with a certificate have hardly learned anything, and have acquired a very bad working mentality in the process.

Another thing that we can learn from this German educational “experiment” is that education is a contract between teacher and student. If one of these parties does not fulfill their side of the bargain, no education is taking place. Even the best teacher in the world cannot teach students anything if do not show up and invest some effort. Not only is this student-teacher dynamic very detrimental for the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, another not unimportant effect is that it really kills any residual didactical motivation in the teachers. And staying motivated is hard enough already for German professors with their legally minimal teaching load of nine hours per week.

As a final remark, the German educational policy seems to be a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If everyone can get high grades and a certificate without any form of talent and/or hard work, a smart person from a poor socio-economic background cannot distinguish her or himself from a not-so-smart person from a rich family. So by giving everybody effectively the same high grade or qualification, the end result is that the person from a poor background is deprived of the possibility to let his or her qualifications compensate for the cultural disadvantage. In the end, employers who need to select the best people cannot do so on the basis of grades, and will be tempted to look at less relevant aspects such as accent, manners or clothing style, in other words: indicators of social class.


IQ is the Best Predictor of Human Achievement

For a bit of context, the good Dr. Thompson, on his excellent blog, gives a brief summary of the most important things to know about intelligence (emphasis added):

Intelligence does not guarantee good decision-making in all circumstances, simply better decision-making in more circumstances than a duller person.  Some problems forms are inherently difficult and ambiguous. For example, it is easier to understand natural frequencies than percentages with decimal point. Apart from intelligence, social pressures and emotional attachments influence decisions.
 
Modern IQ tests give one overall figure, and also figures for 3 to 4 component indices, usually verbal comprehension, perceptual organisation, working memory, plus processing speed. The single figure is usually the best predictor, but the others have their place in specific circumstances. The fact that one single number is the best predictor of human achievements is testimony to its power.
 
40% is the heritability estimate for children, but it rises to 60% plus for adults.  70/30 is not a bad estimate for wealthy countries, 50/50 for very poor ones.... People from profoundly different cultures make the same sorts of errors on culture reduced tests, and the pattern suggests a largely universal problem-solving capacity. The predictive power of intelligence is similar in culturally different countries.
The point in bold is key. Out of all the factors that people think explain why certain people fail at life and others succeed, intelligence, even as imperfectly but reliably measured by one simple number, is the most important. The way science discovered this is also interesting: by controlling for intelligence in studies of other factors. Level of education, parental socio-economic status, reaction times, etc. turn out to be strongly correlated with, and very likely caused by, intelligence. On average, in the aggregate, the wealthier you are, the smarter you are, and wealthy parents pass those genes onto their children.
 
This is very different from what many people believe, or wish were true.

The 'Blank Slate' is Now as Dead as Phrenology

The blank slate theory of human development holds that human beings are all born with roughly equal capacities, and that variations between humans on an individual and group level exist solely (or almost solely) because of environmental factors. This idea has always had its supporters, and they gained the upper hand in the early 20th century, bolstered by a few fairly primitive ethnographic studies and the ideological backlash against the crimes of 20th-century eugenicists, including genocide. To this day, the blank slate theory is often taught as proven fact in schools of education, which is a very foolish and dangerous thing to do.

One way to check the blank slate theory is to examine twins. They come in two flavors: monozygotic (one egg splits into two embryos) which are virtually genetically identical, or dizygotic, which are basically just siblings who happen to be born at the same time. Early twin studies began to seriously undermine the blank slate theory, which didn't surprise geneticists and psychologists but made some people quite nervous. Twins adopted into completely different cultures, unaware even of each others' existence, had similar traits at a rate completely incompatible with random chance. Modern genetics has also destroyed the blank-slate theory, but many people don't understand or trust these studies. Few people now subscribe to the full-on blank-slate theory, but there are still millions of people who are eager to downplay the influence of heredity as far as possible.

But now, Nature Genetics has just published a blockbuster 14-million subject twin-study meta-analysis, possibly the most important research on heredity in decades, which has now definitively destroyed, once and for all, the blank-slate theory of human development. The authors studied dozens of human traits, from purely biological to social, and found the overall heritability for these traits about 49%. The strongest associations were for biological givens (height, bone density, etc.), the weakest proof for social attitudes (although there was still detectable hereditary influence on these). Cognitive ability, the best predictor of success in modern societies, is somewhere between, but still highly heritable, as Dr. James Thompson notes:

All human traits contain a substantial heritable element. The blank slate is totally false. If you have colleagues who doubts the twin method or who have difficulty accepting the power of ancestry, shall I repeat for them Rhett Butler’s last words to Scarlett O'Hara right now, or is it better that I tell you a little more about the findings?

I expect you have an interest in the results on cognition, so rest easy, heritability is high, though not as strong as for skeletal, metabolic, ophthalmological, dermatological, respiratory, and neurological traits. Usually there is a big difference (top line of figures) between the high correlations for monozygotic and the lower correlations for dizygotic twins, showing a strong genetic effect. The exception is social values, in which the environment makes a bigger contribution than usual, though not quite as big as heredity.

Cognitive traits correlate 0.646 in identical twins, 0.371 in fraternal twins, with miniscule error terms of .01 in these enormous samples. An additive model seems appropriate for cognition.

They conclude: Our results provide compelling evidence that all human traits are heritable: not one trait had a weighted heritability estimate of zero. The relative influences of genes and environment are not randomly distributed across all traits but cluster in functional domains. In general, we showed that reported estimates of variance components from model-fitting can underestimate the true trait heritability, when compared with heritability based on twin correlations. Roughly two-thirds of traits show a pattern of monozygotic and dizygotic twin correlations that is consistent with a simple model whereby trait resemblance is solely due to additive genetic variation. This implies that, for the majority of complex traits, causal genetic variants can be detected using a simple additive genetic model.

So, intelligence has a strong heritable component, and other personality attributes have weaker, but still quite important heritability. The blank-slate hypothesis is now folklore. It joins phrenology, alchemy, astrology, and thousands of other theories of human behavior in the Mausoleum of Disproven Hypotheses.


Green Party Pedophiles: A Case of Sacralized Victims

 

I've blogged before about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, especially his writings about 'sacralization' and political discourse. Crudely oversimplified by me, the theory goes: he proposes that much of what we consider someone's political ideology is choices about who is open to criticism or mockery. Humans have a strong tendency to divide ourselves into tribes in many different ways. In politics we define ourselves by sacralizung certain people, groups, values, and institutions. Conservatives identify with family, authority, church, entrepreneurship. Thus, they exempt these institutions from criticism among their own tribe, and rush to their defense when they are attacked by left-liberals. Left-liberals, for their part, have just as strong a desire to find sacred objects or ideas that elevate human life above selfish struggle and identify individuals with a greater cause.

The sacralized groups and objects can change over time; many conservatives no longer think marriage has to be protected from gays anymore, and few seriously think the Pope's ex cathedra pronouncements are infallible. For liberals, the workers were once sacred, but then came the 1960s and 1970s, when a lot of the workers turned out not to have very educated or progressive views about women, minorities, and gays. So left-liberals tended to identify with these historical targets of discrimination. And, as things go, sacralized them. Each member of a particular minority group was considered a living embodiment of social injustice, and liberals worldwide began to identify each other by deep concern over how these groups were treated. These social movements, of course, brought plenty of wholesome social progress which only reactionaries would want to turn back.

But it also brought plenty of excesses, such as mid-1980s gay pride parades, those cavalcades of perversion that, as the Onion put it, set back acceptance of gays by decades. Another part of sacralizing victims is taboo on criticizing the statements or actions of gays, ethnic minorities, women, the disabled, and other designated minority groups.

Which brings us to the German Green Party. Founded in the late 1970s as the Alternative List, it was at first a chaotic but stimulating party for people who felt excluded by the three-party system prevailing in Germany. The early Greens comprised gays, environmental activists, pacifists, vegetarians, and the like, and its platform was green, anti-nuke, pro-gay, and multicultural. In the following decades, the Green party itself and most of its concerns have become completely mainstream, so we can say the 'march through the institutions' worked. In the early 1980s, a widely-despised social group found a home in the Green Party: pedophiles. They analogized themselves to gays: people ostracized by society by their unconventional sexual orientation.

And some (not all!) regional Green Party branches, disastrously, bought the argument. Pedophiles were permitted to join the party and even hold leadership positions. Pro-pedophile groups called the 'Urban Indian Communes' protested Green party political gatherings, insisting (g) that the Party adopt planks advocating the decriminalization of sex between adults and children. Fred Karst, convicted of pedophile offenses several times, started a 'working group' within the Green party called 'Old and Young.' It was an official party organization within the 'Gay Issues' group of the party. The members of the group often organized special trips where men could cavort with boys (my translation):

The working group was a meeting-point for pedohiles, who among other things organized special road trips for young men -- and abused them. The group belonged to the 'Gay Issues' group within the Green Party and was thus an official component of the overall party. "We are ashamed for the institutional failure of our party" says Berlin regional Green Party director Bettina Jarasch. "This blindness to abuse of power still baffles and enrages me."

Things could go so far because of a special characteristic of the Berlin greens. A so-called "minority dogma" guaranteed the "Young and Old" working group far-ranging autonomy and a special rule: opinions which couldn't command majority support could still be propagated for years in the party's name -- including the idea that sexual relationships with children were legitimate.

The last pedophiles were kicked out of the party only in the mid-1990s. The Greens, faced with renewed revelations in 2013, commissioned a political scientist from Göttingen, Franz Walter, to create a report on how pedophiles were allowed to gain so much influence within the party. One of his conclusions in the report (g, pdf) was that of the four main factors contributing to acceptance of pedophiles, two were (1) a tendency to 'affective solidarity' with excluded outsider groups that led the Greens to unconditionally accept their demands and grant them disproportional influence in the party; and (2) a 'strongly anti-repressive' tendency within the party which led members to sympathize indiscriminately with those who faced 'repression' by the state, including pedophiles and imprisoned RAF murderers.

Fortunately the Green Party has finally realized what a horrible mistake the party made, has unequivocally denounced pedophilia, and has promised counseling and compensation to victims. But the startling prospect of a major political party with national representation allowing child molesters to propagandize from within its ranks demonstrates the dangers of exempting marginalized groups from all criticism.


Light Reading

From the window of a bookstore on the Frankfurter Allee, Berlin. A book on elevator repair, and a book of 'Humoristic Sketches from German Commercial Life'. Not cheap!

Frankfurter Allee Elevator Maintenance Humorous Sketches German Commercial Life.52

I wonder if this is the same George Weerth:

Georg Weerth (17 February 1822 – 30 July 1856) was a German writer. Weerth's poems celebrated the solidarity of the working class in its fight for liberation from exploitation and oppression. He was a friend and companion of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who described Georg Weerth as the first and most significant poet of the German proletariat.


Spotting Berlin Gentrification -- Follow the Blond Dreadlocks

I popped over to Berlin for the weekend and this time stayed in Friedrichshain. Friedrichshain is part of the former East Berlin which was pretty rundown 10 years ago, last time I visited, but is now gentrifying, as the phrase goes. I'd say the process is about 65% complete in Friedrichshain. You still have some hard-rock bars and blotchy, disgruntled East German retirees, but they increasingly look bewildered by what is happening to their Kiez ('hood). What you get instead are:

  • Boutiques with aggressively unique handmade purses and clothes out of rescued fabrics or ancient leather.
  • Self-consciously crudely hand-drawn posters for various kinds of punk that were all the rage when I was in college 25 years ago (Psycho-Trash Punkabilly from France, Runaway Monks Buddhist punk, Ska-Punk from Ipswich).
  • Small clever cryptic stickers showing faces in silhouette, Third World children, or bearing mysterious slogans like '435%' or 'BBAN' or 'whyisnow.com'
  • Posters demanding solidarity with Blockupy, with migrant workers seeking back wages, with the political prisoner Sürgül Amedölügcülügünülcü, with refugees, with the 'anti-Fascist resistance', with Mumia Abu-Jamal, with Pussy Riot, Gaza, homosexuals, squatters, and so many more!
  • Spray-painted anarchist symbols, haunting symbols of the imminent Revolution that will soon sweep us all into the Spree.
  • Small, ancient travel vans with faded stickers for bands, political causes, and football teams. 
  • That most insufferable of all claques, white people with dreadlocks. These people should be forcibly shaved, and their greasy hairworms used to make comfy pillows for refugees. After thorough sanitization, of course -- the refugees deserve no less.
  • Community centers surrounded by multicolored murals with vaguely Eastern or ethnic themes.
  • Ads featuring ironic clipart of clean-cut, smiling 1950s housewives and businessmen. Again, all the rage in the US in 1988.

Did I miss anything?


The Part-Time Economy

The Economist reports:

The Netherlands consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to live. Dutch kids are among the happiest in the world, according to Unicef. Some attribute their high quality of life and general good nature to a rather laid-back approach to work: more than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country. On average only a fifth of the working-age population in EU member states holds a part-time job (8.7% of men and 32.2% of women); in the Netherlands 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week (see chart).

...and Dutch politics was dominated by Christian values until the 1980s: the focus was mainly on providing state aid (implicit subsidies in the fiscal system) so that women could stay at home with children. 

This changed in the late 1980s, when the state realised that it would be a good idea to mobilise women into the job market. But the cultural conviction that families still needed mothers home for tea-time prevailed, and thus the state worked closely with employers to ensure that the new part-time jobs would enjoy similar legal positions to their full-time equivalents. This has, to an extent, been continued: in 2000 the right for women and men to ask for a job to be part-time was written into law. But Ronald Dekker, a labour economist at Tilburg University, thinks this law is a confirmation of existing practice and therefore largely symbolic, only necessary for certain “archaic industries”. Instead, he reckons the high prevalence of part-time jobs is largely down to the wide availability of good quality, well-paid “first tier” part-time jobs in the Netherlands: jobs often considered inferior in many other countries.

One of the many benefits of welfare states: the system makes it easy for people to adjust the amount of work they do according to their individual wishes and needs.