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November 1957

Education in the Western World

Before serving first as our high commissioner and then as our ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, James Bryant Conant had been at Harvard University for thirty-five years as instructor, professor, and president

by James Bryant Conant

TO one interested in comparative education, it is fascinating to see how, today, many nations are struggling to solve the basic problems connected with the selection and education of future members of the professions. To a comparative educationalists many questions about the selection and training of doctors and lawyers in different countries are questions almost without meaning. Asking whether European schools are better than schools in the United States is like asking a comparative anatomist whether a whale is a better mammal than an elephant.

The comparative anatomist is interested in examining the similarities and differences to be found in animal or plant organs which carry out the same function; he is very cautious, however, about proclaiming the virtues of a device found in one particular species over a device for a similar purpose found in another. Of course, the anatomist knows that mammals are modified only slowly by changes in environment; unlike schools or colleges, no man-made decisions will radically alter the structure of the functioning organism he is examining.

Some will argue that this vitiates my analogy; they may claim that the essence of human organizations lies in the fact that conscious acts of men and women can change them, and as history shows, overnight if need be. "But wait a moment, ' the student of the comparative anatomy of schools will say, '-not overnight surely, except at the point of a bayonet or in our time under the shadow of armored vehicles and tanks." And such changes, he will argue, are the equivalent of pathological alterations.

History shows that, except under conditions of duress brought about by external forces, schools and colleges have developed gradually in different parts of the world in response to a variety of different conditions. They are a product of the society they serve and they also influence the future of this society. Reformers who have sought to change education have had to be content with minor alterations or else have had to devote a lifetime to their task.

It is clear that various educational devices have in the past been outmoded by social changes. The situation of Oxford and Cambridge during the first two thirds of the nineteenth century is a case in point. For two generations many leaders of public opinion argued for the need of either establishing modern universities in England or reforming the two ancient seats of learning. Eventually both courses of action were followed; the modification of Oxford and Cambridge by successive royal commissions was so radical as to constitute the equivalent of a series of drastic biological mutations. By the end of the century English universities were once again well adapted to the tasks at hand.

I should like to approach the subject of education for the professions in the mood of the comparative educationalist. I should like to examine in particular the way the future members of the professions are recruited, selected, and educated in certain European nations and the United States.

For a number of professions one phase of professional education--the final stage, so to speak--is essentially identical in all countries. There is little to be gained by noting the minor differences to be found in various nations. This is true of medicine, of engineering, and of the natural sciences; it is likewise true to a lesser degree of certain areas within the social sciences and the humanities. It is possible to pass judgment on the work of the medical faculty of a university, for example, almost without taking into account the traditions of the institution or its surroundings. Considering the training of a medical man only from the standpoint of professional competency, it would not be too difficult to classify all the medical schools of Europe and America into groups according to their degree of excellence. The same would apply to the training of engineers and research Scientists.

It is not so much professional education as the education provided prior to professional studies that varies from nation to nation. This is particularly true if one directs attention to the way the future members of the professions are recruited and selected. Nowhere on the European continent will one find the equivalent of the American four-year liberal arts college. The European youth, unlike his American contemporary. passes directly from a university preparatory school to professional training.

Americans find it difficult to imagine an educational system without a college; Europeans find it hard to imagine what sort of an institution an American college can be. And the task of explaining the situation in the United States to a Germans for example is not made easier by the fact that there are over 1;00 four-year colleges in our country, some part of a university, some not; their curricula and criteria for admission and graduation vary enormously;' the one thing they have in common is the right to award a bachelor's degree. an academic symbol derived from the Middle Ages which has completely disappeared in German-speaking nations, though not in France.

One sometimes hears it said that the characteristic feature of American education is the proportion of our youth attending a university. So phrased this is a completely misleading statement. What is characteristic is the very large proportion of our youth from eighteen to twenty years of age who arc engaged in full-time studies; the fraction is something like a quarter to a third; in Great Britain, France, Germany. and Switzerland not more than a tenth of the youth arc so engaged. Equally characteristic are the figures for school attendance at the ages sixteen to seventeen; in America more than 70 per cent of those of this age arc in school full-time; in European countries and Great Britain the corresponding figure is less than 20 per cont. Some Europeans have said that only a rich nation could afford to keep so many of its youth in school so long. But with the increase in automation, it is a question whether the withdrawal of a considerable fraction of youth from the labor force is a luxury. The type of training needed in the distributive industries more and more requires considerable "book learning."

At all events, when we consider the proportion of youth engaged in professional studies, the position of the United States is not so different from that of the rest of the world. Perhaps it is fair to compare the proportion of young men enrolled in the first year of a university in Europe or Great Britain to the proportion in the United States entering engineering, law, and medical schools and starting in the graduate schools of arts and sciences. Taking the figures for young men, the proportion in the United States seems to be something like 6 per cent; surprisingly small, many would say. But X hat is equally surprising is that similar figures represent the situation in all nations for Which I have seen statistics. Therefore, one could say that the proportion of youth studying professionally in a university is about the same in the United States as in other nations. What is different between America and Europe is the method by which this very small percentage is selected and educated prior to engaging in professional studies.

Today. unlike the situation of a hundred years ago, the education of members of the professions (particularly natural scientists and engineers) is a concern of statesmen: public opinion has an interest in hearing the answers to such questions as the following: Are we training enough professional people? Are we including in our education for the professions a large fraction of those who have the requisite ability. or are we overlooking many with high potentialities.

In a totalitarian state these questions lead directly to a control of the entire educational process; the capable are to be sorted out and educated for the different professions according to the nation's need for these professions. This is essentially the directive of the Party Executive Committee to those in charge of schools and universities in the Soviet Zone of Germany. In a free country the political situation is, thank God. very different, not only because of the impossibility of governments ordering youth into different educational channels but because of the freedom of parents to express their desires to school authorities and, if need be, to politicians.

National concern with the number and quality of scientists and engineers is clearly a result of the last phases of the industrial revolution which started two hundred years ago. Parental concern with education as a way by which a son may better himself economically and socially is a con; sequence of the spread of that spirit of democracy of which Tocqueville wrote more than a century ago. It has taken time for the equalitarian doctrines of the French Revolution reinforced by American notions to affect European education; but there is no doubt that the problem of selecting future university students is becoming more rather than less difficult in England and a number of European states. The question of social prestige is becoming involved, as it has been involved with us in America for at least fifty years.

Let me give a few concrete examples. During the Second World War the British Parliament made certain changes in the English system of tax supported schools. Among the objectives which the new legislation sought to achieve was the widening of opportunity for children of the less well to do; another was an elimination of the great difference in prestige that in the past had characterized' one type of tax supported school as compared to another. The traditional view of the content of a school program was, however not modified. A long course was held to be necessary; and selection of those capable of entering those schools which provided this course was to be made at the age of eleven to twelve.

From the point of view of a parent with a low income and a talented child, the new arrangement must appear to be better than the old. But parents of medium income view the altered situation highly critically. In the past, the ';grammar schools" had provided excellent roads to the universities open to those who could afford to pay a moderate fee. (For well-to-do families the usual road to the university is provided by the famous "public schools.") The new regulations abolished the fees and made the admission of all children subject to a competitive examination. And to make matters worse, so some parents have said, a new type of examination is employed--so-called psychological tests--that has no apparent relation to school work! As a result the whole subject of selection at age eleven-plus is a topic of heated discussion among educators and laymen.

In one county in England the experiment is being made of abolishing the examination in two Selected geographic areas and sending all children from eleven to fifteen to one school and then providing grammar school places for those whose parents are willing to keep them in school until at least sixteen. Presumably ability to handle the work in the grammar school will be the determining factor in deciding who goes on to the university. The article in the London Observer reviewing the experiment carries the heading "Eleven plus Condemned." This caption corresponds to the sentiment expressed in a number of articles and letters to the editor that have been appearing in British journals and papers in the last few years.

On the European continent, too, difficulties have arisen in regard to the process of selecting those who are to attend the Gymnasium in preparation for a university education. Each one of eleven states in the Federal Republic of Germany has complete authority in educational matters; so too have the twenty-five cantons in Switzerland (with a few exceptions). A comparison of the roads to the university in each of these states is interesting; it shows how different local conditions have modified to a certain degree the European pattern. The points at issue are often the exact length of the pre-university school course and the methods by which pupils are selected for the special pre-university schools.

The parental pressure varies greatly from place to place and reflects differences in tradition and economic circumstances. Sometimes the selection can be made solely on the basis of advice given by teachers and accepted by parents. Sometimes examinations are required in order to decide who should start on the road to the professions. If so, parental protests frequently arise. In one German state I heard a mother complaining that the entrance tests for the Gymnasium were so foolish and arbitrary that many of her friends could not get their children admitted. as a consequence the parents were pressed into the expense of sending them to private schools. in France, where the road to the professions has been studded with stiff competitive examinations, anguish over the selection process has been particularly acute. The entrance examinations for the pre-university schools (Lycees) have just been abolished and the program in these schools lightened. Selection of the pupils who head for the university is now to be made on the basis of the primary school record. In Switzerland, the psychological effect on the child of failure in the pre-university school (in some cantons a half to two thirds drop out) is giving concern to the school authorities.

In several German states, parents have brought suit against the government because a child had been barred from a pre-university school. The matter has even become a political issue. It is not the method of selection but the length of the pre-university school course that is in controversy. If the course is nine years, then selection must be made at the age of ten to eleven; this was the usual pattern in Germany, I judge, some years ago. But in the post-war years in some states the pre-university course was shortened and the time of selection correspondingly postponed.

The arguments in favor of keeping all the children together in one school as long as possible are familiar to Americans; an additional (and for Europeans more weighty) argument for a shorter pre-university period of schooling is that it may be easier to select those suited for university work at twelve or thirteen rather than ten or eleven. The abbreviated course has been attacked, however, on the grounds that nine years is necessary if the pupil is to master the subjects required for later university work (particularly Latin). The differences of opinion on the matter seem to run along the usual lines of political cleavage in both Germany and Switzerland; in general the moderate right favors the longer course, the moderate left the shorter.

In one state election in Germany the issue was of major importance This is hard for Americans to understand, since the difference of opinion appears to be relatively slight and the educational question involved touches the schooling of not more than a fifth of the children. It is interesting to us as evidence of the intimate connection between school problems and sociological questions.

From what I have already reported, it is clear that the age at which selection is made and the time it is made is intimately associated with the content of the pre-university course of study. And here eve meet the second major difference between the road to the professions in Europe and in the United States. In Europe, the state determines the requirements which must be satisfactorily fulfilled in order to obtain, on finishing school, the necessary credentials which w ill enable the holder to enter a university. In Germany and Switzerland, for example, the certificate which a youth obtains after passing a set of final examinations in the last school year is an admission ticket to a university. The absence of any such uniform requirements in America astonishes and perplexes the European observer of our chaotic system

Though each state in the Federal Republic of Germany is autonomous, the standards throughout arc essentially the same. Certain variations in the subjects on which a student is examined are permitted, but one may say that the essential subjects are languages and mathematics. In the classical Gymnasium (in Germany called the humanistic school), Latin and Greek are obligatory; in most of the others, Latin and at least one modern foreign language; in a few schools, exposure to a heavy dose of modern languages, mathematics, and natural science is considered a substitute for Latin. A European university is not an American college. and language instruction is not one of its functions; scientists, lawyers, medical men, economists, and historians, there fore, have no opportunity for studying any language after they leave school. With this in mind, one realizes why a long school course is believed necessary for future university students. The central position occupied in the curricula of pre-university schools by foreign languages is a reflection of the role played by both tradition and geography in educational matters. As far as future professional men are concerned, Europeans are convinced that the traditional education in languages, literature, mathematics, and European history comprises the best general education.

For the 70 or 80 per cent who have no ambition or no opportunity to head for a university, formal full-time education ends at fourteen or fifteen; further educational development in part-time courses will depend on the occupation of the young man or woman in question. The apprentice system together with continuation schools takes care of industrial workers, it may be said. For apprentices with special mechanical aptitude, technical schools are available. For the 10 per cent or so who must drop out of the pre-university schools, some special type of education with more emphasis on practical business affairs is needed. This the European would grant, but the idea of a general education for a large proportion of adolescents aged sixteen to twenty-one is unheard of on the continent of Europe.

How is it at the end of the road, one may ask, Are those Europeans who complete the hard journey and arrive at a university and later become professional men (some 6 per cent of the young men) better educated than the corresponding Americans? This is the type of question a comparative educationalist refuses to answer. For so much depends on your standard of judgment, on what basis you evaluate the nonprofessional knowledge, ability, and attitude of a professional man or woman.

One thing is certain: the average American medical man, lawyer, chemist, physicist, or engineer has acquired a quite different store of general knowledge from that of his European counterpart. If command of foreign languages is the test of a well-educated man or woman, relatively few Americans can claim to be well educated. If knowledge of European literature and art is taken as a measure, there again the average American professional man will fail in comparison with the Europeans. European pre-university education is in essence literary education; American college education can rarely be so a described.

On the other hand, every American in school and in college will have sampled at Least a bit of some of the social sciences. Indeed, perhaps the majority of those whom we are here considering will have acquired a considerable knowledge of economics and political science; a large proportion will have studied psychology and sociology. With rare exceptions these disciplines are only available to a European in a university; and while the student enrolled under the law faculty may find time to listen to some lectures in these fields, the medical man and natural scientist will not.

In other words, those Americans who complete at least three years of a four-year liberal arts college course will have had a kind of academic experience unknown on the continent of Europe. (A possible exception to this statement is the education provided for the future teachers in the pre-university schools who are educated in the famous Ecole Normale in Paris and in the philosophical faculties of the German universities.)

But it is not only the content of the program which characterizes the American college. The whole atmosphere is different from either a European school or a European university. There is far more freedom for the student than in a school, of course, and there is far more personal instruction of the student by the professor than is possible in a university of the European type with its relatively small staff in proportion to the size of the student body. The American student is ready to express an opinion to anyone; discussion is encouraged at every turn. Student activities ranging from dramatics through debating and journalism stimulate student independence; there is no parallel to these expressions of student initiative in Europe. All of which, of course, reflects what Americans have come to believe are important aspects of college education.

Indeed, one can sum up the comparison I have been making by saying that the leading citizens of Europe and the United States have quite different aims in mind when they talk about education as apart from professional training. And the difference reflects the different social histories on the two sides of the Atlantic.

As a first approximation, one may say that Europe adjusted its education to modern times nearly a hundred years ago. A period of rapid educational change on the Continent took place in the middle of the nineteenth century; this reflected the first impact of industrialization. The pattern thus established has persisted to the present with relatively few changes; it is obviously intimately associated with the apprentice system of training industrial workers and a relative lack of geographic and social mobility. It also reflects the powerful influence of the university faculties which were well entrenched when the educational changes were in progress--particularly the influence of the professors of the classics.

During the period of change in the United States in which we are still living, traditional academic forces have played a far less important role. But such social factors as the raising of the school-leaving age in the United States and the near disappearance of the European apprentice system were of more importance in determining the shape of the new educational system which is now emerging.

I have written "emerging" because it is dear that in this country we are still ill process of adapting our schools, colleges, and universities to the current needs of our society (and trying to adapt to future needs as well). In England, too, a process of change has been and still is at work. In the nations of Western Europe, on the other hand (with the exception of Scandinavia), few alterations in the systems have been made in the last fifty years; though there are many educational problems similar to our own and England's, a period of reform has not yet begun.

An American observer cannot help wondering if such a period is not considerably overdue. It may well be that the more immediate political and social issues in France and the urgent task of reconstruction in post-war Germany have merely pushed aside consideration of educational changes. I seem to detect signs of dissatisfaction in the Federal Republic of Germany which may be the prelude to important actions; in parts of Switzerland the road to the professions is being resurveyed. In France a few important changes have just been made, and a bill providing for a drastic alteration in the French system has been introduced into Parliament by the Minister of Education.

We here in the United States are still engaged in remaking our educational roads; the nature of the task varies considerably from state to state, from community to community. Pedagogic devices and plans for the organization of schools and universities are not always transferable across state lines; they are almost never exportable to foreign countries. But nonetheless the exchange of ideas and blueprints is always helpful because it stimulates and arouses discussion.

We may watch with interest, therefore, the new developments in those Western nations from which came originally our cultural traditions and our ideas about education. The free nations of the world in planning for their youth, as in many other matters, muse be in constant communication, for however diverse their methods their fundamental aims remain the same: the preservation and extension of personal freedom.


Copyright © 1940 by James Bryant Conant. All rights reserved.
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