Un-Dumbing Education

During the last two months, I spent most of my working time marking almost 600 short essays written by students of Political Theory and the History of Ideas at Cologne university. (Hence, the silence.) It was quite a bit more work than expected, payment was meagre, yet it was an interesting opportunity to get an inside view of Germany’s brave new education.

The first honest observation to make is that if they continue to cut costs the way they did over the last few years, universities won’t find people anymore who are able and willing to correct their exams. Payment used to be for 19 hours a week over a course of two months. Now, it’s down to 15. The hourly wage is okay, but far from impressive. At the same time, the number of exams has exploded, so that per-exam payment is significantly lower than it used to be, making the marking a stressful endeavor.

To be sure, having more students at the universities is a good thing. And if more of them are taking exams, we’re probably not bad off, you might say: More well-educated people should be great for society.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

When my professors were getting their university degrees in the 1970s, they had to present about 2 or 3 written exams during their whole duration of study. When I was studying in the early 2000s, we had to present about 3 or 4 exams per year. Now, it’s about 8 exams per semester! So while there are indeed more students, they are also obligated to take more exams than ever before. Which makes it hard to do them justice as a marking assistant.

Of course, the humanists and social scientists could do what everybody else does and just switch to multiple choice tests. They might take a tad longer to create, but marking would take dramatically less time and could be done my a chimp with a pencil. The downside is that multiple choice tests aren’t precisely the best strategy when you’re trying to teach people how to write.

Blinded by Numbers

Yes, writing still matters. In many subjects, it’s a desirable learning target. This target is already being jeopardized, thanks to curriculum designers abolishing most classes that required presenting term papers. Instead, there are more and more classes that require you to take written exams. The same exams that might now turn into multiple choice tests.

It’s understandable: If all we’re looking for is numbers, a 400% increase in exams taken may be just as impressive as having students finish with a university degree after 3.5 years instead of 7.

The thing that’s hard to get by merely looking at the numbers, though, is that “more exams” doesn’t necessarily mean “better education”. Just as the 3.5 years that are “saved” don’t come for free. Contradictiory to common wisdom, these “saved” years weren’t just wasted by previous students to dick around, make out with classmates and smoke pot. While most of us indeed enjoyed some of that, these “saved” years were also used to visit classes that you were genuinely interested in – opposed to simply attending what you had to attend in order to avoid getting minus points. They were used to read the classics, lead controversial discussions, and to find research subjects that you really cared about.

Most of that is gone by now, not due to the students but due to the new preference of dumbing things done in order to get impressive numbers on paper.

Dumbing Things Down

To me, the reasoning behind the abandonment of Germany’s signature university education (in favor of hollow box-checking madness) was always hard to understand. I got illuminated a bit after reading these paragraphs in an interview with mathematician Gunter Dueck:

Celebrating a five-star tomato soup from selected fruits is an art that only few people master. But you can also buy a packet soup for 44 cents on sale that tastes acceptably red and is foolproof to prepare because there are instructions on the back.

I see it this way: Computers today are able to manage anything on packet soup level. But instead of developing the computer further, the management and the business administrators try to bring all art down to packet soup level so that the computer itself can do it – or at least a semiskilled person on minimum wage. This so-called standardization or industrialization is the main reason for people drifting into the low-wage sector. It’s the renunciation of genius, of the innovative and the new, of five-star level and real sophistication in favor of the standardized programmed. ((The original interview is in German, this is my own translation and accentuation.))

What’s happening at German universities seems to be a typical case of dumbing real life down in order to standardize it and make it intelligible for machines. The same mistake made by business administrators in large companies is being repeated by educational policy makers and university boards.

The problem is that computers aren’t imaginative or creative. While they can solve rule-based problems pretty well, they fail when it comes to entering new territory. They fail when it comes to creating art and beauty. They fail when it comes to transcending limits of thought.

I’m certainly not willing to jump on the cultural pessimistic bandwagon, as many other commentators critizicing  the computer age do. We just shouldn’t confuse the abilities and the power of a machine with the abilities and the power we maintain right within us.

The latter will be central to improve the former for a long time to come. But this requires individuals to go beyond rules at some point of their education, and start to learn some lessons in tempo giusto. Only this will lead to an abundance of people capable of living their life in a state of sovereignty rather than submission. In an open society, this is a goal that shouldn’t be swapped for hollow mark certificates that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.


Humans are creative, machines are not. Educators would be better off to leverage this human strength instead of dumbing life down to machine level. ((Newness on TFA: My friend Daniel (the writer of the German music blog Ist das Alles?) suggested creating a short “Too long, didn’t read” summary at the end of my posts to make it easier to follow along if you don’t have time to read the whole thing. While I hope that most of you can indeed take that time, I’ll experiment with this as I think it’s also a useful exercise for me as a writer.))

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