Friday, May 1, 2015

The strictly flakey Germans

photo: wikimedia commons/mathias degen. image: audrey mei

"The person you are calling is temporarily unavailable."

Again?! It's lunchtime, I'm in Berlin waiting outside a Himalayan restaurant for Mike. He's 20 minutes late and I can't reach him. Just as I start to leave, he appears on his bicycle in his usual attire of flowing flax pants and Egyptian shirt. Mike is a fire dancer and travels around Europe with friends, earning his daily bread (literally, as in food for one day) with street performing. Reaching him is hit or miss since the pre-paid credit on his phone averages zero if I'm not lending him money. His girlfriend is about to dump him because she can't imagine how he'd ever contribute to household finances. 

The thing is, Mike is German. Now, I love living in Germany because things work: public transportation, the Autobahn, electricity, postal service, lost and found. German doors, windows, appliances and cars are glorious because they function so smoothly. They're German. Precise and efficient. But then there's Mike. How does he fit into this picture?

The Germans have been the butt of endless jokes ("Sprocket" from Saturday Night Live) and offensive depictions (the villains of James Bond, Die Hard, etc.), but after living here for 17 years, I can say that there are the German stereotypes and there are the real-life German types. And for the most part, it's a good thing. I admire my friends here, they're honest, thorough, hard-working, and - surprise, surprise - they're hilarious. Germany isn't an easy place to live in; a German is born with a Teflon coating that protects him against the flames of Teutonic bureaucracy and paperwork that fries every other world citizen to a crisp. You know you've lived in Germany long enough when you meet friends for cocktails and chat for hours... about taxes and insurance. 

But back to Mike. We're now sitting at the table and he enlightens me on the paradox of being a German flake. "You know why I'm like this?" he begins explaining his peripatetic artist life. "Because I don't want to be like my parents." Mike's father is an engineer, his mother is a teacher. Mike himself is highly intelligent, speaking six languages and able to keep up with the steepest academic discourse. "Like with my bills. I could pay them on time, sometimes," he squirms at the thought of being debt-free. "But then I'd feel like my parents. Doing everything right. They raised me really strictly, and I don't want to be like them. I'm a rebel."

So Mike is living a reactionary life. Aren't we all? It's an emotional response to our pasts that we all have in a knee-jerk way. I myself have streamlined my life as a reaction to my parents' post-war American consumer habits. But I find Mike's reactionism impressive in how he is so efficiently, precisely flakey. What happens, though, when this reactionism against German Ordnung plays out on a national and cultural level? One result is German shame, widespread after World War II, which saw the general rejection of all things German: architecture, cuisine, identity. Another is escapism, which I see in some Germans' fascination - at times blind - with more "relaxed" countries like Brazil, Spain, and India. 

Then there are the German schoolchildren who can't write. 

In the past 30 years, the writing skills of German second and third graders has been declining precipitously. Parents have watched aghast as their children write things like "He lukt up, he tuk the ston that the gurl had in her hand. i have mor stons at hom." Parents are further shocked when school teachers inform them that these mistakes are not to be corrected. This is the result of a method called "Reading Through Writing", implemented in the 1980s, which operates on the principle that children should be encouraged to freely re-create the language through exploration. (I find it hard to imagine that a child could spontaneously come up with the German language in a million years). Mistakes may not be corrected, lest the children's creative impulses be dampened. The outcomes are foreseeable: bad habits that persist from grade school into high school, from high school into college. Parents find they must spend hours at home teaching their own children proper German, high school teachers and college professors are frustrated with having to invest time correcting grammar instead of teaching the intended content of their classes.

How could this happen in a country that's so good at doing things right? The key may lie in the words of Hans Brügelmann, the professor of education who pioneered Reading Through Writing in Germany: "It was about liberating the children, about giving them space to experience." But why? He recalls from his own childhood: "When I was in school, I had the feeling that teachers were always right." Once in third grade, he was slapped on the head by a teacher who suspected him of cheating. "She openly abused her power." And in the atmosphere of liberal education reform of the 70s and 80s, there were enough educators who similarly believed that children needed to be rescued from the hickory-stick ways of German schooling, and Reading Through Writing sailed into national curriculum without a shred of evidence of its effectiveness.

It's an example of an emotional reaction played out on the national level, policies that are created solely based on people's sentiments. No country is immune to such movements. Only, this laxness seems uncharacteristic in Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe whose stamp of "Made in Germany" is synonymous to the highest quality in the world. It is as if the country remains disciplined even when throwing caution to the wind; if a generation is going to rebel against German order, then by God it must be done ordentlich. Fortunately, the bureaucratic wheel is starting to spin back towards pragmatism: Numerous educators are taking measures to outlaw Reading Through Writing, including Renate Valtin, president of the German Society of Reading and Writing.

At the end of our lunchtime conversation, Mike is giving me a sheepish look as he feels around the bottom of his wool Guatemalan shoulder bag. He has forgotten his wallet. But it's ok. He forgot it last time, too. He's the most consistent flake I know.

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