Harrison Bergeron, Call Home

In this morning’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung there’s an article on the educational practice once (and perhaps still) referred to here as “mainstreaming.”  The title pretty much says it all:  “Inclusion: the Great Illusion”.

This is the basic outline of the story.  Up until 2009, when Germany signed the UN Convention on Human Rights, “special needs” children (as if there has ever been a child that did not have special needs; show me a child who requires absolutely nothing out of the ordinary — in any respect or for any reason — and I’ll show you a freak of nature) were sent to schools with other children like them, where there were teachers trained to deal with their sundry problems and where the staffing levels were sufficient to handle them, both pedagogically and physically.  And where there were not other students desperately trying to take advantage of their few years of schooling to escape the traps of a world in which cognitive ability and credentialing are becoming ever more make-or-break for all segments of society.

Under the UN convention, however, schools are obliged, upon unilateral decision by the “special needs” child’s parent(s), to place that child in a regular classroom.  In a classroom with a teacher who’s been trained to teach, for example, medieval history, as opposed to how to handle a severely autistic child.  Mind you, the parents don’t have to choose to put their child into a regular class, and in truth many of them don’t want to.  They’ve seen their children, we have to presume, struggle with things that come naturally or much more easily to their peers, and how frustrating, humiliating, and self-perpetuating the cycle of always-coming-up-short can be.  I will say that the closer a child gets to “normal,” (however you choose to think of that notion) the harder the choice can be.  You are morally convinced — you will go to your grave convinced — your child is capable of better things than he’s achieved thus far.  You know that if he’s not put with “normal” children then he will not have a chance to learn from them, and of course you realize that children learn a tremendous amount from each other, even in terms just of the academic material, to say nothing of the social skills your child will need to survive as an adult on his own.  You have this feeling in your bones that if your child is put on the “special needs” track then it will be a permanent, irrevocable sentence of mediocrity.  You’ll do anything not to see your child, whose talents and “special” needs you get to see in the smallest detail, daily, forever doomed to be something less than he has in him.  If it sounds as though I speak from some experience here, there is a reason for that.

And the law’s response to the schools who point out that this child is not only not getting anything out of being in a “regular” class, but rather is doing little more than destroying the educational opportunity of the 90% of his fellow students who aren’t so handicapped, is: screw you, buddy; deal with it.  Isn’t that special?  A bunch of lawyers, politicians, and “human rights” activists have decided how schools must function.

Predictably, it’s playing merry hell with the German school system, one of that country’s prides and joys.  For those who don’t keep up with these things, for generations the German schools have been divided, tracked, or whatever.  After a period of basic education (“Grundschule”), the children are divided into three groups.  Those whose abilities suggest they’re not going to need a bunch of schooling beyond the basics, for example manual laborers, low-level clerical, or industrial workers, are placed in the “Hauptschule,” which terminates after ninth grade or so, after which they will typically be placed into a commercial or industrial apprenticeship program and, with a bit of luck and a following wind, embark from there upon a career for which their academic and technical education has fully suited them.  The next level up, for those who are going to become technical workers, mid-level bureaucrats or officials, and so forth, such as dental or physicians’ assistants, for example, is the “Realschule,” which goes (I’m working from memory here, so don’t tax me with inaccuracies) until 11th or 12th, after which they too will head for such additional vocational education or training as may be appropriate to their desires and abilities.  The top level, the “Gymnasium,” runs through a 13th year.  The last two years the student selects two subjects, “Hauptfächer,” for concentration.  Back when I attended a Gymnasium in the early 1980s, my 11th grade class was taking English, French, German, mathematics (calculus), history, chemistry, physics, phys. ed., geography, biology, and religion (either Catholic or Protestant, according to the parents’ choice).  By the time you get out of Gymnasium your level of academic attainment is going to put you very close to what the best American universities produce by the junior year.

For several decades there has been a fourth track, the “Gesamtschule,” in which the children are not segregated by academic ability but rather just lumped in together, much like an American high school.  The Gesamtschulen have never really won the respect of German society.

But there’s a further wrinkle.  You don’t finish up your Gymnasium career by passing your classes and tottering across a stage to get a piece of paper to go in the bottom of a drawer in your parents’ living room.  At least not if you have ambitions of further schooling, either at one of Germany’s universities or their “Technische Hochschulen,” the latter of which produce the German engineers who have established “Made in Germany” as the quasi-gold standard of excellence enjoyed for generations now by that country’s products.  No:  After completing your 13th year, and successfully passing all your classes, you get to sit for a battery of written and oral examinations known as the “Abitur.”  A perfect score is 1.0; it runs down to 5.0, which is failing.  There are no do-overs, like with the SAT or ACT.  You have precisely one chance to do as well as you can.

And this is where the rubber meets the road.  The Abitur is given at the state level, meaning every graduate in Bavaria who chose, for example, math and physics as Hauptfächer is going to be taking the same examination.  Additionally, there is a great deal of standardization across states, with the specific end in mind that if you pull a 1.7 on your Abitur in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, that should be sufficient indication of pretty much precisely the same performance as a 1.7 coming out of Bremen or Hessen.  And the purpose of that, Best Beloved, is because there is tremendous competition for slots in the most sought-after fields at the top universities.  Some fields, such as law and medicine, are even the subject of a “numerus clausus,” a closed number.  I don’t know what it is now, but back in the mid-1980s, when I was studying at the University of Freiburg, the number for medicine was something like 1.2.  In other words, if you pulled a 1.3 you weren’t going to be a doctor.  Period.

The competition doesn’t stop there, either.  A few years ago Germany realized that it could have a passel of pretty good universities, with none really of world-class rank, or it could devote increased resources to those universities which were nearly world-class, in order to get them there and keep them there, and let the others make shift.  School snobbery made me pleased to note that Freiburg made the cut.  I don’t know whether the Technische Hochschulen underwent the same triage, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The opening paragraphs in the FAZ piece are about a child (name changed, of course), whose “special” needs include not only cognitive but social-emotional development.  His behavior in class is described.  Such as climbing over desks and chairs, beating on his schoolmates to the point of bruises, spitting pieces of paper he’s chewed up, pouring out a bottle of apple juice on his desk, then running around the classroom, smearing his classmates with it.  The teacher is at his wits’ end; he was trained to teach, not to cope with a semi-savage (I know that characterization is brutal, but there’s no other way to describe a child who behaves like that, for whatever the reason may be).

Now there is a family in Baden-Württemberg whose Down-syndrome child they wish to send to the Gymnasium.  Understand that for non-“special” needs children it’s the teachers who make the go/no-go decision on which children are eligible for the Gymnasium.  For “special” needs children, the parents have, apparently, an absolute right of determination.  And this child’s parents are determined that he will attend the Gymnasium, even though they concede he has no expectation at all of completing his Abitur.  He can’t even read properly.  But, according to his parents, “all his friends” are going to the Gymnasium, so by God he’s going as well.  [As an aside, it speaks well for his Gymnasium-bound friends that they are friends of this child.]  Thus far the Gymnasium, which understandably does not wish to become a special-educational institution, has successfully resisted.  If the law is as explained in the article, though, that won’t go on.

The article quotes the cost of maintaining parallel special-education schools for children who need them, and at the same time hiring on sufficient trained staff to accommodate the “special” needs children whose parents decide screw ’em all, Little Heinz is going to the Realschule notwithstanding he can barely sign his name and physically cannot sit still for more than seven minutes without climbing — literally — over the furniture.  They’d need 9,300 extra teachers and handlers, at a cost of €660,000,000 per year, just in the “normal” schools.  If you keep the special-education schools open as well (remember that three-quarters of all “special” needs children in Germany are not being mainstreamed by their parents), the annual cost balloons to €3.3 billion.  With a graying population and looming social welfare outlays, the money simply is not there.

But more to the point, what if it were there?  Those children in that Down-syndrome child’s classes are going to be held back in their own academic progress.  The article quotes two teachers, one from Bavaria and one from Lower Saxony, and both agree that the “special” needs children in their classes absorb 90% of their energy.  So what happens to their “normal” classmates when, after six or seven years’ of having teacher devote his efforts to the children who will never complete their Abitur?  What happens when they compete, nationally, for the strictly-limited field of their choice?  What do you tell them when, having cherished a dream all their life long of being a doctor, they bring home that 1.3?  By what right have you sacrificed their life’s ambition to your —  your, Gentle Reader — theoretical determination of abstract “justice”?  That Down-syndrome child will go on to be what he will be.  Maybe he’ll become a productive member of society (many do), and maybe he won’t.  But he would have done that no matter what; he certainly will not have needed to spend years at a Gymnasium for it.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” as a famous advertisement once (correctly) proclaimed.  This cock-eyed UN-functionaries’ policy may as well have been designed to accomplish exactly that: the wasting of human potential so that a tiny subset of parents can feel good about themselves and their children.

Harrison Bergeron has gone to school.

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