Discrimination in the educational system – Germany’s experience from the perspective of the Brandt School

“Just because I speak differently doesn’t mean I don’t understand”

The week of 4th-8th of June at the University of Erfurt was the “Week against Xenophobia and Racism”. I reflected on this seminar in light of my experiences as a student at the Brandt School and as Zimbabwean migrant to New Zealand and then to Germany.

Should your command of a particular language be the standard by which your performance and capabilities are measured?

Some fifty years ago, as Germany brought in the first Gastarbeiter (guest-workers) to meet its growing labour shortage, there was very little, if any, discussion about the social effects of a “migration boom”. With foreigners accounting for approximately 1 percent of the population prior to the arrival of the guest-workers in the 1950s-60s, the homogeneity of German society was a “given”, especially in schooling systems. Regardless of whether one studied mathematics, science or literature, these subjects were taught and assessed exclusively in German.

The problem, however, is that at first the children of the guest-workers were first segregated from the educational system, gaining access only later in 1973 into the schooling system with the expectation to simply “fit in” with the normal curriculum. The common standard applied to measuring student competence was German, regardless of their migratory background, which inherently privileged native Germans over immigrants. The native speakers were rewarded with good grades, which led to better education and job opportunities; the latter experienced high numbers of dropping out at school, poor education and unemployment, leading to a growing socio-economic divide which reinforced resentment and racial discrimination. The question is: How do you prevent such a situation growing in the first place?

The Brandt School faces a similar challenge with respects to language, yet it also has the privilege of being able to draw from the lessons of the past. With English as the sole language of instruction at the Brandt School, the rainbow of nationalities – some 54 at present – mean that the majority speak English as a second, third or even fourth language. Thus the risk when it comes to grading, similar to that faced by Germany half a century ago, is to reward those who can better express their ideas over those who have the better quality ideas.

As a native English speaker, particularly as a Communications graduate, I am aware of the advantage that I have over many others: a wider vocabulary, a stronger sense of rhetoric, and a natural sense of the grammar. All of these are advantageous; however, should they do not mean my argument any more correct than sitting in McDonalds make mean I am a hamburger. So how does this work at the Brandt School?

At the Brandt School every student possesses a thorough understanding of English because this is a prerequisite for acceptance into the programme. However, due to variations in dialect, accent and in competence, one’s ability to communicate is less important than the argument. Thus one paragraph of solid reasoning with the occasional misuse of tenses is better than one page of Shakespearian prose with much ado about nothing – (yes, that pun was disappointing…)

The key difference between the Brandt School and the German society of the twentieth century is in its essence ideological: it is about integration, not assimilation. Assimilation expects the “other” to fit in – it sees the world as monolingual, monocultural and monochromatic. Integration on the other hand is a mutual attempt to cross the barriers in order to communicate, cooperate and achieve set goals. It recognises the impact of globalisation on the world where speaking a multiplicity of languages is crucial, where people often work and live in several countries over a life time, where multiculturalism is the norm, not the exception.

In conclusion, whereas German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously claimed last year in her speech to Jungen Union that “multiculturalism has failed in Germany” in reference to previous sixty years, I see the Brandt School making significant headway in its integrative, participatory approach. In other words: judge the food by its taste, not the plate that it is served on.

by: Stefan Slooten