Photo by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (USA) (Flickr CC)
When I first arrived in Germany, God, I thought everything was different here. It was a total culture shock! People waited for hours and hours for the green man symbol to appear at the traffic lights, they ate salami for breakfast and called it Wurscht, they drank beer on the U-Bahn without being homeless and played frisbee with their nana naked and they let their dogs roam around the streets willy-nilly without their leads on.
But after a while, I suddenly realized: Germany and Britain are pretty similar countries, just about. Their problems are pretty similar. Even when they're different, they're kind of the same. More or less. Irgendwie. Basically.
One of the things which I think is getting more and more similar is the rise of elitism. Now, the class system is one thing which has always been fairly different in Britain and Germany. We Brits are obsessed with class, and as soon as we meet a person we listen to the way they talk and we einstufen them. I do it myself. Oh, he says "schtudent" instead of "styudent", but he says his 'th' properly: he must be lower-middle-lower-middle-middle class then, right-ho. I'm a genius at spotting people who talk like commoners but actually went to private school. I've never been fooled by one of them, ever.
The Germans aren't like that, not at all. They don't einstufen people in that way. In fact, they hardly even talk about social class. This is probably because they don't have as many sub-categories as we do. In Germany, there are only four social classes: the Unterschicht – people called Kevin who are allowed to drink Fanta for brekkie, the working-class – just like in the UK, this class is dying out now, but basically bus drivers and bakers and people like that, the middle-class – basically almost every German you've ever met, or snogged in a club, anyways and then the upper-class – Guttenberg and his mates. The upper-class in Germany is reckoned to amount to be about 3.5 percent of the population, according to Julia Friedrichs in her book Gestatten: Elite.
So the class systems are different – the British class system, where Daily Mail readers complain that Kate Middleton doesn't even have the right to call herself 'middle-class' because she's descended from coal miners, is about as ridiculously complicated and, well, plain ridiculous, as the Indian caste system, but basically, when you get down to it, the situation is exactly the same. The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting fucked in the throat.
Let's take a look at schooling. Whereas in the UK, the lack of educational selection has meant that the upper-classes and the upper-middle-classes have chosen to send their kids to private schools to protect them from the lower classes – and, of course, to give them a better standard of education – that hasn't really been necessary over here, because of the strict segregation of students into Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule – a process which starts in some Bundesländer at the mindbogglingly young age of 10! Like WTF? Ten? I think, to be honest, that some selection is basically a good idea – but 10? TEN?
So, basically, what I'm trying to say is that our educational systems are totally different – but united in their basic injustice. Look, in no other Western civilization is a child of parents of foreign origins – or alcoholics – less likely to end up at university than in Germany. The Germans always get real sniffy about the Americans – they always sniff disapprovingly, and say "The FDP would like us to have American standards, over here!" – but the truth is that the German education system is pretty fucking unfair in the first place. And, despite the comprehensive school system, the popularity of private schools has left the UK little better, and things will probably end up a lot worse once Cameron and Clegg really get going.
I don't mind elitism, by the way. I like clever people, and I like talking to them about stuff. I like hearing their ideas and thinking about what they've got to say. I think, to be honest, that clever people probably should run the world. I trust their opinions more than, say, an unemployed hairdresser or Dieter Bohlen or someone. I like clever people. I'm not against elitism at all.
The trouble with unfair educational systems is that they're NOT elite. If you have a system, like in the UK, where the 7% of the population who attend private schools ALL end up at the best universities, just about, or like in Germany, where certain kids from certain backgrounds are written off almost before they've begun, at the age of TEN, then the people going to the best unis, the people getting the top jobs in politics, the people, basically, running the country, are not going to be the cleverest and the best – but the luckiest. Then you end up with muppets like Nick Clegg and David Cameron coming out with genius ideas like the "Big Society" or losers like Guttenberg not even being a good enough judge of character to choose a ghostwriter for his doctoral thesis properly. That's not true elitism. It's just lazy, complacent, boring cowardice.
What we need to do is give every kid a chance to succeed. Not out of generosity, or a sense of social justice – but just to make sure our countries are actually doing the best they possibly can do. We need to give every kid a chance to succeed, if we really want the very best to shine through.