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Reforming German Universities Part I

A few weeks ago I delivered a few thoughts on German universities at a meeting in Lübeck. I was invited, I suppose, because I've taught and studied at U.S. universities, and have now taught at a German university for several years, and therefore have a base of comparison. The friendly folks at Lübeck suspected I might have some opinions about how German universities are structured and run.  They weren't wrong.  Instead of just letting these brilliant nuggets of enlightenment fade in the memory of the conference attendees, I'd put some flesh on my notes and share them with the world.

For you busy executives who need my comments in summary form, here they are: German universities, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, set themselves the admirable goal of providing a free higher education to all students who qualified, regardless of the students' race, gender, or economic or social class. That's right, I said 'free.' The student need never pay any tuition, and receives a subsidy from the State to cover basic needs. To anyone concerned with social stratification, this appears to be - and really is - a noble endeavor.

On the way from articulation of noble principles to actual real-world practice, though, a few things went wrong. The political and social necessity of opening up the universities (or at least the prospect of a university education) to ever-larger numbers of young people led to chronic overcrowding. Because there are essentially no private German universities, all these new students came streaming into the existing public institutions, which had to be expanded at breakneck pace. The student binge also led to a poorly-planned expansion of the existing universities' administrative apparatus. Now, universities are run like bloated bureaucracies. Finally, the over-admission has resulted in a "go-it-alone" atmosphere for students. Because the university must spread its resources over such a large cohort of students (including at least 25% who will never graduate), it sometimes fails to single out and nurture the best students.

Continue reading "Reforming German Universities Part I" »

Pink-haired woman

No, it's not the Rolling Stones song, it's everyday German reality.  Wander around in any German city, and it won't be long before you see a middle-aged woman with short, spiky, bright-pink hair.  Blue and green are other popular options.  When I was recently in Berlin, I saw a woman with orange, green, and brown hair closing up a day-care center.  She also wore skin-tight leopard-skin leggings and eyed me suspiciously, which I suppose goes together.  The moderator of a debate show on the public-affairs channel Phoenix, Gaby Dietzen, is a modest exemplar of this trend.  Look at those cheeky white locks hovering above her wise, angular face like a tiny pair of wings.  Ain't they precious? [I rather fancy Ms. Dietzen].

The answer the foreigner seeks is why?  What motivates a woman of a certain age to go into a beauty salon and tell Günÿ, "cut it all off and dye the remainder bright-pink"?  This morning I got one answer.  In the middle of a report about what old people do with their hair on Germany's version of NPR, they interviewed a management consultant who had bright-pink hair.  Like most electric-haired women, she was a baby boomer (68ers, as they are called in Germany), and their dyeing decision is a little poke in the eye of traditional dirndl-and-pigtails conceptions of female beauty.  Further, she wanted to preserve just a little bit of the 68er spirit, even as she had made her peace with capitalism: "I just wanted to stand out from the crowd."  Finally, she observed, in came in handy for a frequent traveler.  Whenever she needed to meet a stranger in a public place, she just said "You can't miss me -- I'm the one with bright-pink hair!"

New Pope, Old Scandal

The English and German-speaking worlds have welcomed the new Pope very differently.  The German press focuses overwhelmingly on his thought, character, and background.  The criticism -- and there is plenty -- deals primarily with his traditionalist views of church leadership and theology.

Little attention is paid to his role in the priest-abuse scandals that have rocked the American church.  There's no article devoted just to this topic on the website of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a standard-setting right-of-center broadsheet.  When the topic is mentioned it's a matter of a few sentences, usually capped by the assertion that Pope Benedict XVI has recently made himself familiar with the number and scope of the allegations, and plans to take them seriously. 

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German Word of the Week: Lügengebäude

You come home a little bit too late, a little bit too drunk, a little bit too happy. 

The wife eyes you distrustfully and asks what that flowery odor is.  "Aww, we gave a bunsch of flowers to one of the (hic) sexretaries.  Had a little party." 

Is that so.  Well, why didn't you answer when I called you at work? 

"Uhh, you called my office, and we were all in the resheption area drinking shampagne." 

Oh really.  Well, I called the reception area too.  4 times.  The phone rang and rang. 

"Ohh, thassright!  We all went to a bar, thass right.  Freddy's place or something..."

At this point, you are living in what a German would call a Lügengebäude -- a "Building of Lies."  You pronounce it Loo*-gen-guh-BOY-duh.  In English you can, of course, spin a tissue or web of lies.  But I think the idea of crafting a nice, solid, bricks-and-mortar building of lies is more apt.  It conveys how hard it is to get out of one once you've built it. 

I might also add that thinkers who create large, comprehensive philosophical systems -- I need hardly mention which country has the leading reputation here -- build Gedankengebäude, or "Buildings of Thought." 

I'd to extend this a little down the scale.  Can I live in an Apartment of Lies(Lügenwohnung)?  Drive around in a Car of Thought (Gedankenwagen)?  Hand someone a Box of Lies (Lügenschachtel)?  The answer to all of these questions is: of course!  German is, after all, the super-duper ultra-modular Lego language.

* Actually, this pronunciation isn't quite right, since the first ü, which has those two cute dots over it (umlauts), is pronounced a little funny.  Germans claim there's a difference between a regular u and ü.  I thought only dogs could actually hear the difference until I began mixing up Schwül, which means humid, and Schwul, which means homosexual.  I don't know how many times I told people that Texas has extremely homosexual summers.  That got their attention, I must say.

Hot Asian Babes for Bad Spellors

No, this post has nothing to do with hot Asian babes, it has to do with the theory and practice of blogging.  But keep reading, Asian babe-seekers!

My humble blog is now up to about 200 visitors a day.  You can see who "referred" people to this blog, and I've seen that about 20% of them come from Google to see a quick, nothing little post from weeks ago called "Naked Women & European Politics," which actually had to do with just that subject, but which won't lead you to any naked women.  So apparently creating posts with saucy titles brings you traffic from Google, so I'll be including some sort of vaguely pornographic phrase in post titles from now on, to capture the all-important lonely pervert demographic. 

On another note, I have noticed that if you want to expose yourself to the ramblings of the web's dumbest citizens -- usually Americans with extreme political views -- you need only Google something with a common misspelling.  Examples:

Continue reading "Hot Asian Babes for Bad Spellors" »

Non-German Joys: A Visit to Paris

Sometimes, when Germany gets a bit too stuffy, it's helpful to remember one thing. It's close to France.

So I packed myself into a train and headed to Paris last weekend, to join my friend Adrienne, with whom I work on a few death penalty cases. She, in turn, was visiting with a pharmacist and gourmand named Ron, who visits at least once every year. They were staying in a Hotel du College de France. It's right in the heart of the Quartier Latin, reasonably priced, and run by very friendly folks. The only drawback is a huge, terrifying statue of Joan of Arc by the reception desk, but you get used to that quickly. [Let me apologize in advance for the lack of proper accent marks in the following post. My cultural-imperialist American laptop just can't handle them.]

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Delightful, Unnerving Germany

Around_town_001Now that the sun shines until 9 PM, I often take a leisurely bike tour around town after leaving work.  Yesterday I stopped by a store, where I saw these candies.  No idea why, but I experienced a strong urge not to buy them.  Especially on April 20.  Can anyone explain this odd feeling? 

On a less unnerving note, I looked through some trees and noticed the following mural painted on the side of a large public-housing block on the Vennhauser Allee in Duesseldorf.   Around_town_004 "Whoa nellie, what's this?  Icy, Teutonic eroticism?  My spidey sense is tingling.  Wait, that's not my spidey sense after all..."

The New German Pope

Just a snapshot of the German reaction to the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.  Benedict is, of course, a very known quantity here in Germany, and the reaction to his election has been distinctly muted.  Here are some representative quotes from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), the conservative German broadsheet:

Many Christians in the new Pope's homeland reacted to the message from Rome with mixed feelings. 


Ecumenical outreach is close to the heart of many Catholics and Protestants in the homeland of Luther's Reformation.  Confessional boundaries are especially painfully felt here; the divide goes through many families.   The wish for more cooperation and a shared communion finds great understanding among many German bishops. 

Continue reading "The New German Pope" »

The Da Vinci Crock

In case you're one of the handful left on earth who hasn't read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, an important plot point happens in the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, which I visited this weekend.  In one corner of the church stands an obelisk with a globe and cross atop it.  Before the obelisk extends a line in the church floor made of brass. 

According to my shaky memory of the book, Brown says something like this: the brass line was put there by a secret gnostic society calling itself the Priory of Sion, whose mission was to keep alive the secret knowledge that Christ had a child, in order to signifiy that a pagan temple had once existed where the church stood. The Priory then buried a key under the stones near the obelisk, which key would enable the finder to get the picture; the old secret-society-church-stone-key-routine.

Apparently the leaders of St. Sulpice have had enough of tourists rushing straight past the church's treasures (including two monumental Delacroix in the Chapel of the Holy Angels) to gawk at the line in the floor.  They've posted this sign nearby:

The 'meridian' line materialized by a brass inlay in the pavement of this church is part of a scientific instrument built in the 18th century.  This was done in full agreement with Church authorities by the astronomers in charge of the newly-established Paris Observatory.


Contrary to the fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this is not a vestige of a pagan temple.  No such temple ever existed in this place....  Please also note that the that the letters 'P' and 'S' in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, not an imaginary 'Priory of Sion.'

With a Gallic flourish, the church management warns: "No mystical notion can be derived from this instrument of astronomy except to acknowledge that God the Creator is the master of time." are a bunch of phonies

Well, let me make it official.  Front Page Magazine published a fake editorial.  Background: Front Page is a website run by an American named David Horowitz.  Horowitz claims to be a former Trotskyite who has now turned into an American-style conservative.  His favorite issue is the politics of American university professors: he claims they're mostly left-wing (by American standards, true), and that individual left-wing professors harass and persecute conservative students.  He's proposed legislation, which may pass in several states, which he says would restore balance to America's universities.

I read an editorial on the website by an anonymous "European professor" who says he came to the United States and was shocked to see left-wing professors persecuting their conservative colleagues.  Problem is, this European professor doesn't exist, or at least he didn't write the editorial himself.  No European intelligent enough to have become a professor would use words the way he did; the opinions and the word choice are all fake and wrong.  It's as if an American described a soccer game and referred to goals as "touchdowns" and penalty kicks as "field goals." 

Fearless soul that I am, I publicly accused Frontpage of publishing a fake editorial, and gave them several chances to respond.  They haven't yet, and it's been a good long time.  So the editorial, I hereby conclude, is just plain fake.  It's hardly an earth-shattering development, but you've got to wonder what drives people to invent such ideological sock puppets.  And it wouldn't be the first; consider if you will the surrealistic case of controversial economist John Lott.  After he published a series of controversial studies, an ex-student of his named Mary Rosh rushed to his defense online, praising his teachings skills and scholarly virtue.  Turns out, unfortunately, that Mary Rosh was, uh, John Lott