Humboldt University Berlin: Wilhelm von Humboldt understood education as long-term oriented investment in the social infrastructure.

The key to progress and happiness

Germany’s key to happiness was found in Berlin 208 years ago. It was found by a Prussian state secretary who was only in office for 17 months before resigning because he was denied promotion to the post of minister. But the reforms he implemented during this short period laid the foundations for a Prussian, in the first instance, and later a German, competitive edge that persists to this day. The name of this reformer of the century was Wilhelm von Humboldt. And the competitive edge was education.

In essence, Humboldt’s great merit was that he understood education not as something that should yield an advantage, of whatever kind, now, but as a prerequisite for a good life. Or, to quote the man himself: “What do we demand of a nation, of an age, of entire mankind, if it is to occasion respect and admiration? We demand that education, wisdom, and virtue, as powerfully and universally propagated as possible, should prevail under its aegis.”

Translated from humanistic to economic language, that broadly means that under Humboldt, education became an extremely long-term investment in social infrastructure. Over the short to medium term, such an approach is less viable than goal-oriented educational concepts. Over the long term, however, Humboldt’s concept of education proved superior to all other systems of the time – and so it has remained for the most part. The importance of education, training, and qualifications as a key to growth, prosperity, progress, and happiness has never diminished.

The prerequisites vary depending on whether the respective country is already at the fore of global development (e.g. G7 nations, wealthy industrialized countries), or one that is striving to attain a leading position (e.g. E7 nations, the major emerging markets), or one that is striving to develop in this direction (e.g. F7 nations, countries with the best long-term growth prospects for the future).

Accordingly, we have searched for the best performer in each of these groups of 7 nations using data by the World Economic Forum, which carries out global research on the quality of educational systems. Not in the Humboldt sense as a source of wisdom and virtue, but in the economic sense as one of the most important factors in a country’s competitiveness. But still using a host of indicators that allow a global comparison. Anyone who comes from Germany and who knows how difficult it is to compare the educational systems of the various federal states will appreciate such a survey.

Three frontrunners emerged from the World Economic Forum data. Of the G7 countries, the USA is ahead of the pack, with top marks in the overall education/training index and in terms of education quality for the current workforce. China comes out ahead among the E7 nations, and Colombia leads the way for F7 countries. From their respective groups, the two countries occupy some of the highest places in the overall index, and both are particularly well positioned for the future. In the global comparison, the skills of the future workforce are rated far higher than those of the current workforce.

In purely statistical terms, the results therefore indicate in China and Colombia’s cases that the educational system is one of the major drivers behind further improvements in the country’s capacity to compete. Does the picture painted by these figures correspond to the reality on the ground? For China the answer is yes. The awareness that good education is a key element for personal advancement and social status is deeply and broadly anchored in society.

That, incidentally, has been the case in the country for more than two millennia. Under the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), passing the entrance examination for a career in the civil service was the highest achievement a young man could attain – the “Chinese Dream” so to speak. In line with this tradition, education in China has a strong focus (too strong according to many western experts) on tests and exams. This is evident from the results of the PISA studies, in which schoolchildren from Shanghai took part for the first time in 2009 – they occupied first place in the world rankings in all three categories (language, math, sciences). In the most recent PISA test in 2015, children from three other Chinese provinces took part, in addition to children from Shanghai, thus giving figures that represent the whole country: 6th place for math, 10th place for sciences (in each case way ahead of all G7 nations), and 27th out of 72 participating countries for reading comprehension.

China is making substantial investments in education technology in an effort to become a world leader in the field of education as quickly as possible.All the country’s schools will have broadband internet by the end of the decade, and all adults will have access to e-learning facilities. There is also a special focus on the development of digital teaching materials for the country’s three million teachers. Furthermore, China operates a very intensive state funding program for elite universities and institutions that carry out cutting-edge research in the fields of science and engineering. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is based in Beijing, is now the world’s biggest research institution, with a budget of more than €5 billion and a staff of around 60,000 scientists.

<p>Colombia has escaped the vicious cycle of violence and war. The government is supporting a number of informal educational paths.</p>

Colombia has escaped the vicious cycle of violence and war. The government is supporting a number of informal educational paths.

Colombia is naturally not in a position to spend on a comparable scale. Two decades ago, the country on the northern coast of South America had been written off as a hopeless case: both state and society were plagued by cocaine mafia corruption. Entangled in what appeared to be a never-ending civil war against the Marxist Farc guerilla group, the only international ranking Colombia could top was the one for violent crime. And yet the country has now escaped that vicious circle. A ceasefire was agreed with the Farc rebels in 2016, making possible a permanent peace settlement. The Farc have even sent a former commander to Europe to study the methods used by top clubs to train young soccer players. In soccer-obsessed Colombia, that could offer an attractive retraining prospect for the young guerrilleros.

Colombia has one major education problem in common with many other poor countries: the informal sector, which makes up around half the population, is not only difficult to reach for the regular labor market, but also for the state education system – most children from this group leave after primary school. However, the government has also developed a practicable concept to tackle this issue. With laws on “education for work and human development,” informal courses of education are now also being recognized, from workplace training to private evening schools. The concept bears some similarity to the “second educational pathway” in Germany, only with a Latin American application.

By now, Colombia has achieved a ranking it can be proud of: 3rd place worldwide in the Happy Planet Index, which gives quality of life and environmental standards an equal weighting. Colombia performs well on both fronts: 29th place for life satisfaction – one of the best results outside the industrialized nations, whose citizens are particularly satisfied with their lives – and 48th place for its ecological footprint, the measure of consumption of natural resources. In the latter category, the top places are not occupied by the world’s richest countries, but rather by the poorest. Satisfied with life like the rich, conserving resources like the poor: Colombia seems to have found a perfect balance.

<p>From Nobel Prizes to international awards: when it comes to top-level research, the USA has been way ahead for decades.</p>

From Nobel Prizes to international awards: when it comes to top-level research, the USA has been way ahead for decades.

And what about the US? In one area of education – cutting-edge research – it has held an almost unassailable lead for decades. Whether you’re talking about the number of Nobel Prizes and other international awards, or about the universities attended by leading politicians, researchers, and executives, or about application figures for study places, it is always the same: America comes first. Elite American universities have a global appeal, both for lecturers and students. In 2016, Switzerland’s Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute, which publishes the annual Global Thought Leader rankings, revealed for the first time which universities the top 200 pioneers in its ranking are or were associated with. 12 of the 15 universities that came up most often were in the USA. Harvard University came first by some distance: 22.4 percent of the most influential thinkers of today have studied and/or taught at Harvard. MIT, Yale, and Stanford follow, each at around 10 percent. When it comes to influence, the top US universities are still unbeatable.

Photo credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL/GettyImages, Ton Koene/Picture-Alliance(2), TONY LUONG/NYT/Redux/Laif, Brooks Kraft/GettyImages, Antagain/Istockphoto

Subscribe to newsletter

With the newsletter you will not miss another issue of next: Pictures of progress


Would you like to give us feedback on this article? We look forward to your insights.

Share this article

Here you can share the article via social media.