Imagine the following: The state decides on a support program especially for lottery winners. A foundation of the winners of the German People’s Lottery is founded, which provides confidence to the lucky ones and organizes seminars in which they learn which country houses and yachts are worth their money and where they can invest their wealth profitably. Millionaires receive a small lump sum of 300 euros per month from taxpayer funds.
Such a lottery winner support program would probably outrage most people. In principle, however, this is exactly what happens in the promotion of gifted students at German universities. A false system of preferential treatment has established itself, which should be abolished by the standards of justice, but which, curiously, is almost never really questioned by anyone.
The one percent
Many freshmen apply for scholarships during these weeks, and school principals recommend thousands of high school graduates they deem suitable to the German National Academic Foundation. During selection seminars, foundations evaluate their candidates, pay attention to grades, personality and commitment and decide according to more or less vague criteria of those they consider gifted and those who are not. . Ultimately, it is a minority that is allowed into the exclusive club.
One percent of all students in Germany receive a scholarship from one of 13 funding bodies. Fellows receive a grant of 300 euros per month – whether their parents are housekeepers or dentists. As a rule, they are rather dentists. Because scholarships often disproportionately benefit children from already better off university families. Fully two-thirds of scholarship recipients come from families with a university degree; among all the pupils, on the other hand, it is only half. The money comes from the Federal Ministry of Education, which thus promotes redistribution from below at least to the upper middle. He who has, will be given.
In recent years, the scholarship system has even been generously expanded. In 2005, 80.5 million euros went to gifted organisations, this year well over 200 million euros have already been allocated. Those who receive a scholarship today receive more money than in the past. The current government – despite the social democratic participation – is committed to this policy: “We want to further strengthen the culture of scholarships and organizations that support the gifted in Germany”, says the black-red coalition agreement.
The elite support system is backed by a very broad coalition, which may explain why it receives so little criticism. All parties have their own support for talented people through their affiliated foundations; they all benefit from the expansion of higher funding. The only thing that has caused alarm recently was the prospect that in a few years even the AfD could support some elite students of its affiliated foundation according to its own criteria. There are much more obvious reasons to question the system.
Aren’t broad promotion and higher promotion mutually exclusive?
It is difficult to understand why those who already have the best chance of succeeding in their studies and having a good career should obtain additional scholarships. Most of the time, proponents of elitism brush off these objections by saying that crowdfunding and high-level funding are not mutually exclusive and should not be pitted against each other. But why not? It’s true in a way: even the greatly increased budget for gifted organizations, at 266.3 million euros, seems tiny compared to the 1.5 billion euros the federal government plans to support students. in need. If money from funding bodies were cut and distributed among all students in the state, each would have an extra 7.74 euros per month, which is just enough for a meal and a half in the canteen. The implication is that the promotion of gifted people is actually too small to be upset.
This argument goes round in circles. By definition, an elite is smaller than the rest that are excluded from it. Inevitably, their support carries less weight as a budget item. The argument that promoting elites is not a contradiction in terms of supporting the masses becomes absurdly stronger the smaller attracts the elite. Would a support program for a handful of lottery millionaires be considered morally unproblematic because it would be tiny compared to the billions in the social budget? What bothers is not the size, but the principle. You need a good reason for this.
The Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, the largest and most important talent promotion organization, justifies its existence with a vague reference to an unspecified benefit society supposedly derives from promoting top talent. The statute states that support is given to those who “can expect special service in the service of the general public”. What does this mean: services at the service of the general public? What exactly is the added value of the Studienstiftung for people who use it on their behalf? The only insured beneficiaries of the scholarship policy are the scholarship holders themselves.
Politicians must also have felt some unease, as they linked the expansion of scholarships to the hope that charities would do more to help previously disadvantaged groups. And the FDP’s new proposal to also include trainees in the circle goes in this direction. The concept of gifted education refers to the fact that the diplomas and income of the parents are not the selection criteria. Talent decides. Alternatively, scholarship providers might call themselves outright “funding organizations for the offspring of better people”. The term “talent promotion” suggests that promoting elites is a fair deal as long as the chance of getting a scholarship is independent of social background.
It is a mistake. Things don’t get better that way.
The concept of talent already implies that it is not something that one chooses freely; Talent can only be acquired within certain limits. Some researchers point out that intelligence – if you want to think of it as an approximation to the even more nebulous concept of giftedness – is to a large extent genetic. Innate talents are just as unearned as a basis for financial support, as are degrees and parental income.
“There is no better reason for the influence of natural capacities on the distribution of income and wealth than historical and social coincidences,” writes philosopher John Rawls. “For once one is dissatisfied with the distributive influence of social or natural contingencies, reflection leads to being dissatisfied with both. From the moral point of view, both seem equally arbitrary.”
Rawls calls it a natural lottery. As preposterous as a state grant program for lottery winners may seem, from this perspective, promoting the gifted is not that far off. And some less well-off students would be very happy to have 7.74 euros more for cafeteria food.