Gymnasium Schooling

In the ancient world, the word gymnasion was applied to public places where young men exercised physically and were trained by teachers and philosophers, in particular in Athens at the Academy, which was associated with PLATO, and the Lyceum, associated with ARISTOTLE. Since the Renaissance, the term has been revived to designate educational institutions that refer expressly to the intellectual heritage of classical antiquity. In the Germanic countries, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, gymnasium is the name for a senior secondary school that prepares students for the university. Elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, however, the word gymnasium and its equivalents refer to the other element of the Greek gymnasion: a place for physicalexercise.

Two periods are distinguished in the history of the classical gymnasium. From the sixteenth century, the word simply referred to the LATIN SCHOOL model that was developed by the humanists. This took various names: grammar school in England, collège in France, colegio in Spain, Lateinschule or gymnasium in the Holy Roman Empire. The French name was reminiscent of the university college, and indeed Latin schools were considered to be the first stage of higher education. In many countries the higher classes in the Latin schools, after the so-called humanities courses of grammar, poetry, and rhetoric, were part of the university system itself. The first truly Protestant gymnasium, created by Johann Sturm at Strasbourg in 1538, united a Latin school to a superstructure consisting of university-level chairs. Such chairs in arts, philosophy, and theology, and sometimes in law and medicine, prepared pupils in or near their hometowns for university level functions or academic degrees which they would go on to take at the full-fledged universities. In early modern Germany, the word gymnasium finally came to be used for the most elaborate form of a Latin school, with a complete range of classes, preparing the children of the literate citizens for the university and hence for the learned professions.

Neo-Humanistic Ideals

During the late eighteenth century, humanistic ideology underwent a radical change. The focus of classical education shifted from a philological approach and a conservative concept of erudition embedded in the society of orders toward a more dynamic vision of self-cultivation, linked up with a secular professional ethic in a society that wanted social and political change. As a consequence, the old, virtually closed "learned estate"' (Gelehrtenstand) was gradually replaced bya cultured bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum,) characterized by functional expertise, a liberal spirit of self-cultivation, and a meritocratic ideology. After the era of the French Revolution, the German gymnasium was revived by the cultured bourgeoisie with a new, neo-humanistic scope: classical languages and literature, considered the main source of the new ideals of humanity and aesthetic purity, were henceforth the unavoidable rite of passage toward culture (Bildung), profession (Beruf) and office (Amt). This internal transformation of the classical education was legitimized by legislation. Indeed, the unitary school system of Prussia, designed in 1812 by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) and Johann Wilhelm Süvern (1775–1829), culminated in the gymnasium, intended for what Humboldt called "a harmonious cultivation of the mind," though the body was certainly not neglected. The new gymnasium got a completely new curriculum, including modern languages, mathematics, and natural sciences. The nine-year course, for students aged ten to eighteen, was closed by an examination called the Abitur, the certificate of maturity, which was the prerequisite for matriculation at a German university.

The downfall of Latin as a language of science since the eighteenth century cleared the way for new functions. Henceforth the gymnasium could stress the intrinsic values of classical antiquity. It became a privileged tool for the intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual education of the nineteenth-century cultured bourgeoisie. Yet in spite of its broad ambitions, it touched only a small elite–not more than 3 percent of the German population until World War II (whereas less than 1 percent matriculated at the universities). Research has shown that the highly selective practices of the prewar gymnasium had served the continuous self-reproduction of the intellectual elite though it admitted a small proportion of pupils from the middle classes. From the second half of the nineteenth century women were slowly admitted too.

During the nineteenth century, the Prussian gymnasium with its Humboldtian ideals heavily influenced the evolution of secondary education in the Germanic Empire and in the neighboring countries: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the Baltic regions, and Russia. Its ideology also resembled the belles lettres paradigm in contemporary France, where the LYCÉE played a similar role with a still greater impact on the self-reproduction of the intellectual class. Yet social reproduction through the lycée seems to have been still stronger in the closed French prewar bourgeoisie than through the German gymnasium.

Institutional Change

The classical languages remain the core business of the neohumanistic German gymnasium in the early twenty-first century. Its preparatory function for the university and its social prestige as a senior secondary school remain intact. Nevertheless the institution itself has gone through a long series of transformations over the centuries, due to the alternate pressures of church and state and the demands of changing social groups for a more utilitarian curriculum with fewer classical subjects. From a single branch of studies, the curriculum shifted slowly toward a "reformed upper phase" with a broad choice of courses. Moreover, it has had to share its tasks and privileges with competing schools. The Progymnasium taught only a six-year course, with a less demanding curriculum. After the German unification in 1871, university admission was also granted to the pupils of the Realgymnasium, which in addition to the modern languages taught Latin but not Greek, and of the Oberrealschule, which provided no classical instruction at all but only a modern languages and sciences curriculum. During the Third Reich, the elitist ideology of the gymnasium was easily co-opted by Nazi propaganda. The concept of Bildung was appropriated into the aesthetic, moral, and intellectual values of the Nazi state and the creation of an Aryan type. After World War II the German gymnasium went through a period of diversification and experimentation that was ended by the Federal Act of 1972.

See also: Education, Europe.


Kraul, Margret. 1984. Das deutsche Gymnasium, 1780–1980. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Müller, Detlef K., Fritz Ringer, and Brian Simon, eds. 1988. The Rise of the Modern Educational System: Structural Change and Social Reproduction 1870–1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ringer, Fritz K. 1979. Education and Society in Modern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.