In the past, I’ve praised the Swiss school system, and there is much to admire. The Kindergarten concept is world-class, and every child should be so lucky as to attend a Swiss-style kindergarten.
In Swiss Kindergarten, children focus on social skills. There’s no attempt to teach the alphabet or how to do math. They play with hammers, go to the forest, play in sand, and roast hot dogs over open fires. It’s brilliant.
They start learning to read in first grade, and by the end of the school year, my son was reading at grade level in German and above grade level in English, even though we’d never attempted to teach him to read in English. German is all phonetic (except for a few borrowed French and English words), while English (as you all know) is a disaster. Nevertheless, the two years of “playing” in Kindergarten didn’t hurt his ability to read.
All of this flexibility goes away as the children get older, and the rigidity of Swiss culture comes into play.
As an American, I’m a massive fan of flexibility. I’m a huge fan of separating what is important from what is not important. The Swiss are not. All rules are equal. For instance, my son once got top scores on the content of a presentation but received an overall bad grade because the corners of his posterboard were not perfectly flat. A discussion with the teacher resulted in her saying, “but the corners weren’t flat” and me saying, “but his content is the important part,” lather, rinse, repeat. It was more fun because the conversation was in German, so it’s entirely possible that I was saying something more like, “you miserable wench, don’t you know what is important?” I can’t remember.
Another situation arose in school, where he was struggling. I went to observe the classroom and found him in the very back row, facing the wall. He had to turn around his chair to face the front. I asked the teacher to move him, pointing out that perhaps he wouldn’t struggle quite so much if he were facing the blackboard. She refused. Her reason? It was October, and she wasn’t rearranging the classroom until January. The school principal backed her up. There was no possibility that they could rearrange before the planned date.
I hired a lawyer. (See, I’m an American.) She moved him two days later, and the school filed a report with child protective services. Fortunately, I had photos of where he was sitting, and the social worker was rational. That was his last year in the public schools.
As I told this story to a friend, also an American/Brit (dual passport), she had a similar problem with her son–except hers was talking too much in class. The teacher asked for suggestions, and she said, “move him closer to your desk, and away from the other children.” The teacher refused, citing the fact that it wasn’t time to rearrange the classroom.
It’s not just the schools that are surprisingly rigid.
A friend got detained for shoplifting and charged 100 francs. Reasonable enough if she had been shoplifting. However, what happened was that her two-year-old had snatched a stuffed animal from a shelf. The two-year-old was sitting in a stroller, and her mom had a shopping basket balanced on top of the stroller. The cashier saw the stuffed animal while my friend didn’t. Instead of doing the rational thing and saying, “did you see your child has a toy?” the cashier waited until my friend stepped out of the store and called security.
Her option was to pay a 100 franc fine (the franc and the dollar are roughly equal), or the store would call the police. Not wanting to mess up her immigration status, she paid the fine. The store’s position? The child shoplifted. They didn’t care that the child was two and the mother didn’t have any idea.
In the news, there’s been another example of rigidity. An eight-year-old was arrested for attempting to use counterfeit.
When an 8-year-old boy walked into a village supermarket in northern Switzerland last month and tried to pay with a fake €50 bill, it seemed like mere childhood mischief.
The bill, with large Chinese lettering on it, was clearly toy money. The cashier immediately spotted it and threatened to call the police as the boy, along with a friend, left the store to meet his 10-year-old brother who was waiting outside.
It could have ended there. But after a police officer launched an investigation into the boy, took his mug shot and filed a report on the incident, it will now be on police records until at least 2025.
Fortunately, people were upset, and the store chain was forced into a non-apology where they said a different outcome would have been desirable. Yeah, your employee called the police on an eight-year-old.
The Canton maintained that the police acted appropriately.
While rigidity gets you world-class watchmaking and expert engineering, if it’s not balanced with common sense, you get an arrested child, with the store clerk, police, and public officials all concurring that this should be addressed legally.
I appreciate the order that keeps public transportation running on time. I appreciate that I can ride a cable car without fear of it falling to the earth. I don’t appreciate the lack of flexibility in daily life.