Culture is not the main priority of the Swiss educational system

Educational systems are strongly influenced by culture and the Swiss educational system is no exception to that rule. Swiss education reflects the mixed feelings many Swiss have about their first language and the culture of their large European neighbours. It is also intimately related to the political culture of the country, its history and certain psychological characteristics.

The struggle of the Swiss with their first language

The Swiss are less passionate about their high culture than other countries because many key aspects are borrowed. There is not even a national language, and many Swiss feel that their official language, with the exception of Romantsch, is spoken much better by large neighbouring nations. In fact, the real and immensely popular, but unofficial national language is English. Many German-speaking Swiss would gladly abandon German for English and happily part with French, a language they frequently loathe even more than High German. The French- and Italian-speaking Swiss are more proud of their first local language, regardless of some regionalisms, which distinguish the French of the Vaudois from the French of a Parisian or the Italian of a Ticinese from that of a cultivated Florentine. They learn German with limited enthusiasm, knowing full well that the German-speaking Swiss will lapse into their dialects and struggle with High German nearly as much as they do. It speaks volumes that the Romands call the High German of the Germans “le bon allemand” (good German), as opposed to Swiss-German dialects, for which they have a number of less flattering names.

The German-speaking Swiss feel particularly awkward speaking and writing their first language, which they learn as a second language, after acquiring one of the numerous Swiss-German dialects in their infancy. Linguists call this “diglossia” (a standard variety for reading and writing, and a second variety for oral everyday communication and text messages). There are substantial differences between High German and Swiss German in vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation. In essence, Swiss-German dialects precede the second vowel shift in the Middle Ages and therefore resemble Middle High German or the English of Chaucer. To the Welsh and the Irish this may seem second nature, but to the English it comes as a shock when they discover that High German alone will not be enough.

German-speaking Swiss have mixed feelings about Germany, which are only slowly improving in the younger generation. The moment they are compelled to speak High German, they feel inferior to Germans and are keenly aware of the apparent clownishness of their Swiss accent (Germans actually love it!), the embarrassing pauses as they fumble for the “correct” German words and the pitfalls of launching into a longer sentence with all its grammatical hazards. Relative pronouns are already a menace (they are in the habit of starting relative clauses with the dialectal “wo”, instead of the High German “der”, “die” or “das”), not to mention the genitive or the past simple, which do not really exist in Swiss-German (Swiss-German dialects subsist on the present perfect).

The inverted eloquence of the Swiss

Swiss politicians speaking German have to sound as provincial as possible, use dialectal vocabulary and make frequent grammatical and stylistic errors to appeal to their voters. Though a number of members of parliament are probably able to speak excellent High German without an accent, they will be careful never to let anyone know. In the 1970s there was a Federal Councillor, Mr Furgler, who was so notorious for his polished High German that he was nicknamed “Müüli” (little mouth). His facial muscles and lips would contract as if he were trying to give his audience a peck on the cheek.

Switzerland is an unrecognised cultural giant

The written German of German-speaking school leavers, the French of their Romand and the Italian of their Ticino counterparts are easily on a par with the first language standard of their large European neighbours. A surprising number of great German-language writers were either born in Switzerland or lived and worked there for most of their lives, such as Jeremias Gotthelf, Gottfried Keller, Hermann Hesse, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and more recently Martin Suter, and their greatest works probably account for about a third of all set texts at the schools of German-speaking countries. And let us not forget some of the well-known writers of “la Romandieˮ and Ticino – such as Ferdinand Ramuz and Giorgio Orelli.

In classical music and art, the larger cities of Switzerland compare favourably with the much larger leading cities of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Austria. Several generations of Swiss billionaires have helped to compile some of the best art collections in the world, including those of the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, the Gianadda centre in Martigny, the collections of the Bührle Foundation in Zurich and the Oscar Rein­hardt Foundation in Winterthur, which together have easily as many ma­jor French Impressionists as the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, let alone the Cortauld Institute in London. If Swiss state museums were to pool their Picassos, many gifted to them by local magnates, they would beat out the Tate.

In classical music Switzerland has much to offer. The Zurich, Basel and Geneva opera houses are in the same league as the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Scala and the Vienna Opera House. The theaters of Zurich, Basel and Geneva offer drama of a standard only to be found in cities like Berlin, Vienna and Paris. The Zurich and Basel symphony orchestras, the Lucerne Festival Strings and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande probably belong to the best classical orchestras in the world, and the Lucerne Festival is now on a par with the Salzburg Mozart Festival. Then there is the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival – the list is truly endless.

Why few young Swiss either know or care about this

Part of the answer may be the traditional Swiss valuation of craftsmanship, engineering and technology, along with a disregard, particularly in German-speaking Switzerland, for arts, languages and humanities. The roots of Switzerland are after all in farming in the countryside and crafts and trade in the towns. Socially, the driving force of most Swiss cantons from the Middle Ages onwards was the middle class with its livery companies (“Zünfte”). Only a few cantons – like Berne, Basel and possibly Geneva – have a more feudal tradition. For most of its history Switzerland was fighting for its survival and found both crafts and trade more helpful than Latin poetry. Only in the second half of the 20th century did Switzerland become wealthy enough to afford high culture for the majority of the population.

Why has the indifference to culture deepened since the year 2000?

In the 1980s, the Zurich Youth Theater Club counted more than 2,000 members, with a fair number of commercial apprentices. Large groups of teenagers met at the Schauspielhaus and the Zurich Opera House to sit through a one-hour introduction to Wagner’s Parsifal or Gounod’s Faust before witnessing the production and going backstage to meet the actors and singers. After the year 2000 membership dwindled to insignificance and the club ceased to exist. Doubtless, the advent of social media and computer games together with the proliferation of mobile phones, home computers and play stations turned a majority of adolescents into addicts. It was also at that time that both primary and secondary schools had to grapple with more subjects, leaving less time and energy for literature and culture. While academic elite schools (“Gymnasium”, “lycée”, “liceo”) continue to cherish Europe’s cultural heritage, Swiss secondary schools have had to let go of much of the teaching of culture. At lower secondary and vocational schools, students who play musical instruments are often regarded as “uncool”, and lovers of literature hide their books from their peers.

Written by Robin Hull, author of ‘A Guide to the Swiss educational system’.
This is an excerpt from the only overview of the Swiss educational system in English currently in existence for parents with an international background. It can be ordered on

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Hull's School Zurich

Hull's School Zurich

Hull’s School is the first English college in Zurich for teenagers. The four-year college programme taught in English (except for modern languages), and covers the UK Fifth and Sixth Forms (Years 10 to 13). Students are prepared for IGCSE and A-level examinations.

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