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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Detlev Raasch, 1936-2014

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Detlev, with Dinah and Liesel

Detlev, with Dinah and Liesel

Just as I was finishing my blog article on Hamburg, last Friday, I got really sad news: Detlev Raasch, Dinah’s uncle, passed away.  Two weeks ago, he went to the hospital for a bout of pneumonia, and never made it (doctors found he had advanced leukemia).

Though he could be a stubborn old coot (why didn’t you see a doctor earlier?), he had a cheerful outlook on life and a contagious smile, and was generous to a fault.  Detlev was our anchor in Germany, the main reason we’ve visited Hamburg so often in the past. 

I didn’t know him all that well – living continents apart will do that – and I can’t pretend to even imagine what life was like for a child in Berlin during the war (he was born there in 1936).   But there are some facets of his life I’d like to share, because that’s how I came to understand some aspects of life in Germany.

Detlev was part of that generation that lived the so-called German miracle, when the country quickly moved from post-war destitution to prosperity.  Detlev, trained as an electrician, soon moved from rental housing  to owning a house of his own for his family (two children).  He located a suburban area outside Hamburg that was developing, and had a house built there; part of the reason he chose that area was that it was well serviced by a commuter train within walking distance.

Detlev with grandsons Alexander and Nicholas, and me.

Detlev with grandsons Alexander and Nicholas, and me.

In that he followed countless people who moved to the growing suburbs after the war; my dad did the same in Montreal.  But there the comparison stops; the commuter train that had similarly influenced Dad’s decision soon had its service cut; the Germans, on the other hand, kept investing in commuter rail and subways.  While there’s been sprawl on both sides of the ocean, European cities contain theirs better and remain walkable because of their emphasis on transit.

The other thing I want to relate has to do with education.  Detlev was originally trained as an electrician, but he soon became an electronics engineer.  German education puts a strong emphasis on technical training, and it was relatively straightforward for him to move up the technical ladder.  This may be harder to do now (education has become more rigid everywhere); but in Canada, it is nearly impossible.  For instance, the skills and education of an electrician are neither credited nor valued when learning engineering (as a result, many graduating electrical engineers may know much valuable theory but wouldn’t trust themselves with wiring).

This is not a new revelation; much has been written on the superiority of the German technical education, which some claim is the reason for lower youth unemployment (see here or here, for instance).   That was noted at least as far back as 1955, as this Journal of Electrical Engineers article here attests, when Detlev was studying.

As an engineering instructor I was always struck by the fact that any of my students who already had a technical background did far better than the others; their technical education had given them a mental framework on which to hang the theoretical concepts.  Learn the how before learning the why, as it were; this works better than the other way around, which is unfortunately how formal degree education is structured in this country.

I always looked to Detlev as an example of this.  As he progressed in his career to more abstract integrated circuit design, Detlev retained his practical skills and his ability to tinker with things.  He did indeed do all the electrical wiring in his own house; and he had the self-confidence to invest in new systems, like his solar collector or the VW cogen system that heats his home (I wrote about it before here).   Wish I could say the same about our own Canadian grads; we do them a disservice by not stressing the practical skills.  But that self-confidence was an important component of Detlev’s cheerful disposition – nothing like a sense of control to make you feel like you can deal with whatever life throws your way.

Detlev with his VW cogen heat and electricity system

Detlev with his VW cogen heat and electricity system

Well, so long Detlev.  Sure wish I could have shared another beer with you.  You taught me that, bad as things can be sometimes, there are always reasons for hope – even for the environment!  

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Written by enviropaul

February 16, 2014 at 8:50 pm

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