A university education is not the same in every country

I have listened to many confused conversations about the meaning and value of university while raising our children. And now that our oldest is approaching this threshhold, it hasn’t gotten any easier. I grew up in an American urban environment in which it was taken for granted that anyone who graduated from high school would go on to study at some sort of college, either community college (two years), or regular college (four years). Which one depended on grades, personal preference, location and parents’ ability to pay the tuition fees. More money often meant college far away; less money certainly dictated college nearby. In fact, much of the last year in my high school was devoted to filling out applications, taking SATs (the general college entrance exam) and worrying about interviews and where I would get accepted.

This is completely foreign to most of our German friends. It is foreign to pay for schooling at all. It is foreign to encourage a liberal arts education at the university level. It is foreign to go through a rigorous application process. Instead, pupils after Abitur identify exactly what they want to study and the universities where that is offered. They sign up bureaucratically for a spot, hoping their number comes up. Perhaps take a year off (this was, until last year, institutionalized for men as part of the mandatory military vs. civil service choice). If their particular subject is already full then they wait until their name arises on the waiting list — highest scores on the Abitur exams being first on the list. This process can take years, during which time they work or perhaps they travel or take classes in an ‘open’ specialization that never fills up, such as theology. Certainly, the excitement I remember about ‘going off to college’ and the adventure that would offer, is not shared by our German friends.

In trying to puzzle this out, I realize university life in Germany does not connote the community it does in England or the United States. There is no tradition of dorms or sports or college identification. Many Germans reject universities, choosing to start an apprenticeship or take a position as an entry-level corporate trainee. Those who do study often live at home and lacklusterly fulfill their classes, which often seem not designed to be morally or philosophically challenging in the way I remember mine being. Once Germans start studying, they dive right into their specialization. A physics student does not take literature or history or language. A medical student studies only science. The general atmosphere does not encourage community, rather it encourages utilitarian checking-off of which exams and classes one has fulfilled on the way to an employment qualification.  While this might be good for some students not given to critical thinking, I do not agree with the idea that education is primarily a tool for economic growth and profit – churning out new generations of engineers or technicians. Curiosity-driven enquiry in all fields has great social (and economic) consequences. Jonathan Bate wrote: “What price the advanced study of the humanities in a time when the world economy crumbles and our cities are looted? Some might say that to teach and research papyrus fragments of ancient Greek drama or the reading habits of sixteenth-century gentlewomen at such a time is to fiddle while Rome burns. We must be firm in our response to such claims: the humanities are there to teach us what it is to be human and what is to be valued in civil society.” go to Oxford Today

The term ‘college’ is understood by most Germans to refer to some sort of high school, not to a university. Partly this can be attributed to the fact that ‘Hochschule” means university in German but is translated literally into English as “high school”.  And then there is the next confusion, which is that some of the most prestigious US universities refer to themselves as ‘colleges’ rather than universities. And that studies at Oxford or Cambridge always consist of references to colleges such as Christ Church College before references to the university. So, college as a term is difficult. Added to this is the ambiguous attitude towards higher education in Germany. The German school system divides its pupils into ‘university’, ‘middle-class’ and ‘trades’-oriented starting in 5th grade (age 10 or 11). Yet there is a truly baffling network of back-door solutions to this crazy early parting of the ‘bookish’ from the ‘non-bookish’ and certainly the German school systems are being bombarded with criticism right now. Public debate long revolved around dismantling the ‘elitist’ approach to an education vs. opening the doors to one and all and the resulting overfilling of and frustration in the universities. Add to all this the fact that the German ‘gymnasial – university-oriented’ schooling ends in a diploma called the Abitur after 12 years (it used to be 13 years until the politicians decided to squeeze the 13 into 12 years a couple of years ago). This Abitur is actually acknowleged in the US as fulfilling at least one year of US college education, thus undermining the reputation of a four-year American university education even more than the embarrassing inability of many American politicians on the news to put three sentences together coherently.

In the words of Martha Nussbaum, a reknowned philosopher, we hear more and more about humanities and the arts being useless frills that must be cut away in order to stay competitive in the global market. They are being cut away at all levels of education in virtually every nation of the world. As they lose their place in curricula, they also lose their place in the hearts and minds of parents and children.  “The very basis of the US liberal arts tradition is the four-year degree, and until the halfway point all students are required to maintain a broad focus and several ‘minor’ subjects. This forces mathematicians to appreciate poetry, poets to maintain an interest in science, and everyone to keep learning a foreign language.” go to Oxford Today

In considering college choices for our children, there is no doubt in my mind that an Anglo-American liberal arts education is a solid start to adulthood – preparation for any field they end up pursuing.  Yet, a couple of things have given me a shock. One, the pricetag attached to this education!!. US colleges now run from $20,000 to $50,000 a year!!!  This is way more than anyone I know can possibly afford. So, judging from what friends say, families save from their childrens’ babyhood, they apply for loans and they hope for scholarships. Somehow there must be a way. Two, what I’ve read about the behavior of young elite college students puts a ‘Spring Break’ spin on Americans that worsens even more their reputation abroad.  I attended an American year-abroad program in Italy a long time ago, and even then most of the students only wanted to drink beer (in Italy!!) and hang out in big American groups. They weren’t interested in getting to know Italy or Italians. So, how did I end up loving these words:

“The ideal university (the word is from the Latin for ‘whole’) should be devoted to the totality of scholarship. It should be a place of intellectual freedom, tempered by intellectual criticism. Most of all, it should be a powerhouse of discovery – about ourselves and the world around us.” (neuroscientist Colin Blakemore) read more in Oxford Today