American vs. European Higher Ed: Inputs Leading to Opposite Outputs

The universities in Europe that I’m familiar with offer specialized education. If you’re a really good student in France or England, you go to a university and study one topic in-depth. Maybe history, maybe law, maybe economics. My friends in Europe chose one topic before they enrolled.

In America we have schools like that. But we also have the liberal arts college system, and liberal arts programs within larger universities. If you’re a really good student, chances are you will be at a school which will require that you sample broadly. Even if you’re set on becoming a lawyer, you’ll still have to take some math classes. Even if you know chemistry is your calling, you’ll still have to read Faulkner and Shakespeare.

The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of the American system probably provides more intellectual excitement, although also contributes to the swaths of English and philosophy majors who spend their 20’s wandering aimlessly. The European system provides deep knowledge to a student in a given area which probably aids in their job search early on, but also prevents students from the broad exposure which might set off new creative sparks. To oversimplify, the liberal arts system in America promotes intellectual curiosity whereas the European system promotes specific career tracks.

Here’s what trips me up: After higher education — i.e., in adult life — Europe is characterized as the place where career ambition and work come second to the general enjoyment of life and intellectual curiosity. We conjure an image of the French discussing the philosophy of life in an outdoor cafe at 10 AM on a Monday. And America is the place where the meaning of life and intellectualism are second to 80 hour workweeks. Public intellectuals are second to pop culture stars. We obsess about our work.

Does anyone else see this incongruence? Does anyone else find it odd that the inputs in each higher ed system lead to opposite outputs? I realize these are vast generalizations, but still, it’s striking.

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