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.

19 comments on “American vs. European Higher Ed: Inputs Leading to Opposite Outputs
  • I’m just as befuddled as you on this one Ben, even after living in Europe for almost 3 years.

    But it does seem that general *society* in Europe puts a higher value on intellectual curiosity and you are generally expected to be able to discuss a wide range of issues. So even if the schools and universities don’t push it, people fall into that mode.

    American society puts career success first with intellectualism as a secondary nice-to-have.

    So maybe universities in both systems try to counteract the prevailing social tendencies???

    Just a thought!


  • Europe is a clash of many cultures living very close together and maybe that is why they have so much more to talk about. The United States is a melting pot but most American cities are more spread out and most Americans don’t travel much to other states and therefore aren’t forced to experience other cultures.

    In Germany I heard they test you at a very young age your intelligence. If you test as very intelligent, they put you on a certain track to become a professional, and if you test as someone of lower intelligence, they put you on a track to do some sort of blue color work.

    Very interesting observation.

  • So this interests me because I’m going to be writing a manifesto called Our Idea of Education is Fundamentally Wrong! (well, maybe… if you vote for it)

    This idea of generalism vs specialism is very interesting to me as a supporter of an Age of Integration and generalism. The problem with our approach to (unconsciously?) promote generalism in our education is that it’s forced. In fact, most of everything in our education is to an extent. If it’s not the classes you’re taking, it’s society pressuring you to go to school because you need a degree to have a future… maybe an education. Wait, what’s that? A degree?

    We treat schooling like a machine that takes children, processes them, and then spits them out with a degree that means very little other than your ability to be obedient. Nowhere in there do we have any sense of really inspiring the desire to learn except for the work of a few very exceptional teachers. Everybody else is too busy grading, which does nothing for the learning process at all!

    Meanwhile, the kids struggle to make this work for them, and those that find it too much work just give up. When they “finish” their education, they’re left with a bad taste in their mouth.

    There’s a couple inspiring resources I could point you to until my manifesto is out if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

    Also, if you have any resourcces about the various modern European education systems, let me know.

  • That’s an interesting observation. I think Stan may be right about counteracting the prevailing social tendencies.

    In Europe, perhaps the breadth of knowledge comes from the prevailing culture of intellectual exchanges and diverse discussion, rather than from the educational system. The education system in Europe could simply be a training ground so that people can easily and immediately do their jobs, and spend their spare time expanding their faculties in other areas.

  • Make of it what you will, but where I work we have two 50-ish liberal arts graduates earning minimum wage.

  • Well, I think in Europe (at least here in Hungary for sure 🙂 we also have liberal arts majors (philosophy, sociology, etc) wandering aimlessly, often taking a second degree in something similar to their existing one. Then they enter the job market and cannot generally do anything with their degrees. (ie. they specialise on something there’s no demand for…)

    The intellectual curiosity may simply come from the culture – it’s a self-sustaining thing – we think we’re supposed to be the intellectuals, so what else do we do?

  • Why does intellectual curiousity have to be associated with what is taught in uni or which major a person does?

    Does curiosity have to be taught?

  • We shouldn’t forget that though American higher ed does allow for a broad liberal arts education, few take it up on this offer. The percentage of students earning liberal arts degrees is low. (It was down to 25% by 1986, I’m scared to see where it is by now). The most popular major: business.

  • I was one of those liberal arts majors that came out of university with a lofty GPA, but very few practical skills. This led to many years of struggle during my twenties. I bounced from dead-end job to dead-end job, picking up very few skills on the way. Not surprisingly, this had a very negative effect on my self esteem.

    Hence, I think the emphasis on liberal arts is misplaced. I think that young people should be trained to have salable skills that would actually attract an employer. Then, later in life, when they’ve developed some life experience and insight, they should study the liberal arts.

  • I like that I took required courses in philosophy and humanities. But I don’t like how it’s made me feel like I’m part of an educated elite, and that I should have more than those who didn’t have the same education as me. I believe this pretty much sums up how many Americans think (OK, so I’m not American, but I’ve imbibed the culture), and this competitiveness drives people to have more, earn more, and flaunt more.

    I lived in Sydney for four years (Australia as a place to live is HIGHLY recommended– living there will add years to your life). Australians are known for their “no tall poppies” culture, and in many ways it’s wonderful. Tradespeople are as respected as white collar workers. Taxi drivers don’t ask for tips; it’s almost insulting (of course there are many who welcome it). Bricklayers live in nice neighborhoods. There is a lot of pride and dignity in any kind of work, because they are backed by specialized education and apprenticeships. They are viewed as real experts, and they have certifications to prove it. Even baristas need to get certified in a course to make coffee.

    There doesn’t seem to be a need to “prove” themselves to people; they are simply confident about what they offer in society. Theirs is one of the best places to raise a family and increase anyone’s quality of life. Even Europeans envy the Aussie lifestyle.

    So why am I not there right now? You got me. To pursue post-graduate education in the US…

  • “In America we have schools like that. But we also have the liberal arts college system, and liberal arts programs within larger universities.”

    Personally, I think it would best if the norm were large state funded universities and that these universities provide free education.

    Also, why you seem to uphold liberal arts education as evidence of America’s cultural superiority is really problematic. Firstly, these institutions tend to cater to a specific sect of society-namely the upper middle class-making it hardly representative of something as broad as American culture.
    Secondly, life in a quintessential liberal arts institution hardly reflects the outside world/business opportunities. This is what makes a liberal arts school distinct from a trade school.
    Thirdly, increased work hours do not mean increased cultural activity. People could be working away more than ever writing a great novel, or they could be working for Haliburton- profiting off a corrupt war and devastation of a country. Also- in this case I would have a hard time seeing the intellectual merit of installing oil pipelines or even of business (resource) management.

  • I live & studied in Australia which is more akin to the European system of specialised degrees overlapped with the American.. I wouldn’t say ‘anti-intellectual’ but I would say ‘not-very-intellectual’ culture.

    I personally wouldn’t have minded being able to at least take some liberal arts subjects but economic imperative prevented me from doing so; given the costs in both money & time of being at university, most students choose to get their specialisations, get out and start earning money (to pay off their debts – haha).

    At the time, I thought this was a bad thing but I’ve realised that it led me to take responsibility for my own growth – I read & discussed things on my own time, governed purely by my own interests and desires. And it established habits of self-learning for pleasure that will last me a lifetime.

    A liberal arts education is fundamentally about intellectual & spiritual growth and I don’t think that’s something that can ever be successfully institutionalised or prescribed. If a person has a hunger for it, they will seek it. If they don’t, it’s another boring requirement to get through before the next party begins. Everyone comes to it in their own time.

    In any case, true growth can only come with life experience. I know too many liberal arts graduates who appear to have developed the ability to namedrop various dead German philosophers in the one sentence without any attendant meaningful insight. And don’t even get me started on the post-modernists.

    Additionally, seeing a direct link between my studies and my future career probably compelled me to take my education seriously as opposed to, you know, ‘going wild’.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Can’t say that my intention was to depress anyone, Scott… Curious to know what it was that was so sad.

  • if the type of education is irrelevant then what hope does that offer for intellectual life and politics? it seems to me that our education institutions are the blood of our democracy…democracy is nothing/empty/pitiful if it is just an impersonal multiple choice questionaire? What is the power of legislation if it is built merely on negative liberties and does not strive to give the state and active role in promoting public life? It is with our institutions of learning that we reach beyond the merely quanitative- please note Adorno’s writings on political commitment in art–that is, art, by being separate from politics allows a society a forum of speech for the silenced and under-represented.

    And Ben Casnocha’s thoughts on America’s rich public life as evidenced by the increased working hours is even more saddening..for it pays no attention to the type and value of the work we are talking about. Are we talking about stock brokers,fast food cashiers, aclu workers, artists, or professors?

  • I also think one thing that adds to European intellect etc is their media. Their media covers a lot of stuff. We already know how lame CNN looks compared to BBC, but even publications like TIME and CNN who have both international and domestic versions show the huge difference in priorities. Some magazine a while back (I don’t remember which) had an article comparing magazine covers from Time Europe and Time America for the same week, and noticed that while Europe’s cover chose serious international topics like the Middle East, American covers would choose to cover America-centric things that seemed less substantial. I’ve been noticing this for years — CNN International’s homepage would be talking about something really important like protests against the WTO, while CNN America’s home page would be talking about a missing blond college student. I once went to a talk by a CNN news anchor Aaron Brown, who voiced his concerns about being forced to talk about celebrities he didn’t care about (it was that random guy who shot his wife? Not OJ — the guy with black hair — Blake, was it??) instead of what he considered more serious news. He said “Americans vote with their remote controls and unfortunately they’d rather learn about this stuff.”

  • This is rather a late reply – to put it mildly – but is perhaps part of the answer to your question that Europeans receive in secondary school, i.e., before they specialize at university, the broad liberal education that enables them later on to discuss “the philosophy of life in an outdoor cafe at 10 AM on a Monday”?

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *