Three Observations About Western European Higher Ed

Below, three observations about how Western Europe treats higher education, as I understand it based on informal conversations with students, professors, and business people across the continent. Generalizing about such a large zone will inherently expose exceptions, but these are just observations that seem to hold up in most places I’ve been to. Tell me if I’m wrong.

First, schooling in Europe stresses specialization at a young age. This means that you choose early on what you want to study (law, business, medicine, whatever) and your entire "undergraduate" years are spent studying this topic. Many high schools are even specialized.

Second, success is largely measured by big, cumulative tests. Some of the law students I’ve met have a single test that covers four semesters of work. They spend months and months studying for this one test.

Third, the degrees you do obtain and schools you do attend receive substantial attention for life. In many countries your degrees (Masters, PhD, etc) are appended to your passport, and anytime you list the name of a PhD, "Dr." must precede the name. Always. Also, the first line of a one-paragraph bio of someone will include their education first. It is remarkable to read a bio of 60 year-old chief executive with an amazingly distinguished professional career that begins with where he read books at age 18.

So, the system disadvantages those youth who don’t really know what they want to do in life at age 16 (most people, I’d imagine), then disadvantages those who are cognitively ill-suited at taking tests administered in school settings (a meaningful subset of the population, research shows), and then pushes whatever degrees you do pick up to the fore for the rest of your life.

Contrast the above three points to America.

First, while specialization is an option, liberal arts colleges and programs are also offered in abundance. And specialization will never occur at the high school level, as it does in places in Europe. High school is broadly focused.

Second, standardized tests are used, but relatively speaking, seem less important. Sure, the SAT matters, but it is not the only factor. Indeed, some U.S. colleges don’t even require an SAT test.

Third, what you did at your last job is far more important than where you went to school at age 18. This varies by profession, of course, but I think this is part of the meritocracy ideal (myth?) of the country. And many PhDs do not demand to be called "Dr." Even in the industry where PhDs are most institutionalized — higher ed — some American colleges drop "Dr." in favor of the more generic "Mr." In the Pomona College course catalog professors are listed "Mr. Smith." Finally, the standard American bio will include education as the last sentence, if at all.

For points #2 and #3, I prefer the American model / culture. Point #1 is interesting. While I think Western European schooling focuses on specialization too early, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with specialization per se, and certainly the vocational variety doesn’t deserve the kind of high minded shoo-shooing from liberal arts-educated intellectuals who think you’re not suited for the world unless you’ve read Plato and Frost. As Joel Kotkin said, as a practical matter, in the States we need fewer poets and more plumbers. Or see Ross Douthat:

…We ought to become vastly more flexible in our understanding of what constitutes an ideal post-high school education, and what our high schools should be preparing their students for – which means more vocational education, more shop class as soulcraft, and fewer attempts to pretend that everyone can read Hamlet, or score above the national average on the Math SAT.

Related Post: How the Culture of Higher Ed in America and Europe Doesn’t Seem to Impact Society in General

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