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

13 comments on “Three Observations About Western European Higher Ed
  • I’m a generalist by nature, so when I was told in my master’s program in library science that I would have to specialize in one type of library, or in one portion of one type of library, I ignored it. I took coursework in public and academic libraries, and ended up working in academic and school libraries. In my current job as an online reference librarian, my proclivity for knowing a lot about a lot of different things makes me a better librarian. So if you’ve got a specialist type of personality, go for it, but for me, being a generalist has been the path to happiness. (But you should see my resume, especially the volunteer part–cemetery tour leader, Cub Scout day camp nature walk leader, science fair judge, low brass instructor, Spanish translator–I look like a scattered flake to the specialists of the world (and I am)).

  • The European bias is towards talented people over generally clever hard-working people. I went to a specialist music high school in the UK, then did an English degree at Cambridge, then had several different careers. And I almost went to UT to study psychology a couple of years ago- so specialising doesn’t have to reduce flexibility. It can be about serial immersion-style learning, as opposed to doing several things at the same time not very well.

  • Ben, you touched upon something that has long bothered me about our educational system. As you so aptly put it, “[C]ertainly the vocational variety [of education] 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.”

    Personally, I don’t see a thing wrong with knowing about Frost and plumbing. Or Plato and carpentry.

  • Specialization is indeed a big thing in The Netherlands, as it defines what you’ll be working at four years long trough your master. And because a lot of middle class students have to rely a lot on their student lone from the government, choosing what to do becomes extremely important. People tend to think that ‘you only get one shot’.

    In actual practice this is less strict though than you might think. I’m specializing in neuropsychology, that’s what will end up printed on my master degree. But because I can take classes in every specialization at every university in the Netherlands, I did more than that. I also have taken classes in sociology, anthropology, urban planning and industrial design.

    Together with my experience in the organization of my faculty and student sobriety, I have both a broad skill set and a specialization. Best of both worlds I’d say, without the need to read Plato.

    High schools are in Holland almost all liberal and unspecialized. Most businesses tend to look at experience and not education. Indeed most people end up in a profession different than the one they specialized in.

    In general the idea is that you get trained to think a certain ‘scientific’ way, your actual specialization is less important. It’s not the education in Holland that defines what you’ll become, it’s what you do with it. And doing something practical with it is emphasized.

  • Thanks for this very interesting post.
    I have postgraduated in France and I totally agree with you.
    Indeed, European (at least french education system) does not focused on personality like the american system may do it.
    In Europe, the knowledge is most important than the ability. So the selection system work with competition exercices based on knowledge.
    The consequence is that european pupils have to specialize early without knowing exactly their personnal gift, they have just the feeling to have failed…
    I my opinion that is the worst point about european edaction system.


  • I’ve heard (but not verified) that specialization in Europe and Japan also skews American student test scores to the middle of the pack globally (because some students in Europe and elsewhere are not counted in those tests because they’re not considered to be part of the academic track). Can someone point me to a link proving/refuting this?

  • Another remark: I see a lot of attempts from American academics to generalize the ‘Europe way of thinking’. Fact is that differences in Europe are by far more prevalent than similarities.

    I want to stress the fact that something like the ‘united European states’ is not realistic. I have less in common with someone from Poland or the Czech Republic than I have with someone from the states.

    I suggest than that it is more appropriate to define Europe in eastern, western, northern and southern Europe.

    In the subject of high school education for example there are a lot of differences: High schools in Holland are closer but different than those in Belgium, whom resembles more France. But high schools in France have a totally different culture than those in Germany. And high schools in Great Britain are totally apart all together. And this is just in one region: Western Europe!

  • Wout – yes, that’s why I said “western Europe.”

    Derek – I’ve also heard this. The studies which show that American students lag behind their peers in other countries on certain standardized tests have a lot of flaws, I hear, including the selection bias that you point out.

  • I went to high school in Italy for a year and got a taste of the specialization first hand. In Italy, it felt to me, the high school level specialization was similar to the gen ed’s required at most American Universities. I have two friends who are now in college, one studying to be a doctor and one who is attending Oxford for ancient literature; they attended the same high school.

    The biggest difference I found between our education system and the Italian system was that we learn more by doing and they learn solely from repetition. My chemistry course in Italy offered lab once week during which we would watch the professor do experiments. Here, when I took chemistry we were doing our own little experiments with various chemicals the second day. My friend who is studying to be a doctor cannot participate in a residency until after she receives her degree. There is no performance evaluation. She will be certified to operate on someone before she has ever even drawn blood from someone. Kind of scary.

  • I recently visited Germany with a group and had the opportunity to speak with a German student who was just preparing to enter university. Even from our brief conversation, your points 1 and 2 stood out remarkably. As a high school senior, I was amazed at the differences between the processes this student was going through and the ones I faced. A single test is the determining factor for both where a student goes to school and what the student studies; certain educational paths are only open to students with certain test scores. Students were generally expected to specialize upon entering the university. One thing that struck me was that there wasn’t a separate “undergraduate” level of study; students who wanted to be doctors began and finished on the medical path. Of course, the German equivalent to American high school lasts a few years longer. After Germany, I visited Belgium, and learned that their system is a little less stringent. I didn’t learn as much about Belgian education as I would have liked, though – the particular kids showing us around were more interested in comparing vulgar slang and trying to sell us pot. It was a fun day.

    Thanks for this article – it was nice to read a little more about what I felt were the most interesting facts I gleaned from my too-short tour.

  • >> High school is broadly focused.

    You should make a note not to repeat this sentence. Just nit picking am I.

  • specialization in Europe and Japan also skews American student test scores to the middle of the pack globally (because some students in Europe and elsewhere are not counted in those tests because they’re not considered to be part of the academic track).

    Reminds me of the way our health-care statistics are skewed by (among other things) our perinatal standard of care.

    In many other countries, a fetus delivered at 25 weeks is simply declared stillborn and left to die in a broom closet. Few resources are expended on its care, and its existence does not enter into the data used for demographic statistics.

    Here in the United States, a 25-week pre-term neonate ALWAYS is considered a live birth and ALWAYS benefits from heroic and extremely costly measures to keep it alive, regardless of the parents’ ability to pay.

    This does several things to the statistics: 1) it increases the national infant mortality rate; 2) it decreases the national life expectancy; and 3) it inflates the national percentage of GDP expended on health care. All of these are the frequent subjects of sneering, critical commentary by supercilious European bien-pensants and the American leftists who slavishly ape them.

    Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom or utility of our approach by comparison to other countries, but far too often, it is used as evidence for the uniquely callous and wicked nature of the USA (when in fact the truth is closer to the reverse.)

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