Reflections on American Vs. European Education

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All my friends want to come study in America because it's so easy," my Belgian friend Nicolas told me last week.

At the Solvay Institute, an undergraduate business school in Brussels, he spends 34 hours a week in class - 11 courses in advanced math, physics, chemistry, economics, business, and leadership. If he fails one, he has to repeat the year.

Not semester, year. He would have to retake every single course. Nicolas's schedule is so grueling he has no time for band or basketball. His life is basically on hold until he graduates.

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Contrast that to the 15 hours I spend in class every week and you understand why he teases me about college in America.

I lived in Belgium my whole life until coming to Maryland for college, and the only thing I ever heard about higher ed is that it was a back-breaking test you had to go through before you were allowed to work. "It's four years of sacrifice," my teachers told me.

In high school, I had 39 class hours a week: Latin, Greek, Calculus, Geography, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Philosophy, English, French, Flemish, History - you name it, I studied it. "L'Universit," I was told, was more of the same, just harder. Well, I never gave myself the chance to find out. When I graduated from high school, I grabbed a plane to Maryland and enrolled at Mount Saint Mary's. During my first year here, I worried that I had taken the easy way out. My paltry five classes a semester seemed so pathetic at first - the reading was easy, the tests were a breeze. Harder is better, I reasoned.

If more than 30 percent of Belgian college students flunk out their first year, it must be a great system, challenging and demanding. I thought I was wasting my precious intellectual ability. Well, I just didn't get it. Education is not just about learning facts, it's also about how you transform that knowledge into real skills. That's what's great about the American liberal-arts system - it transforms the depth and richness of academic study into an understanding of the complexities of everyday life.

A good education respects the textbook while at the same time going beyond it. The liberal-arts system recognizes that knowledge is a complex puzzle whose pieces include books, encyclopedias, newspapers, the Internet, and classroom debate. The student is challenged to put that puzzle together, instead of being force-fed knowledge that has already been assembled.

Nicolas has written four papers in the three years he's been at Solvay. But he has memorized four-dozen textbooks in preparation for strenuous make-or-break exams, each of which covers an entire semester of work. He does fine under the rigorous European system. But I know too many hard-working students whose academic careers have been wrecked by such elitist curriculums.

Take Maxime, whose lifelong goal was to be a phys-ed teacher.

Unfortunately, in Belgium, phys-ed is comparable to med school. Maxime flunked physics, one of 11 courses required for freshmen. He could have repeated his entire year, but his enthusiasm had run dry and his self-confidence was shattered. He quit school to go work for his dad's plumbing business. He tried hard - he just wasn't an intellectual.

I'm not advocating a touchy-feely "less is more" education philosophy. My point is that, ultimately, the best education is one that enables students to build skills they will need in real life.

- John Miller

* John Miller, a junior studying international studies at Mount Saint Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., plans to pursue a career in international journalism.

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