The first semester is officially over but now that I think about it, I don’t really know if I have learned anything entirely new. I am not so sure about whether there has ever been a moment when I said to myself: “Wow, there is no way I would have known this or that about the German government system or the Cold War or research methodology. had I not been in university.”
I have noticed that there is a bit of talk about how education in high school is not real education but just a waste of time and that university is the real thing while school is just something you have to drag yourself through.
I agree that university is a much greater chapter in one’s life but what is the meaning of education in this context? Is it really education by the books that makes the difference between high school and university?
I have been thinking about this and although I have no idea how university works outside of Germany, (therefore, consider this post just my way of thinking out loud) I have noticed that this isn’t so much about academic education and textbooks as it is about what YOU make of your time there.
In Germany, I am rarely obligated to attend classes because there is no attendance list or anything as such (except for seminars). If I do go to a lecture, the information I receive is not necessarily the latest scientific breakthrough. University here is supposed to be designed in such a way that students can obtain the knowledge they need by themselves if they can’t make it to class. Because there is so much independence involved, university classes strike me as rather dry and impersonal compared to what I had in high school.
So really, if we are talking about plain academic knowledge here, I could have learned everything I have learned so far completely on my own, even if I were still in high school. The textbooks used in German universities are not some rare copies. They can be found pretty much anywhere from the public libraries, to regular bookshops and ebay and often they cost as much as the newest bestselling novel. Most of the time professors base the content of their lectures on these books because guess what…they took part in bringing them out there.
What does make university a special place for me, are the opportunities and options it opens up. Here is to what I think about when I think about education:
For me, this semester has been all about taking the classes I am actually interested in. It has been about designing my day the way I wanted it to go. About strengthening my self- discipline because no one would check whether I had done my reading. It was all up to me now and university taught me how to deal with that sort of responsibility.
It has been about freedom. In high school you sometimes have teachers who maybe don’t know how to teach or maybe teach something that you think is not worth listening to. The exact same thing exists in university, too. The difference is however, that in university I have the freedom to get up and leave if I think the lecture is not helping me learn. Professors themselves encourage students to try alternative ways to obtain the information they need to pass the class if they don’t like the lecture. As my professor said at the very beginning: “Attending every single lecture won’t make you a top student, so don’t force yourself if you don’t want to.”
It has been about trying new things. We have a great sports department here where all students can sign up for things like Latin American dance, fencing, yoga, gliding, horse riding, skiing, belly dance, karate…you name it. While I have been rather shy in my teens, in university I have the chance to discover new interests (for a much lower price, too, since students get discounts). Furthermore, once you are approaching your post graduate studies , you can have the chance to teach a class. When I first got to the Free University, I was encouraged to take a class given by fellow students, most of whom I believe must have started their Masters degrees this semester.
It has been about learning new languages. Where else can you learn French or Arabic for free or even find a tandem partner plus all the resources you need?
It has been about exchanging ideas and expanding horizons. There is always a workshop coming up that students are encouraged to attend and that are not limited to those who are part of a specific faculty. You can visit lectures and workshops on how to write résumés in different languages, on the history of written communication, on alternative interpretations of the teachings of religions, on the psychology of certain (political) movements and so on and so forth.
It has been about using time wisely. University vacations are longer than regular school vacations. That put together with the absence of a mandatory class attendance, this may be the best time for travel before you get stuck with a 9-5 job and a family that will take most of your time.
It has been about meeting people from all over the world. The bigger the university, the more international students there are likely to be, especially since universities tend to be more popular among exchange students than high schools. I also liked the opportunity to meet people who are older than myself (I have always been the oldest student during high school so that is quite a new experience for me).
University is not so much about education by the books. There are good and bad teachers, good and bad curriculums in high schools and universities alike. Higher education should be about completing yourself. Discovering your new sides and interests, triggering your intellectual growth, opening your mind, making yourself bigger and better than you were before, making friends for life.