Culture and education

by Terence MacNamee

These days we hear a lot about ranking schools and educational achievement. In the European Union, there is frequent comparison of educational standards and outcomes in different countries. This is supposedly in the interests of international mobility. It seems to stand to reason, doesn’t it? If all educational systems at every level were the same, students could easily move around from country to country, enriching their perspectives, and barriers would fall.

Most of the time, however, it’s comparing apples and oranges. Different countries have different educational traditions. Why? Because education is a part of culture. It does not just convey information or a set of skills. It also inculcates the values and beliefs of society. The school years are society’s best chance to get at young minds and mould them into good future citizens.

The European system, first developed in the Middle Ages, was based on a knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics. Two centuries ago, this began to be replaced by national classics in the national language. In fact, education has become more national since universal education was introduced in Western countries. One of the purposes of the educational system was to instill national pride and devotion in the pupils.

The national educational systems diverged considerably due to these cultural factors. The philosophy of education behind the German Gymnasium, the French lycée and the English public schools is very different. University traditions are very different too. The Sorbonne is not Oxford or Cambridge, nor is it like the German universities inspired by the humanistic philosophy of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

One of the things most talked about when comparing educational systems of different countries is attendance at university as a measure of something. In the English-speaking world, a very high percentage of young people now go on to university. Whether they get jobs afterwards is another question. Whether anybody in the establishment cares if they do or not is another question again. In some other countries, like here in Switzerland, the number going to university is much less. Does that mean that Swiss youth are stupider, or that the system here blights the chances for social mobility of the less well-off? Not at all. It just means that the Swiss prefer to meet the needs of their industries by putting young people into apprenticeships and vocational college programmes. Youth unemployment is correspondingly low.

Anyway, what we call “the University” is not so much a hallowed institution as a moving target. Since the late 20th century, the university has been extending its reach to include all kinds of stuff it never taught before. And there are more and more universities – just about every local college in the English-speaking world now demands the right to grant degrees.

There is no reason why the university system in the English-speaking world should be taken as the perfect model for the education of the world tomorrow. Something else might be called for. Something that might reflect other cultures and civilizations, with their untapped treasury of values and aspirations.