October 11, 2012
Only an American abroad, experiencing a different culture and way of life, can fully appreciate the benefits of being a citizen of the United States. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, distance makes one’s judgment clearer. While there are advantages to residing in a nation like the United Kingdom – the history, the art, the variety of people, and the chance to travel and explore more of the world, for example – there are also significant drawbacks to my adopted home. Every country has its flaws, but to a student, the condition of the university system is an aspect which comes under the most scrutiny. A year in a British university, along with hours of discussion with British students about their
experiences, after two years in an American university, has opened my eyes to the character of the two systems and to the national values at work behind them.
There are a number of disadvantages to the British university system that have given me good cause to be grateful for the education I am in the process of receiving from Ashland. The first great criticism I have is the lack of class time for undergraduate students. Lectures and seminars are shaped more along the lines of a graduate school model in the United Kingdom; students meet for two hours once a week for a course, and are therefore expected to do large chunks of reading, research, reflection, and writing on their own with little guidance. This additional responsibility placed upon students is not necessarily a bad thing, but there is something vitally important missed out on when there are so few hours spent in the classroom. While having my own time to manage as I see fit has been beneficial this year for me as I travel and explore London, I have felt the effects of depriving students of time with their professors and their peers. The British universities may have talented and knowledgeable faculty: the problem is that undergrad students hardly see their professors unless they track them down during the two or three office hours offered during the week. It is much more difficult to form a relationship with the faculty and with your classmates when you only gather one day out of every seven. Though American classes tend to meet just one hour longer per week in total, multiple class meetings during the week alters the student-teacher interaction immensely. There are more opportunities to ask questions in person, to get clarification on points made during discussion, and to simply chat. There is a greater sense of equality and camaraderie in the classroom when you are able to become comfortable with the people around you: you see and speak to each other on good days and bad, you embark on a journey that is a persistent part of your life for weeks, and everyone becomes at least familiar with each other. The honesty and genuine inquisitiveness that emerges benefits everyone involved.
This openness produced by frequent contact in the classroom is somehow a very American characteristic. Students in the United Kingdom have remarked to me that American exchange students tend to break down the barriers, the coldness, that separates those that are teaching from those that are taught. We ask more questions, make jokes, and speak up without fear of being out of line. Yet it has been a greater challenge for me to do these things when I feel surrounded by strangers. Instead of peers I have gotten to know fairly well from discussing life and lessons together every couple of days, I am barely able to learn everyone’s name. It’s quite sad to feel so disconnected. I more fully comprehend the blessing of the Ashbrook Scholar Program family, where the professors know you almost too well and it is a challenge to get a word in over your peers in class.
This lack of relationships in the British universities is something to be lamented, but it is the lack of choice that students have that needs to be changed as soon as possible. The liberal education we are offered in the States at universities like Ashland does not exist here. As early as the age of 16, British students are required to limit themselves to a handful of subjects that they will take their A-level exams in. The results of those exams determine not only what university they can attend, but also what degree they pursue. Students apply to only a few schools, are interviewed by the departments they hope to join, and wait to be offered a spot. Once in university, they study only one subject (two if their subjects are related) and have no opportunity to take a course outside of their degree unless they are capable of paying extra and devoting additional time to it. There is no core curriculum outside of your major in Britain: if you are brought into the School of Political Science, you take three years of strictly Political Science courses. There is very little wiggle room for a broad education here. There is no ‘undecided’ option for students entering university, no opportunity to discover your true interests as you develop into an adult. Changing your mind means starting your degree completely over. A course is chartered for the students here, one that aims to release them into the world with a specialized knowledge instead of well-roundedness. Though a mature student can appreciate the concentration of the classes offered, I cannot help but cringe at the limitations for students on a full three-year program here. So many of the first-year students I have met feel trapped and unhappy in their degrees. Before this year, I took for granted the amazing choices we have as students in the States. We can be unsure about ourselves and our future, and still be offered great possibilities. For the most part, our own determination – not our exam scores – hold more sway over where we go to university, what we study, and what we make of our time as undergraduates.
The differences between the British and American universities reveal a lasting divergence in the understanding of liberty in their respective countries. While going to university is acknowledged as a right of citizens in both nations, the pursuit of an education comes with conditions in the United Kingdom. Unlike the American approach, students here go away to school to study biology or history or medicine and then get a job in biology or history or medicine. In the United States, students serious about their studies go to university to become the most capable, mature human beings they can be while pursuing subjects that excite their interests and open doors for the future. We are trusted with making our own decisions; we are not locked into a specific degree based off exam results that we received when we were teenagers. The universities in the States allow us to spread our wings, to make mistakes and learn from them, because there is a belief inherent in our national character that we can reach for our dreams, whatever they may be. Even as a third-year student who has settled on her majors, I feel like I’m still encouraged by the professors I have developed friendships with to try different things, to find my passion, to be fearless and open to opportunities. I mourn for the friends I have in the United Kingdom who are not offered the chance to explore all the possibilities. It is said that America is the land of opportunity: my time abroad has taught me that, at least in regards to higher education, it still is.
Lindsey Grudnicki is a junior from Westland, Michigan, majoring in History and English.