My name is Griffin Schwab and since my return from studying abroad in Ireland, various people have asked me a litany of questions about the experience. Unsurprisingly, questions about the actual educational experience seem to be placed low on everyone’s list of questioning. Questions such as “oooh how was Paris?” always seem to come before “so what were the classes like?”
Yet one of the most interesting aspects, to me at least, about studying in a different country is seeing how different countries’ educational philosophies seem to influence the form that their education system takes, and vice versa. While I only have experience of the Irish and American systems, a simple comparison between the two reveals a lot about how ambiguous ideas and philosophies governing a given system can strongly influence the physical design and culture of said system. In this case, that system is the institution of the university.
One of the main points of differentiation that I first noticed between Irish and American schooling is this concept of what I’m going to call “education enrichment” (I don’t have a background in educational theory or philosophy, so if I use a term that actually has an academic definition that I contradict, I’m sorry, and please defer back to the academic definition after you’re done reading this post). To me, there seems to be a sense, in the American context, that universities exist not only to instill knowledge within students that will help to advance their careers and/or usefulness to society, but also that having an education allows us to access something deeper as individuals. That is, quite simply, that education allows us to live deeper, more fulfilling lives that we wouldn’t be able to gain access to otherwise. It is therefore important for universities not to simply provide students with the knowledge required to pass tests but also to make sure that the knowledge they receive helps them grow as people. To that end, American universities provide students with countless outlets to express academic work, and equal (if not more) time is given to the discussion of ideas about a text rather than learning the academic reading of it. When I toured colleges in high school, schools frequently touted their student-to-faculty ratio, with the implication that with less people in a class, a faculty member could devote more time to the enrichment of a student (that is, YOUR student, mom and dad).
Being raised in this environment, I really didn’t know that education could be approached from a different perspective. The European system therefore came as a little bit of a shock when I was immersed in this new approach to education at its highest level. In Ireland, the system seems to be much simpler; the school teaches the student the material, the student shows the school that they have learned the material through some sort of examination or paper, and the school awards a grade (and later a degree) based on the quality of examination. In this system, there is no concern for enrichment, only assurance that the material as been learned. It’s interesting to see how this difference in philosophy manifests itself in the physical and cultural reality of the school. Lessons are almost entirely conducted through lectures, and the student-professor relationship is entirely nonexistent. In fact, my program leader, who grew up in the Irish education system, was shocked to learn of the friendly relationships students often have with professors. Discussions in class are less designed to ‘explore’ topics and more created to make sure everyone is on the same page on the material. My exams also reflected this philosophy; the final exam often counted as 100% of the final grade for most of my classes, and my English examinations only asked me to write an essay on any two of the books read in class, despite having read well over ten throughout the semester. If the American system is defined by enrichment, the Irish system is above all about efficiency.
This is not so say that one system is better than the other; while the Irish education system is consistently ranked amongst the best in the world, top universities in America tend to have greater funding than top universities in Ireland. Either way, as Curb Scholars, or even more generally creative individuals, it is helpful to look at how underlying philosophy helps to shape and form the institutions that we interact with everyday. Knowing why certain spaces are constructed in the way that they are can clue us in to find creative solutions to improve said spaces for everyone who uses them.