Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Romanian Higher Education and President Hutchins

Final Exam Day

My first-ever American Studies course will end today with a final essay examination. All but four registered students have made at least one appearance in class during the term, and I have been receiving e-mails from others who are desperately seeking the readings (distributed earlier) for their last-minute cramming. If any students happen to read this post before the exam at 4:00 PM this afternoon, I want to remind them that the final exam is worth 70% of their grade, so they are not in the running for a grade above 7 in the course unless they have been participating. However, a thoughtful, well-written pair of essays on the exam could net them a 10 on the exam, and a course grade of 7, even though they have never attended the lectures or the seminars.

Ramblings on Romanian Higher Education and President Hutchins

When I was but a lad, my late mother Carol Brueggeman McDougall, AB, University of Chicago, 1935, told me about her University's president Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins was a rebel among American educators of his time. (See link.) In pursuit of less "practicality" and more pure intellectualism, under his leadership the U. of C. adopted what my mother called "the European model" of higher education. In her time, attendance at classes or lectures was purely optional, and only the final examinations were graded. Students were expected to act like interested learners, self-motivated to read and to think on their readings, then to expound intelligently at the term's end.

Faithful readers will recall that during the fall semester, I withheld judgment on the Romanian system of higher education, which closely resembles that which my mother experienced in the early Nineteen Thirties in Chicago. Today, I see merit in it, especially for those whose pre-college education has been comprehensive and demanding.

I find my students at UBB generally far better-prepared for college than most at PSU. They even write English more competently than most of my American students. And here in Romania, one can use analogies to classical literature, ancient history, or the Bible with positive response from the students, rather than blank stares. I find this fact delightful in my Romanian classes, but sad for my country, for it bespeaks the waning of American competitiveness in an increasiingly English-speaking global economy. And sad, also, because it bespeaks the collapse of high expectations and of academic standards in the public school systems of New Hampshire, if not of America.

I now conclude that the Romanian system of higher education can work very well. I have met too many Romanian intellectuals for whom I have high regard to believe otherwise. And I have enormous respect for my well-read, well-spoken late mother, a product of such a system.

My chief remaining doubt is about fairness. Is it fair that the absent students are granted the same diploma and academic rank as the diligent students? In Romania, one can work full time, earn three years of business experience, cram and squeek through exams, and get a college degree. Or, one can do one's assignments, read a lot, think a lot, broaden one's world view, deepen one's intellect, and graduate three years behind in the business or professional world, with the same degree. Is that fair? Certainly, that question tests Hutchins' view of the real purpose of a bachelor's degree program. One would hope that the serious students will enjoy life more fully.

Continuing my ramble, I now applaud the legendary one-room schoolhouse, in which one educated woman (almost exclusively, in those times) often taught eight grades of primary and grammar school to the American youth of yesteryear, aided in the lower grades by the best of the upper-grade students. With the respect and backing of parents, these teachers gave, and gave, and gave of themselves, and helped America raise generations of literate, hard-working, thoughtful, and yes, morally conscious men and women with a solid grounding in the writings of the seminal thinkers of Western Civilization. Abe Lincoln may have had exceptional talents, but he was no fluke.

In that academic tradition were the Wilmette Public Schools in my childhood home town in Illinois. Our schools were large, our classes 30 to 35 strong, but our teachers were strict, and in control. They delivered. And I do not remember ever having a teacher's aide in a classroom. Of course, if we got into trouble in school, our parents backed our teachers. There was a cultural norm at work: elementary education was important. I do recall that after World War II, when we moved from the East Coast back to the Chicago area, my mother chose Wilmette because she had three sons (later, four), and Wilmette was known for its fine schools. So, perhaps I am again indebted to my mother's caring judgment.

What about high school? Does anyone in America read Homer in public high school anymore? Plato? Caesar? Cicero? Hell, does anyone in a New Hampshire high school have an opportunity to study Latin? Most of my Romanian students read and speak three or more languages. In learning other languages, they have come to understand grammar. My mother and father taught me to speak grammatical English, but high school Latin taught me grammar.

I may be sounding today like a frightful snob to some of my American readers, but I suspect that the American K-12 public school system has at least as much to learn from the Romanian school system as the Romanian system of higher education has to learn from its American counterpart.


SKM said...

Excellent post. From my experiences in RO and the US, you are correct regarding pre-college educational standards in both countries.
I graduated from high school (in the US) in 1969. We were expected to learn English grammar, at least one foreign language, math, history, world literature, and other basic tools. Our teachers & our parents demanded that we were prepared for college &/or life.
I did not see those standards or expectations from the public educational system when my children attended school thirty years later.

Liz Spangler said...

I just stumbled across your blog today while looking for a romanian train schedule. I am an American living in Iasi helping with an english-speaking church for international students. It's funny because just today I wrote an entry about the education system in Iasi, though most of what I see is the international medical school, mostly made-up of students from africa and malaysia. As I'm sure you know from living in Cluj, brown and black people aren't so common in romania! I also teach English one day a week at a private high school, so I'd be interested to know how our views are similar/different.

I looked at some of your recent posts and some from your first month in Romania, and it's just great to read about another American's time in Romania. Funny how I can picture many of the places you've been/are from, as I recently visited Cluj, and I have a dear friend who grew up in Glenview, IL and went to Loyola. I grew up in PA and most recently lived in NYC, but I am quite fond of Boston and often think I could live there for at time. Tis a shame I found your blog just as you're leaving the country, but I will surely read more of it when I have some free time. Maybe we'll find similar musings on one another's blogs.


Duncan McDougall said...

Hello Liz! Congratulations on getting posted to Iasi! It is a very pretty city, nearby to Bucovina, one of the most interesting and traditional sections of this fascinating land. I, too, am sorry that we learned so late of one-another's presence in Ro. So, feel free to let me know when you can visit New Hampshire, and we'll reminisce together over coffee in the White Mountains. See you soon on your blog!