Monday, September 10, 2018

Education across cultures

Last year in Bologna, I had the privilege of easy access to the world's oldest University. Since then I have had several people go: "there must have been something in.... (insert ancient culture here)", but it's easy to counter by pointing out that the University in Bologna is still up and running.

What that does not tell us though, is that no, the University as we know it was not established in 1088. Rather, what we saw at that time, was that some people who were already exploring grammar, rhetoric and logic were broadening their field, actively meeting for discourse, and teaching others. From this, and from other, only sightly newer institutions in England, what we understand as the western university grew.

But it wasn't that simple. Norway, for instance, didn't get a university until 1811, when what was at the time Det Kongelige Frederik's Universitet was established in Oslo, then Christiania (Frederik and Christian were the two most popular names of Danish kings.)

The establishment of this university, along with the liberation of Norway from Denmark and the subsequent creation of a Norwegian constitution, led to a movement of Norwegianness which meant the development of a Norwegian language. The life of students was carefully recorded, by Knut Hamsun in his novel "Sult" or "Hunger", and by Arne Garborg in "Bondestudentar" or "Peasant students". Very different in language, tone, plot and aim, they still both describe a transition - a movement from a society where it was not common to be educated into a society where studying was not only a possibility, but also a goal.

Today we are seeing another group of students who have to leave their culture, their past, their familiar structures and their families behind in order to gain a coveted education. Like the student in Hamsun's Hunger, they struggle against their own abilities, intellect, imagination and desires, and like the peasants turned students in Garborg, they struggle against their own betrayal of their past, and their inability to smoothly integrate into the culture at the university. What we are seeing is whole nations - gigantic nations - attempting to make the class journey that the peasant students did when moving from the countryside to the city. And they try to do it by going abroad.

Where Garborg's students needed to learn Danish and let go of their Norwegian, two languages still related and fairly close, today's class-traveling students change language, culture, national institutional structures, what almost become entire worlds. They leave everything familiar behind, and fight to survive in a tight, stream-lined and carefully bureaucratic educational system. The question isn't why they fail. The real question is how do they manage at all?

The peasant students in Norway eventually changed the educational system. They created a new language, so they would not have to study in a language which was not their own. They established more universities, and eventually district colleges, so their sons and daughters didn't have to travel that far to get education. They made it all free for all who wanted education, and they made lower level education mandatory. This educational system had very little in common with what was created in Bologna in 1088. The only thing, actually, would be the desire to learn and to teach. All the rest was built upon a mixture of learning structures and cultures, on the hopes and dreams of local scholars, and on politics and nation building.

This is what has to happen (and hopefully is happening in several places) in Asia, the Middle East, Africa. The desire to learn and to teach needs to find local, sustainable outlets. Teaching thousands and thousands of foreign students in Australia, USA and Europa is not a bad thing at an individual level. For one strong, resourceful student, a period of learning abroad can be a wonderful, formative experience. But as a system for the development of a nation it will - should - fail. Nations need their intellectuals at home, working, solving problems and educating new intellectuals to meet the specific problems of the future. Buying that education from expensive, western Universities only helps so far.

As for the students who come so very far only to fail... Arne Garborg gets it.

Han lagde dusken bak; lagde dusken fram; lagde dusken midt på aksli; nei. Det vart ikkje den rette svingen. Og frakken, - frakken sat, som alle frakkane hans hadde siti. Han såg ikkje ut som student. Han var ikkje student. Han var ein forklædd bonde.

"He flipped the tassel to the back; to the front; left it right on his shoulder; no. It did not get the right turn. And the coat, - the coat fit, like all his coats had fit. He didn't look like a student. He wasn't a student. He was a peasant in disguise."

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