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Home / Library / Methodical information /

Knowledge is no target, but the path



Anna Olshevskaya

Today, many Russian students are out to study abroad, particularly in Germany. At the same time, according to Mrs. Anna Olshevskaya, the member of the Lotman-Institute for Russian Culture of Ruhr-University ( Bochum ), the educational systems of the two countries are so different between each other that it will never occur to a person being familiar only with one of them to ask many important questions with regard to another system. These differences are most strikingly manifested in humanities. Anna experienced all that herself. In early 1990's, being the last-year student of the Foreign Languages Department of Kiev University, she moved to Germany with her family, intending to finish her education here. However, she had to study anew.

Making a Fresh Start?

Neither German university will admit the graduate from Russian secondary school, since such graduate completed a 11-year program instead of 13-year program, as required in Germany. In order to somehow equalize my secondary education with the training level required to obtain the German "Abitur" (the document, which entitles to continue education in the university), the lacking two years were deducted from my five-year evening course being equal to five-year full-time course. Meanwhile, Spaniards and Italians whom I knew and whose secondary and higher educational systems are similar to our system never faced such problems, since Spain and Germany are the parties to respective agreements for mutual recognition of education certificates. Apparently, no such treaty was signed by and between Germany and Russia. In my case, it turned out that only two courses (out of the whole cycle of my education in the USSR ) were recognized in Ruhr-University - two introductory courses: the fundamentals of literary studies and linguistics.

Besides, traditional German education under the Master of Arts (Magister Artium) provides for a concurrent study of three human disciplines: one major and two additional. Hence, I had to begin mastering other two disciplines, of which I had not a slightest idea before.

I should say that German Master of Arts does differ radically from the US counterpart, who studied under the US multi-tier system. Being a party to the Bologna Process, Germany is now introducing such system as well. However the concept of Master of Arts existing since the early 19 th century remains a very significant feature characterizing the educational system of Germany.

Formal Differences

To begin with: there are essential differences between Universities and Institutes in Germany. The University gives education, while the Institute gives profession. While the university education is theoretical, the Institute education is much more application-oriented. The universities train the thinking, while the Institutes train proper application of what was invented by others. The Institute course is 4-5 years maximum, while university education may last for an indefinitely long time.

Do you remember the old movie with actress Ranevskaya reading her awful script to the publisher, who later murdered her but was exonerated? So well, when enumerating the characters she cited: "Valentin, student, 40 years". Such students are frequent occurrences in Germany.

Having begun studying some linguistic discipline or, say, history, at first you will see the things through rose-colored glasses. You choose all the lectures, workshops, discussion groups etc. yourself. Twenty academic hours are considered the optimal load. If you want - you may show up late or leave early, you may miss at all or come with unprepared homework. You may drink during the lecture or go out without asking for permission. You may even eat, though this is not that popular. However, if someone has his/her cell phone ringing, the much-delighted tolerance will come to an end, and the guilty one will be booed both by the lecturer and by the students.

Freedom ! There are no classes in the history of language, theoretical grammar or stylistics, no foreign literature lectures - the way we used to. There are elementary and advanced workshops in separate aspects of linguistics, literary science, country studies etc. Workshop subjects are narrow, getting even narrower toward the end of the study program. You choose where to go studying.

There exists an established list of courses, workshops, test papers and term papers, which should be submitted during the study in the university, but no deadlines are established for completion and submission of all that. So it follows that students sometimes study for 10-15 years, if not longer, in Germany.

There are no examination sessions as such. If for the given semester you have chosen some workshop to prepare your term paper based thereon - this will be your examination. Failing to prepare your term paper, the next semester you may register for a new workshop and prepare the term paper to another subject - and you may repeat the cycle endlessly. You may submit your paper (!) even some years after the workshop - but of course, you'll have to agree on this with the professor. More exactly, if he or she will be able to remember you two or three years after and agree to work with you again.

... and Essential Differences

As regards precise sciences, due to their high level of secondary-school training, which is traditionally focused on exact sciences, Russian students studying in Germany have no significant problems and easily adapt to the new environment. Language is the major problem for hem, but solution won't take long - a couple of months, a year maximum.

Humanists perform much worse however. It is my string belief that teaching of humanities had been sabotaged by the stage from the very beginning. This is very dangerous to teach the thinking when the thinking is restricted to what is allowed. Meanwhile, an in-depth study of cultural or historical processes in other countries will inevitably prompt a student to speculations of the same processes taking place in the native country. And if a student has a good knowledge of foreign languages, it may occur that, God forbid, such student may actually talk to foreigners and find out how the things are going on "there". Maybe that is why so many dissidents emerged from the "physicists", whose brains weren't so much loaded with ideology. I know from my own bitter experience, how hard it is to get free from propaganda chains for those people, into whose heads the same things were hammered all through their childhood and adolescence. I hope that changes to the better are taking place in Russia now. However, it is impossible to alter the long-lived approach to study of disciplines immediately.

Individual Work

When talking to German students, I found out quite surprisingly that only a few of them have read "Die Buddenbrocks" and virtually no one appeared to know Hoffmann's full name ( Ernst Theodor Amadeus ). This notwithstanding, after the first, the second, the third semester have passed, you find that, despite your deep knowledge and diligent studying of lecture notes, your test papers fail and term papers are not credited. For some reason, others appear to know more end more, unlike you.

The introductory lecture, say, in literature is a free assistance to the students in getting the elementary orientation in the space of literature, in getting an insight into the existing theoretical literature studies, or how the literary writings were influenced by the historical environment of the time of writing. Nobody will go into details of the plot here. But the problem is that, when it comes to the final examination, they will ask of everything except for one thing: "Whether we came through this at our classes?" In Germany , the meaning of "come through" term seems to be lost. The Student must "come through" everything required him/herself, governed by the tutor's recommendations and instructions.

The student also does independently choose the subjects he/she will prepare for examinations. There is nothing as simple as this, it would seem. Nothing of the kind ! The student should restrict the subject oneself, otherwise he/she will have to answer all the stuff, and in view of the immense volume of theoretical literature, this is just an impossible mission. The student will independently determine what he/she is going to read in the subject he/she has chosen. The student will independently choose - and that is the most dreadful thing - what he/she is NOT going to read. And if it seems at first that no one ever said anything on the issue prior to you - later, having dug the records, you will get the "life-long" list. It often occurs that a student is much more informed of his subject than the professor, this being no surprise to anyone (and no proof of incompetence of the latter, either).

Above all you have to demonstrate is your capability of independent scientific efforts. For this purpose, first of all, you have to familiarize yourself with theory independently, secondly, to show your aspiration to learn the new and your keen interest in the subject, which is manifested through your choice of unborrowed, brand new subjects. Of course, you may ask your professor to verbalize the subject and give the list of references. However the students following such easy way should forget of excellent grades.

In my case, I began writing my graduation paper from the ground up. I found some 120 books containing the information on the author and the play chosen by me. From this vast variety I had to choose a number of major works to reflect more or less entire spectrum of theoretical research on the given subject. I have chosen nine of them. Upon submission of my graduation paper - precisely so, rather than "upon the defense" - my professor said I completely omitted one major author.

Graduation papers are never defended her: it is considered that professor will only have to read the paper to evaluate the author's academic training, his/her ability to practise theoretical knowledge, to analyze and to reason.

Another essential difference between Russian and German educational systems in the sphere of humanities is also qualitative in its nature. In Russia , the emphasis is put (at least it was put formerly) on the quantity of information acquired by the student. University examiner may ask, say, what Natasha Rostova was wearing at her first ball (correct answer - a plain white dress with a red flower). While the primary purpose of German liberal education is teaching the independent work, scientific approach and critical analysis of scientific matters. This tradition goes back to Wilhelm Humboldt and is considered the distinctive feature and pride of German higher education.

No Monopoly to Interpretation

Former Soviet system was characterized by monopoly to interpretation. Popular were such concepts as "true" and "false".

In Germany , the introductory lecture to literary science began with studying the article "What is literature?" Through some 40-50 pages of German text (note that German scientific text is a subject for a separate discussion, even native speakers admit the awful complexity thereof) the author produced numerous versions of the definition to the "literature" concept, without fixing on any of them in the end. For me, who was taught by Soviet higher education to construct answers to any questions using the "literature is…" template, the lecturer seemed to be crazy. This story continued throughout the semester. The final answer was never found though.

Then another question emerged: is it that necessary to give one precise definition to the concept and to exclude all others? May different approaches to the subject also make sense? In fact, the very concept of "literature" underwent changes in course of time, and the emergence of new definitions does not mean the incorrectness of all previous ones. German liberal education does have no "correct - incorrect" dilemma. There may be " science - based - unscientific " or " substantiated - unfounded ". I believe it is not so bad for a person grown in the stagnation epoch and very well familiar with "who is not with us is against us" principle to get acquainted with the new principle "we have it our way and you have it your way, we have our own merits and you have your own virtues, we should not cross out each other because we add to each other". Of course one may make mistakes when following the principle. But the very fact of experiencing mistakes is one of important aspects of Humboldt education.

Another interesting fact: one should not perfectly know the precise dates of birth, spellings etc. (of course this does not apply to the matters of common knowledge). It is more important to know what creative stage the author underwent at the time of writing, what was the historical environment at the time and how could it influence the author; what were the events taking place in other countries at that moment, in other countries' literature and politics: could these events have some influence on the author? One should be knowledgeable of the events and cultural epochs preceding and following the period under consideration. However, being able to produce the above-mentioned information, you will know the dates just automatically. Even if you omitted two or three years - does that really make difference?

Comfort

I don't want to seem being a fervent champion of Humboldt educational system alone. Unfortunately, what I said of "Die Buddenbrocks" is true more often than just in few cases. Sometimes German students lack elementary knowledge of some points while being well educated in other points. Students from Russia and former USSR Republics do really shine here with their erudition and extensive knowledge, at the same time facing the above-mentioned problems.

Besides, my experience of "Soviet" education might have gone out of date, and there is no Party's Guideline in Russia any more.

My vision of the future shows a certain combination of both systems. The early stages of education provide for information gathering, with information processing and independent research at more advanced stages.

This is not the purpose of the German university to provide students with maximum possible number of opinions and interpretations, as against the Communist monopoly to the truth. Above all stands the awareness of the vast number of such interpretations and impossibility to apply the "correct" and "incorrect" criteria thereto.

Knowledge is no target, but the path, and the only thing one can know for sure is that the path has no end.

And trying to compare between German and Russian systems of liberal education for the purpose to find which one is better is as good as trying to choose between Euclidean and Lobachevsky's geometries.


Source: A. Olshevskaya Knowledge is no Target, but the Path // Poisk (Search). - 2003. - January 25. - See also in the web: "Poisk" newspaper official site - http:// poisknews.ru.


Notes and reformatting by:
Е.V. Shevchenko,
Head of the International Education Management Department,
Institute of International Educational Programmes,
St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University


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