thoughts on education and culture

The start of a new semester (my LAST semester!) has me a little bit grumpy already and making major comparisons between my last year in Germany and my experience here, so I’m sharing a bit on the blog today.

This is what my weekend looks like.

Just a disclaimer, I am no expert, but am writing from my own experience after having spent about 20 years in the American system and 1 year in Germany.

My American Experience

In the past 4 years, I’ve developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the American university experience (that is, primarily after beginning graduate school… undergrad was pretty much all sunshine and rainbows in comparison).

Don’t get me wrong, I have received a really excellent education at Emory, and only because of the great resources there was I even able to go to Germany! I love the topics of the courses I take, the in-class and after-class discussions, hearing lectures from top-rate professors, and the integration of classroom and practical learning that happens in the Master of Divinity degree program here.

There is a certain level of impracticality to the program, too. I think this mostly lies in the fact that there is just too much to learn in theology. Here’s my explanation…

In many cases, when you go to graduate school, you become a specialist in a field. You study for one to two, maybe three years in preparation for a specific career. In this Forbes list of the top 10 best and worst master’s degrees for jobs, most of the top degrees seem to follow this pattern (e.g., physician’s assistant, computer science, nursing, etc.)

In a MDiv program, though, you train to be a generalist. So you learn a little bit about New Testament, Old Testament, Church History, Christian Ethics, Systematic Theology, World Religions, the Sociology and Psychology of Religion, and the practices of ministry – Preaching, Religious Education, Pastoral Care, Church Leadership and Administration, Worship, and Mission. All of this is in addition to some kind of ministry internship requirement. The spectrum is huge! There’s no way you can learn it all in the allotted 3 years!

But we try.

The fact that we try to do ALL of the theological disciplines in a three year period is actually crazy. And this shows in a typical week’s work load. For example, this first week of the semester, I have close to 800 pages of assigned reading and 4 writing assignments.

In a typical survey course here, we receive information in lecture, take copious notes, cram for an exam, forget everything we learned to make space for the next dump of information, take exam… lather, rinse, repeat… When the course is a seminar, we write somewhere between 40-60 pages in a semester. When am I supposed to read those 800 pages, again? And do you want me to understand them?

Here’s where I get to the cultural comparisons…

My German Experience 

Last year in Germany, my typical work load was 20-40 pages of reading per week in each seminar (of which one would normally take 2-3 in a semester). In each course, students are extra-responsible for the material in one or two course sessions, when they present and lead discussion. The method of a typical seminar session is to engage deeply in careful reading and discussion of the text at hand. At the end of the semester, one may write a term paper, and usually has a month or more during the break to research and write.

Don’t get me wrong, Germans are still required to know an enormous amount of information at the end of their studies. They take intense, comprehensive exams, which are typically dreaded by students. But, that means that they are continually held accountable for the information they learn over the course of their whole study, are required to independently integrate and synthesize what they’ve learned and demonstrate their sustained engagement and critical thinking with the material.

The German theological education takes place over a 5-6 year period (they aren’t on the bachelor/master system). The practical part comes after their studies.

It seems to me that we have fundamentally different goals in our educational systems, which is pretty obvious through the pedagogical methods and evaluation mechanisms.

(Another disclaimer: I could critique the German system too. It has its faults! Julius says I’m making it sound too good.)

So why this post? 

This all points to a bigger issue that I’m still coming to terms with…

Work/life balance. I feel like my real life is HAPPENING and my studies are “getting in the way.” In America we have a hard time finding balance between professional life and private life, work and family. We’re performance driven, over-worked people.

I myself strive for the ever-elusive standard of perfection that pulls me into work-excess.

But I have learned that this isn’t the only way.

Being “internationally engaged” has made me more cognizant of this one fact now than ever before… there is more than one way to do things, and “our” way isn’t inherently better.

For those of you reading who have also spent much time abroad, when did you have this realization… that the American way isn’t the only way?

It seems so obvious, but it is something that I realized in a new way while I was abroad. It has made me more reflective and critical, which is good, but also hard.

I’d love to hear feedback from those of you who made it to the end of this post!

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