Broken Daughters

Picking up the shattered glass of fundamentalism

Public education culture


It’s funny how different school experiences can be. As I’m a movie lover, I watch pretty much every movie I can get my hands on. Most movies we watch over here are American movies (though there are plenty of great European movies as well). Sometimes, these movies show “high school life” and “college life” in the US.

The funny thing is: Everything I believe to know about American schools is from movies. Like, that there are different groups: The drama club and the footballers and the cheerleaders. And then, everybody eats in a cafeteria, but who sits with whom is a big deal. And students wear specific clothing that outs them as a member of a specific group. This is also true for college, but there’s more: Some people are there because they are good footballers (what?!). Also, you have to take a lot of classes that have nothing to do with your major. People live in dorms and throw parties every other day.

Sounds grotesque? Well, that’s actually what I believe. Sometimes I wonder if it’s true because my school experience in Europe has been vastly different.

First off, there weren’t any “groups”. You generally were a group with the people in your year. You hang out with different people and it’s rare that someone is labelled in a specific way (except extreme nerds – but they’re generally still accepted). You have a group of friends, obviously, but these people aren’t necessarily your friends because you share extracurricular activities with them. In fact, there are next to none extracurricular activities. School is school, and free time is your own business. Of course we still have clubs over here, like a football club or something, but they are independent of the school you’re attending, so you might not meet a single person in your football group who also goes to your school.

Cafeterias are also different because schools here generally don’t have cafeterias. Schools out at 1 PM so nobody really needs lunch. The entire cafeteria deal is literally non-existent. This may change (or may have already changed) for some school forms but not for the one I attended. After school, you go home, eat lunch, do your homework, and then meet friends or go to your private clubs. It appears that school has a much more central spot in American teen’s lives because it takes up so much time of the day.

Overall, I had a very positive school experience. It wasn’t that peer-pressure thing homeschooling circles make it out to be. Actually, school here is much less central, and therefore much less influential in how teens design their lives and activities. Not that schools are bad here – remember that we actually go to school one year longer here than kids in the US (that is, 13 years instead of 12). Either way, all in all I can say that I’m happy I attended a public school once in my life. It was a great experience and thoroughly changed my views of public school education. School is always what you make out of it.

Likewise,  university is not what I thought it would be. I think this is something many people experience, but still. For one, there’s again the lack of extracurricular activities. Universities offer education, not hobbies. People are very particular when it comes to separating this. I think this may be because the German mindset is generally one of “keeping work and privacy separate”. I don’t think this is intrinsically bad, it’s just different from the US where it appears that privacy and public life (education-wise) are mixed a lot more. Either way, university is strictly about education and not much beyond that.

I read that some colleges or universities in the US require students to live on-campus for some time. There’s nothing like that here. I think people would be angry if they had to move due to university rules (again, job and privacy). Where you live, what you do, is your business – or your problem. This, of course, may be the reason why there are very few “college type parties”. I mean, I think if you live in a dorm it’s easier to throw a big party because you’re all in the clean-up together. When students live in their own apartments, they are often hesitant about inviting lots of people because they know they will have to clean up the mess themselves. It’s not that there aren’t any parties, but I’ve never seen an “American-sized” college party like in the movies. Or maybe they just really don’t exist in the US.

I think, on a more general level, life and culture differs vastly. I sometimes wish I could go to an American University for a semester to see what it’s really like. But then again, that’s not a financial option because I couldn’t afford tuition fees. I guess I will have to rely on movies and on the few lucky friends I have who get stipends for being super-smart (I don’t mean to sound jealous, by the way, these people work very hard for what they get!).

My personal University experience, again, is a very positive one. Cultural differences aside, I doubt that the home school circles really tell the truth about whatever they say about public education. It might not be for everyone, sure, but it’s certainly not a bad choice for most.


20 thoughts on “Public education culture

  1. Hi! I have never commented on your blog before (I think) though I always read it. I wanted to comment on this because I grew up in Canada, which I think is probably almost exactly the same in culture compared to the USA, and I now live in Germany (but never went to school in Germany).

    In my high school, there weren’t these “groups” either. We were small though, 500 people for 5 grades, so maybe it just wasn’t big enough for that. There were lots of extracurriculars like all the different sports teams, chess club, yearbook committe, cheerleaders, band, etc. People had groups of friends, and sure the nerdy people (for example) tended to group together because they had common interests, but it wasn’t at all like in the movies where everyone’s super-snobby and you HAVE to stay with your one and only group. I did mostly sit with the same people for lunch every day, but it was a sort of changeable group where it wasn’t exactly the same people every day. We usually sat in the same area every day out of habit I guess, but not specifically at the same table. It was much more casual and less stress that what’s shown in those movies. I also wonder if US schools are really like that, or if maybe big schools are like that, or if it’s all just made up.

    In university what courses we took depended on our major. My major was in the sciences and they wanted us well-rounded (I guess), so we had to take at least 10 classes that weren’t science-related, but it didn’t matter what. A friend of mine was in engineering and they also had to take non-engineering courses, but they had to pick from a specific list of stuff like economics, English, etc. (I guess stuff that would actually be useful in their career). But there were LOTS of opportunities for hobbies. If you can think of something, there was a club for it. There were varsity sports, then there were clubs for all the sports but less competitive, and there were clubs for various religions and various interests like drama or music or whatever else (I specifically remember that there was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer watchers” club!) There were also teams who took part in various international or national competitions that weren’t sports related, e.g. programming competitions or robotics competitions or whatever. (I.e. related to what they were studying.)

    One thing re: the footballers, is that in the USA, you can go to university on an athletic scholarship. So if you’re good enough to make the varsity team, you can go to school for free or at least reduced. They have scouts that go around to the high school championships to find athletes. We don’t have that in Canada, but a lot of my friends went to the US on sports scholarships. That means most of our sports talent was in the USA for university, so our teams tended to be not as good. I was on a varsity sports team at my Canadian university but I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship in USA. I was also in a couple of clubs, e.g. “women in sciences” and a christian religious one (was religious at the time, though never fundy) and I was in the university choir.

    Here in Germany I have a bunch of friends studying at the local university. I have heard about a few “hobby” type things, like there are sports classes open to the students and there’s a university running group and a band and a choir… I have no idea if they have anything besides sports and music though. (Germany has a very strong choir culture, have you noticed? I can’t believe how many choirs there are!)

    Glad you’re enjoying your university experience 🙂

    • Oh yes the choirs! I forgot to mention! My high school had one and my university does as well. It’s true, choirs are super popular even for people who can’t sing hehe

      I guess there are “clubs” of sort at my university, but it’s mostly the “because we have the same major” type of club. Like, we have a “law students” Stammtisch (Stammtisch means that you have some beer somewhere and party, basically), so we actually stay very much within the bounds of our major. At the summer festivals you can tell that it’s similar in other majors as well. I don’t know, it’s simply normal to do stuff with people because you’re in the same history of law class and not because you like to play badminton together lol
      I think the fact that majors are so separate is because the campuses are so spread out. My university, for instance, has a science campus which is almost 10 miles from the medical school, and the law campus is in between. From the law campus, it’s about 3 miles to the business campus, and 5-6 to either medicine or sciences. The humanities have their own huge campus as well, about a mile or two from the science campus, but there’s really no reason for, say, a law major to go to the humanities campus (unless you want to learn arabic) because we have everything we need at our own campus. The only place were you really meet other majors is the central library – but I hardly ever go there because, of course, the law campus has a library as well with everything I need. So yeah, I do believe that the vast spaces between the different majors are one factor why we are so separate.

      In the “welcome to university” meeting I was told that these spaces are due to the history of university: Professors would teach in their private households, which, of course, were spread across town. This simply lead to a formation of campuses which could be miles apart – so far that they may even be in a different city today (which is why you might not end up in cologne even if you’re a student of cologne university).

      • The “history of the university” thing is interesting! I had no idea professors would teach out of their own homes, but I guess it made sense in the founding days. The university here where I live is really new (by German standards)–from the 1960s I think, so they have a campus at the edge of town where everything is together. Sounds like you’re at an older one with a lot of history. One thing I love about living over here is that there’s so much more history, traditions, etc.

      • History of university is interesting. I never thought about it but it makes sense. Most universities in the US are close together–walking distance even so many don’t allow students to even have a car on campus. Lots of bicycles though.

  2. American college life is NOT like the movies. At least not where I live. And now that I’ve made that blanket statement–some of the things you’ve heard are true. Some colleges and universities do require students to live on campus in the dorms but there are exceptions–if you live with a parent, if you have more than 30 college hours, if you are over the age of 21, if you are married…..each university makes its own rules just as they make their own rules on who can have a car on campus and who cannot and where you can park it.

    Some colleges are known as “party colleges” and others are known as “dry campuses” and others aren’t known at all for either. The big parties you see in the movies sometimes happen here but it’s more likely in my area during the high school culture when a small party in a pasture gets completely out of control.

    Sports DO rule. Athletes are recruited by colleges (there are rules about recruitment and a governing body over that) and frequently have all their tuition expenses paid–much to the chagrin of serious academics. Universities use those sports to attract all students to their campus as well as donors. Some colleges make megabucks on their football program and others on their basketball program.

    Yes, there are required courses that are not in a student’s major course of study. Most likely European students took those during their “thirteenth” year. Most American college and university students change their major at least once though. I’ve forgotten what the average number of changes is but something like 3-5 times. Many of those are just changes in emphasis within the major such as changing from creative writing to technical writing or one computer system to another or from teaching vocal music to teaching speech/drama/debate. I have heard of changes from elementary education to accounting (more frequent than you might think) and from printing to computer systems.

    The cafeteria thing is bogus to optional. The University I went to had a cafeteria but it was for dorm dwellers only. I never lived on campus and neither did my sons or my husband. The youngest son and I were “treated” to a meal there. No thanks but it still wasn’t what is portrayed in the movies. Friendships really are friendships based upon friendship and interests but not limited to a circle of friends because of a “cultural group.” Especially with social media (laptops and tablet wi-fi and electrical plug-ins are available in every classroom for every student), friendships can be maintained regardless of major course of study and athletic ability.

    I suspect movies and especially homeschool atmospheres still view public high schools and colleges through the eyes of the 1950’s when there was no social media and students were more likely to live in a dorm and have wild parties because they’d never had the opportunity to before.

    The University I went to offers an exchange program to study abroad where you pay its tuition but are doing a course of study in another country. It also has a large international population on campus. Presumably, if our students are going there, European students could come here on the same plan.

    • Switching majors is very common here too. It’s completely normal to sit next to older students who started university late or switched 2-3 times. Some universities put a limit on the switches (max. 3), so that makes me believe that switching multiple times must be very common. I find that the “extreme” switches are more common than the “within the field” switches. I know some of the people in my classes come from physics, psychology, literature, medicine etc, so none of them did anything “law-related”. Sometimes people will switch because initially didn’t meet admission criteria for law, some (mostly medicine) switch because “they were the best in their high school year and thought they were obliged to study medicine” (very common!), some are there because “humanities has mostly women, but I’m looking for a rich husband” (eye roll), some are there because “I want to work with people, but psychology was too weird for my taste”, the list is long and sometimes very funny. I actually study with one guy who has a criminal history – he stole and broke things in his teen years. By German law, these “minor crimes” are deleted from your record once you turn 18 (given that you’ve been punished for them, that is). He said that he feels serious remorse for the things he did and now wants to get into the field and maybe help other young people who do stupid stuff out of rebellion. Not a bad reason either. So yeah, university has proven to be a really interesting collection of different people.

      • Criminal records are erased here at age 18 as well with the exception of a major crime in which the offender was tried as an adult–premeditated murder at age 17 for instance.

        Interesting that a university would put a limit on major changes. I wonder if someone could change universities (move to another country, for instance) in order to avoid the restriction.

        • Hmmm I believe it would work. The 3 switch limit is the one they have at my university. I’m sure there are others around that have no such limit. I believe they wouldn’t really care how often you switched before that. But I guess I won’t find out because thankfully, I’m pretty happy with what I do now 😀

      • The limit on major changes comes also from the Bafög. I think if one receives Bafög (federal help to cover living expenses while studying for people whose parents aren’t rich enough to cover for them), one can only switch once or such.

        Thanks for writing such an interesting blog!

        • yeah but I believe that the bafög office cares very little about the restrictions at the university, they got their own set of rules. TBH, I don’t think very highly of the bafög offices. It’s a bit like russian roulette, lots of nice workers but there’s a bad apple in every bunch. My little helper had very little pity for me when I didn’t understand some of the complex words in all the forms you have to fill out. But I guess I’m not the easiest student to have, either.

      • Switching to something similar can be advantageous because you may be able to keep many of your credits. I knew a guy who blew some vital tests in computer science, so he switched to business informatics because many of the basic courses of the first 3 to 4 semesters were the same.

  3. Actually my experience with school in Germany is vastly different in matters of extracurricular activities. It was a long time ago (I’m 52 years old), but even in the public school I attended for two years we had a school’s choir, a school’s orchestra, a rowing club, a theatre club, a group which made the school’s magazine once a month and probably some more I didn’t know of or don’t remember anymore because I never participated. Admittedly all these activities were mostly started by one teacher. Our head music teacher was very active, the rowing club was founded by my Latin teacher who loved rowing himself, the theatre group was led by one of our German teachers …

  4. Lawrence University in Appleton, WI requires that all students live on campus with some exceptions. I was an exception and it was a big mistake to live off campus. I made no friends and felt so outside of everything that I left after 2 years even though I had a 70% scholarship.

  5. There is actually a move towards longer school days these day, where students are taken care of the whole day and the parents can go to work. At least with some types of schools. So cafeterias are becoming more relevant for some.

    In my school days there were definitely groups (same as in university), but yeah they weren’t divided along such stereotypical lines. Mostly it was just who you were friends with or people who came from the same town and commuted together.

  6. Are you going to finish your story!?

  7. My college experience went well. I never joined any clubs though. Perhaps I should have. The movies here in the USA are not very realistic. Those groups usually happen in middle school or high school. In college it was not like that. College is MUCH better!! I too look forward to hearing the next part of your story! 🙂

  8. You realize that school systems in Europe are vastly different from each other? Germany in fact has one of the longest with their 13 years. But not everyone goes to school for 13 years. Because there are diffrent types of schools in Germany itself and you have to decide after 4th grade in most schools what type of school you are going to visit. It’s a very classist system that used to be worse when Hauptschule was still around. Hauptschule was inofficially considered as a school where not very smart people should go to and only went till 9 th grade. 10 th was voluntarily if you wanted to go to a “higher up” school. After That You got a job and went to berufschule for once or twice a week. Actually a lot of universities offer an Auslandsjahr exchange program and pay tuition fees for students to go to different countries for one year.

  9. Experiences vary, of course, but I’ve always suspected that “school movies” use other school movies as their bases, not real life. There is an element of truth, but it’s exaggerated and unreliable. I think the cliques are more of a high school thing than a college thing, but it probably depends on where you go to college. High school clubs are a big deal, although I wasn’t in any.

    I went to a small liberal arts school where everyone knew absolutely everyone. A lot of people lived on campus all four years and almost everyone ate at least some meals in the dining hall because there just wasn’t anywhere else to go (small town). Our dining hall food was pretty good, and I worked in the dining hall so I know it wasn’t just frozen processed stuff. Also, I hate to say this, but kids throw parties in dorms because they DON’T have to clean up. They should, but if the school can’t prove who did it, it often falls to janitorial staff (I never did any such thing, but it happens). We didn’t have fraternities or sororities, either, and I think that changes the culture drastically–most colleges have a lot of alcohol on campus but I don’t think we had anywhere near the pressure to drink that “party schools” do. I drink very little and don’t use drugs, and never felt pressured to do anything I didn’t want to do, even by my most chronically intoxicated friends/acquaintances. We were also not a sports school. Our athletes were good within their divisions, but we weren’t a nationally-known football team or anything. They were good students; professors weren’t expected to make allowances to keep athletes in school at the expense of grades.

    I wasn’t in any official clubs in college but I played in a square-dance band (don’t laugh). Student-organized activities are also a big deal at U.S. colleges. It’s a bonding thing, I guess, and a good way to meet people outside of your major. Most of my friends weren’t from my academic department, anyway. I had one good friend there going into school, but my other friends were from all over–the band, the biology department (my first major), dorm-mates, etc.

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