Tuesday, November 3, 2009

University woes

This semester, I’m attending a class on a subject I’m very interested in: The Silk Road. And even though the course’s scope is formally limited to the “Western Regions” (西域), the area largely confined to the Tarim Basin and today’s Xinjiang, all the other parts of the Silk Road and the countries it bound together can hardly be left unmentioned.

This great “highway” of cultural, economical, spiritual and linguistic exchange connecting places as far from each other as Nara, in Japan, and Damascus at the Mediterranean sea fascinates me greatly. The lecture’s title is “A journey to the Western Regions. Art and Archeology of the Silk Road”, it is being held by Erika Forte of the department of art history Vienna and mainly focuses on the time of greatest activity along the Silk Road in that region, being between Han and Tang Dynasty times (roughly 3rd – 8th cent. a.d.).

When in the first lecture miss Forte explained she means her course to be, apart from two introductory lessons, be held on the basis of student presentations, my heart sank. Student presentations are something I don’t hold in much high regard since we all are merely striving for knowledge, while the teacher most often has so much more knowledge to give.

Also, student presentations are a time when the unprofessional and often unscientific behaviour and methodology of students gets exposed maybe the most easily. Thus, our first lesson of student presentations has left me quite disappointed and a little annoyed.

Be it the young Chinese boasting in his booming voice about how Xuan Zang was the greatest of the Chinese Buddhist Pilgrims who went over the Silk Road to India, solely basing his presentation on information gathered from Buddhist sources and publications, taking every myth and religious exaggeration for unquestioned truth, or the apparent Inability of people not specifically studying Indology to at least more or less correctly pronounce words like Sanskrit or Nālandā Vihār. Thus teachers can almost ruin a very interesting topic by almost completely giving it into the hands of the students.

Of course, I know I am being harsh in my judgement and high in my expectations, but this is, after all, the university. And that is another thing that has been on my mind of late. These days, the university of Vienna is “burning”, meaning student protests have erupted, auditoriums occupied, and the like. Students in other parts of Austria have joined in and even in Berlin students are talking about joining out of solidarity.

While I do not oppose protesting, and agree with a number of the issues being discussed (like gender equality, anti-discrimination, better funding of institutes and personnel, etc), I find some of the most loudly voiced slogans of these protests rather ridiculous. It isn’t very clever or educated protesting against the re-establishing of student fees with slogans like “Education is a basic human right”, living in a very developed country with a very thorough school system. University education must be seen for what it is: an exclusive science. Certainly, this cannot be called a “basic human right” and thus be demanded as available freely to anyone – in a country, where you pay for your child’s kindergarden! Where is the “basic”, there?

A feeling that has grown inside me over the course of my studies is that so many people at the university in fact would be better off not being students. With that, I don’t want to label them inferior in any way, but everyone has own talents and abilities and let’s face it, university is and should be tough learning. These people are at the university studying something they might or might not be interested in because both expectations of their family and our culture are forcing them to. Doing an apprenticeship is regarded the lower choice and studying the key to every high and well paid job.

This unrealistic and ridiculous trend shows itself well in the recent adoption of the so called “Bologna System” by all European universities. This system, being essentially the bachelor-master system, seems heavily dictated by the economy, streamlined to churn out people with easily classifiable skills, unified for the international market. The curricula, now rigidly structured, dictate the student what he or she has to study and leave very little freedom of pursuing own interests and finding a field of specialisation. Selecting one of five available masters at our institute doesn’t quite seem like specialising, does it?

Parallel, introductory phases have been introduced. These, most often limited to the first semester, mean you have a certain number of classes you must all pass in order to be allowed to go on studying in the following semester. Should you fail any of the required classes, you’ll have to wait and try again in the next round (note that most of those classes have 2 or 3 successive exams, giving you lots of chance to better your marks). Similarly, the new university law (which was the cause of the current protests) also gives institutes the possibility of filtering the students admitted to their studies in any way they find suitable (that might be exams, grade point average, etc). With courses like journalism, law or medicine sometimes being overrun by foreign students (mostly Germans fleeing from the grad point average limited universities at home) this seems rather realistic and badly needed than unfair and evil. Testing the fresh students’ dedication for a subject and their overall ability of studying also seems rather beneficial to them, in my opinion. Better to find out you might not be so ideally qualified for a subject in the first semester than somehow dragging along for years until you finally abandon it or fail.

Maybe, if students were un-trendy and anti-social individuals again, all these problems would be solved easily.

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