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College Outside the United States

By Michael Platt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #10, 1995.

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Dr. Michael Platt


As a result of being schooled at home, a good number of homeschoolers are ready for college at an earlier age than their peers. These homeschoolers know more, have achieved more, and are better at studying. Yet, the social decay parents avoid by homeschooling is as advanced in the colleges as in the public schools, perhaps more so. This means that homeschooled children don’t have many places to go to continue their education.

Of course, there are some good colleges, and the National Review Guide is one good place to start looking. However, college is probably not the right place for the homeschooler who is, say, 16 years old. College is not only a thing of intellect. The science whizzes who show up from time to time in the news, who go to MIT at age 13, don’t usually live in the dorm. They live at home in the Boston area, or their parents move there from Nebraska.

There are probably quite a few good homeschoolers who, like such whizzes (but not only in science and math), are ready for college but not ready to go away to college. What might be done for them?

To answer, I’m going to talk about what studying is like in several foreign lands. After Harvard I spent a year at Oxford and later, after I had begun teaching, I spent two years in Germany mostly studying, but during a Humboldt Fellowship year, also teaching at Heidelberg. Most of what I say is based on personal experience, but first I must tell you some general facts about the European method of college instruction.

Achievement (We Know You Did)
Versus Aptitude (We Think You Can)

A number of the countries that educate their youth better than we do—Japan, France, England, and Germany—share one thing: they never went off the achievement standard. Admission to colleges and universities in these countries is still through achievement, not aptitude. Moreover, achievement is indicated by performance in exams that are difficult, comprehensive, and impersonal. They are given at set times, to all students, throughout the nation, and they are judged by judges the students never meet.

And there are consequences. The A and 0 level exams in England, the Abitur in Germany, and the Baccalaureate in France are both final exit exams from “high school” and entrance exams to university. A good word from your “high school” teacher might have some part in admission, if you are border-line, but it is decidedly secondary. There are no guidance counselors in this system, just teachers and students, and both are focused on the student gaining the knowledge that alone will win admission. Young people in these countries take these exams very seriously. Our children face no comparable experience.

The consequences of insisting that prior achievement is the best forecast of future achievement are immense. Students arrive at university better educated, better informed, more knowledgeable, and, above all, more capable of independent study than in America. Having achieved some things, they are ready to achieve more.

Disciplining Yourself for a Week
of Judgment

What is it like when the student gets to University in England and Germany? It is very different from America. Students who enter Oxford know that ahead of them, three years off in the future, is a mammoth exam—a week-long exam, all-day each day exams, a week of them, and with the possibility of being called back for a “viva,” a face-to-face examination that goes over their work and places them more exactly. Placed they will be: a First, a Second, or a Third. Of course, many a scholar over the last seven centuries who has done well has wondered whether there was not more to education than these exams, and many a man who has done poorly has gone on to do well in life.

What are the three years like prior to that week of examinations? The student must organize his time accordingly, over a three-year stretch. And so must the university. Thus each term, three of them, each lasting eight weeks, must be subordinated to their culmination and proof three years away. Many an American, many a Rhodes scholar even, though having already completed four college years in America, has not been able to manage that long haul, has beguiled the time, frolicked about, and failed the exams, or simply elected not to take them. It is not uncommon for an American arriving to spend the days talking with English students, believing them when they say, “I never study,” and not noticing that each one only spent a half-hour with him talking, not the whole day. A maturity of purpose and discipline almost unimaginable in America is required of the student, but of course the English students, though younger than the visiting Rhodes scholars, got to college through such discipline.

Term Time in Oxford and Heidelberg

What are the eight-week terms like? They are both more intense and more leisured than in America. Intense, because students must write an essay each week for their tutor. There in his quarters, in his study lined with books, two or three students meet to read their papers aloud and receive his comments. Intense, focused, and concentrated is the primal scene of education at Oxford. Once, when a student read his paper on irony, the tutor commented, “For next week write a paper on irony,” and the student didn’t know whether the tutor had been dozing or was just being tersely devastating.

Confrontational as tutorial is, the terms are nevertheless more leisured than in America. There are lectures to attend, but they do not constitute courses. Students may go to whatever series they wish. No exams are directly attached to them. As a consequence, the lectures are largely driven by the intellectual desires of the tutors, not the imputed needs of sluggish students. In them the tutor gets to present something he is highly interested in to the university community. The message is “lift yourself up to the conversation of your superiors” not “we’re here to make sure everything is agreeably undemanding.” No hand-holding from the lectern here, no repeating what is already in a textbook with jokes added, no giving information that the student could perfectly well look up himself. In other words, no “living Cliff Notes.”

Otherwise, students apportion their time as they choose. Punting on the river, intramural sports, theatricals, dining with friends, and long walks together fill the terms.

Since the exams in one subject are usually about as wide as one of our majors, a very important part of Oxford education occurs in the common room. There, after dinner, students repair. Amidst the books and the best general journals, conversation carries forward education quietly, patiently, mightily.

Leisure is also the note in the long, six-week periods between the short Oxford terms. During these vacations students study uninterruptedly, often together, often according to a shared plan, sometimes going to some country place, to read, take long walks, and talk together at dinner and into the night. For a fuller look at what the experience of learning is like at Oxford you might read one of the biographies of C. S. Lewis.

The story is much the same in Germany. There, for the first time, I met young people who had the elementary habits of civility. They could not only do their own laundry but prepare three-course dinners for each other, with salad, vegetables, and good coffee. As every parent in America (and many girl-friends) know, young American males are not mature enough to do their own laundry, let alone prepare a decent meal. Don’t maturity in studies and maturity in life go together?

Just as the question facing us at the end of life—“Will I be saved?”—tends to bring out the best in human nature, so the question facing us at the end of our university studies—“How well was I educated?”—tends to bring out the best in student nature. The American answer: “Well, I’ll have 118 credits by next spring.” This is a confession, which the person saying it does not know is a confession, that the real question has never been asked. Yet the student who confesses he takes courses only to receive the college credits is far less culpable than the adults who have built such a system.

New Media for Traditional Education

What’s the point of my report on education in other countries? Is it to suggest that homeschoolers go abroad for their college? No. Few have the resources. Is it to suggest that we in America start some real colleges rather than the pseudo colleges that most have faded into today? Well, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Any reader with forty million dollars to devote to this worthy end, please contact me!

The real point of my report is to ask whether some of the benefits of these mature universities might be provided to the mature homeschoolers who, for whatever reason—too young, not enough money, etc.—are unable to go off to one of our better colleges. My answer is a qualified yes.

The obvious means of reaching the intellectually mature homeschooler would be through new mediating technology, such as e-mail, Internet, teleconferencing phones, and compressed video. Some of this I discussed in a previous essay. But, let’s not kid ourselves, a campus provides something precious and irreplaceable: the chance to talk with your teacher and the chance to find students like yourself. Such friendships may last through life and are a mighty encouragement to good things.

However, colleges are less places of friendship than they used to be. Many students never get to know a teacher. Then again, friendship does not always start face to face. Look at C. S. Lewis. The friendship of his life, a life filled with many friendships, began as a correspondence with Joy Davidman, whom he later married.

Also, consider how, when you read a great book, you are carrying on study at a distance, just as distant as if it were over the phone or e-mail. When you read War and Peace, you do not need beetle-browed Tolstoy staring down at you from a lectern. There he is in his book.

Some then of the good of mature education might be encouraged by study using these media. Thus, a portion of the good of preparing for difficult, comprehensive, and impersonal exams a few years away might be had. This would require equivalent exams, and equivalent degrees attached to them. Along the way, some even of the good of weekly tutorials at Oxford might be had, too.

Of course, the hardest part to provide would be the opportunities for good friendship provided by living in college, dining together, repairing to the common room, and arranging study together, on campus and off.

Still, since mature students desire the best sorts of friendship, in which studies have a great part, perhaps the reduced opportunities would matter less. Students with the same tutor might communicate with each other. Students “attending” the same lecture series online might be made aware of each other. They might form an e-mail group, on which the lecturer might sometimes look in. Students looking forward to exams might well study together, read the same books, and gather for conversation.

People of all ages are already enjoying the benefits of new media. Homeschoolers can do so, as well, with no impediment. The important thing to remember is that mature students, such as homeschoolers, like difficult exams. Mature students are used to working hard. They will seek opportunities for wisdom, and they will look for fellow students as friends. No wonder humans who cultivate intellect have always praised friendship; remember, Christ sent His disciples out in twos.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: My two oldest children were in 1995 “beta testing” an online academy which provided just the kind of tutorials and disciplined study that Dr. Platt recommends. Since we were devoting PHS solely to the “non-computer” side of homeschooling, our reports on what was happening in online academies and “new media” colleges could be found in our at-the-time new magazine, HOMESCHOOL PC. We printed the above article in PHS because we wanted our PHS readers to be aware that new media might, ironically, be the only affordable way for many of us to eventually afford a traditional European-style college education!


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