I had the opportunity to experience (and I still do) two different education systems: England and the USA. I grew up in England (for all intents and purposes) and went to school there until I was 18 and graduated high school. I applied for universities in the US and the UK with the plan of going to the US, and that’s exactly what I did. I completed college in the USA. Why am I rambling about my educational past? Because it gave me some insights into education and some inherent prejudices.
When I wanted to come to the USA for college people mocked me and told me it was stupid. I’m not talking about just any people. I’m talking about my advisers, my teachers, and many university-educated family friends. They all laughed about how easy it would be for me. How the first 2 years (of 4) would be completely repetitive because the US education system is so behind that the first two years of college in the US are like the last two years of high school in the UK.
For all who care, this was not the case. I passed out of certain classes that I had taken A levels in (the same thing people can do with AP exams or the IB). This meant that if anyone has taken the exam like Chemistry, they could pass out of General Biology. This meant no repeat content. I was immediately able to take Organic Chemistry (a terrible idea as a freshman by the way) because I had already learned the required material in high school. I did not find myself repeating material, in fact, I often found myself out of my depth.
The reason I found myself out of my depth was breadth of knowledge. I spent the last 2 years of high school taking 3 classes: Biology, Chemistry, and Maths (with 1 year of French thrown in there). My knowledge was highly limited in a number of areas. In the US, on the other hand, not everyone had as the depth of knowledge about glycolysis that I did but they certainly knew a lot more of a range of topics. I took history until 10th grade, and it was a very limited history (the world wars, Russia and Germany in the 1900s, with a little bit on the Korean war and the Bay of Pigs), in comparison with most people I met in college I knew nothing about history (and my understanding of how events took place was completely different, but that’s a topic for a different post).
The point is that people in the US weren’t “behind” the UK or stupider, there was a different approach to education. By the time I was in 11th grade I had to know what I wanted to do with my life. Those 3/4 classes I took for the last two years would define what I could apply for in university. I wanted to (and still do) study medicine; I would go straight from high school to medical school. I could be a medical student seeing patients at 18. I didn’t want to do this. I wanted to learn more about other topics (like philosophy and psychology) and see what else there was to learn. That is why I choose to come to the US for college. I didn’t want to go to medical school right away, I wanted to learn more about more topics.
When visiting my boyfriend’s family in Mexico I experienced the same prejudice against the US education system. It was a little different this time, talking about what a waste of time it was to have students mess around for 4 years before finally choosing another school to go to so as to get a “real” degree. This made me realize the big difference.
It seems that at the core (even if it doesn’t happen that way any more) the US education system is (or was) about education. Education for the sake of learning, of being more well-rounded and understanding something in a wide variety of subjects with the aim of having a deeper knowledge in one subject while also having a breadth of knowledge. The UK, Mexico, and many other countries education systems seem to follow a different approach. The career approach. The aim is to choose a career and get the knowledge to carry out the job you desire. Ignore the irrelevant stuff. If you want to be a doctor then don’t bother studying English or History, those don’t matter for getting into medical school.
It’s all about what people want. I came to the US because I liked the breadth of knowledge I could gain in university. I know a number of people who hate it and would much rather study one subject in great depth ignoring everything else. I don’t think one is better than the other in general but it all depends on what the individuals and what society wants.
Do we want to get people in the work force as fast as possible and educate them on that specific topic? Or do we want people with a broad range of knowledge who take longer to enter the work force? The US model is one of luxury; I understand that. Not everyone has the opportunity to take 4 years to discover what they are interested in. It might be preferable to have a 3 year dedicated program aimed at a career of interest.
I don’t know. I know what I like, and I am certainly more comfortable going to medical school being older and having more knowledge. But on the flip side, I’ll be almost 30 by the time I have my degree. There are pros and cons to each side.