Is producing critically-minded citizens a luxury we can't afford?


A college in Berlin that combines the best of European and US teaching is asking ‘what should an educated person know’ and two Irish academics are helping find the answer, writes DEREK SCALLY

THE PEACEFUL, leafy streets around Friedrich-Engels-Allee once lay at the heart of East Berlin’s embassy belt. Now eight of the former ambassadors’ villas in Berlin’s northern Pankow district are the laboratory for an educational experiment: the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA).

Almost a decade old, ECLA is no typical educational institution. Shunning formal departments, the school aims to combine the broad education of the European university ideal with US post-war liberal arts ideas.

ECLA asks the provocative question: what should an educated person know? Helping find the answer are two Irish academics.

“You go to university to learn about things not given to you on the outside, to read challenging books or learn things not necessary for getting a job, like how to look at a painting,” says visiting faculty member Bartholomew Ryan, a graduate of TCD, UCD and Aarhus University in Denmark.

ECLA is deliberately, unapologetically small. It offers its 60 students a faculty-student ratio of 1:7 in core modules, electives and language courses. Learning is a two-way process: based around close readings of primary texts and it’s supplemented by small-group seminars as well as essays and projects.

Listen as you walk from one villa to the next and two things soon become clear: ECLA’s working language is English but, for the international student body, that means almost everyone is working in a second language. Combine that with their varied cultural and educational backgrounds and you have a heterogenous atmosphere where there are few places to hide behind lazy thinking, canned arguments or academic jargon.

Danish BA student Sandrine Rose Schiller Hansen was “sick with stress” at first with the ECLA approach, but she soon adjusted.

“I was used to passively taking in but here you have to take in and produce all the time,” says Hansen, 24, who followed studies in Copenhagen with a year at ECLA studying the German philosopher Heidegger, technology and society.

Half of the students here are pursuing a four-year BA programme in value studies – more of which later – while the other half are pursuing one-year programmes to broaden their horizons and, in many cases, build a bridge to graduate school.

As a full-on experience withroom and board, it doesn’t come cheap, costing €15,000 a year. But the school operates an open policy and, thanks to its philanthropic backers in the US, will not turn away a suitable student for lack of funds.

ECLA’s staff are unapologetic about their back-to-the-roots approach. “It’s about serious engagement with big books with no theoretical overlay or baggage,” says Ryan. “You have to read the Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant; there’s no beating around the bush.”

Dubliner Catherine Toal, a junior professor and Harvard graduate, says ECLA combines the best of European and American academic models as they used to be before becoming victims of their own success.

“In Europe, funding is always an issue, along with the student-teacher ratio, while the American liberal arts colleges are under constant pressure to spend money to build a brand name and to spend on sports,” she says.

With its personalised education environment, ECLA is a world away from Europe’s mass-market third-level institutions. Co-dean Thomas Nørgaard from Denmark sees private liberal arts institutions such as ECLA providing a counterbalance to the reductive tendencies in European higher education.

“The western idea of the research university has achieved something magnificent; a grand story came out of it but it’s pretty obvious that, in some ways, it’s not serving us well,” he says, sitting in his bright office. “It’s difficult to attend to education when attention is on the money machine. The model imposed on many universities is one they are ill-equipped to resist. We see our role in resisting those forces.”

An endeavour such as ECLA would be a challenge at the best of times; coming as it does in the middle of the Bologna process to standardise educational qualification across the EU, it seems downright daring. Rather than copy a European or US model, the school has developed a “value studies” model that tries to take the big questions – about art, ethics, politics, religion – back to the “pre-disciplinary” stage before academic disciplines and specialisations came into play. Far from an empty, trendy slogan, students embrace “value studies” as an interdisciplinary approach with a difference.

“I see ourselves as archaeologists of ideas,” says Hansen. “The classic disciplines are important but examining the basis on which our society’s ideas are based is important too; we need people like us to go between the cracks.”

For David Luna Velasco, a BA student from Mexico, value studies offer a “capacity to look at things and break them apart, not let them be too stable. It’s a significant ability that everyone should have.”

ECLA asks potent questions that are even more significant during the Leaving Certificate in Ireland. The Berlin institution seems an idealistic world away from grind schools and the CAO race for Ireland’s third-level institutions “optimised” in the Celtic Tiger era to meet the needs of the business community.

As Ireland emerges from that era, institutions such as ECLA raise a crucial question: is producing critically-minded citizens a luxury we can’t afford or, as the “group think” phenomenon of the boom might suggest, something we cannot afford to do without?