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Education - why ? by Paddington

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 I went to school and got my undergraduate degree in England, in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

The educational system, then and there, was brutal in some ways. It was certainly unforgiving.

We took a test in the last year of primary school (5th grade), which determined which school in the county would accept you the next year, the top level generally being a grammar school, where the tradition was to focus on Latin, Greek and English literature. I actually went to something called a Mathematical school, established to train naval navigators in the 18th century.

Every year after that, most ‘grades’ were determined by exams taking mid-year and at the end of the year.

In the 5th year (sophomore), and sometimes a few the year before that, we took regional exams to determine competency in the chosen subjects. In my case, it was Astronomy, Chemistry, Mathematics, English, French, German, History, Further Mathematics and Physics. In Mathematics, we took the equivalent of most of the standard first semester college Calculus, plus the material college-level Precalculus. Tha languages exams included taking dictation, translation in both directions, writing essays, and having a conversation.

A poor performance meant that your school career was likely over. The successful (about 40%) then concentrated in 2-4 subjects, with a view to higher education. There was then another set of regional exams at age 18, which determined whether your university of choice would accept you.

At university, you were in the major which you had declared 18 months before, and there was basically no changing that. I took Mathematics, which meant that every class was Mathematics, Statics and Dynamics, Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, or Statistics.

We took exams immediately after Christmas break, merely to see how well we had adapted. At the end of that first year year, we took six 3-hour exams which simply determined whether we would be allowed back the next year, and which of two tiers of courses we would take.

For the second and third (and final) years, there were six 3-hour exams each year, with the level of the degree awarded based only on those exam results. There was no equivalent of GPA or academic transcript, problems which almost prevented me being accepted by a U.S. university for graduate study.

It was designed quite well to produce people who at least had a grasp of the basic content of their majors. It was also basically free of charge to the students and their families.

All of this has, of course, changed, with the U.K. adapting a version of the U.S. system, including having students pay their tuition, and a more liberal arts flavour. It is also much less selective, going from 5-10% in higher education in my generation to 50%  now.

One result is many thousands of students living with their parents into their 30′s with crippling debt.

It was a great culture shock to experience the very generous nature of a U.S. university, including many chances to retake courses, change majors, or even transfer between institutions. It is certainly a more generous one than I went through. I have many friends who succeeded in this system who likely would never have been given a chance under the one that I went through. 

I have very mixed feelings after 40+ years as to whether it is better as a whole, given some of the many people that I know with massive college debt and no degree, and others with the illusion that they have been educated.

I have yet to determine what the actual goal of the U.S. system really is.


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