What I'm Learning Because I'm Not Learning

Elisa Stern
March 1, 2016

Hey blog,

It’s been a while. We’re officially past the week 5 marker... I still can’t quite believe it. Today I’m going to touch on something that I initially believed would be a lot more central to my experience here in Amsterdam, but surprisingly hasn’t been: school.

I guess I should preface by saying that I love my school. Even preceding Colby, I’ve loved academia for as long as I can remember; I love reading and learning and growing through intellectual conversations with my professors and peers. I decided a long time ago that if those qualities make me an uncool nerd by some people’s standards, I’m completely okay with that. For the past 7 years or so, it’s hasn’t been foreign for me to spend a few hours every weeknight in the library, with the occasional Saturday night, too. Completing work that I’m proud of and learning as much as I can is central to who I am. I take pride in it, and I identify with it. I’ve been blessed to go to a variety of schools where professors listen to their student’s critiques and are willing to take the time to help and clarify, or just listen.

Naturally, the biggest critique I got from people as soon as they heard I was going to be spending a semester abroad was to really “live a little.” Multiple people reminded me that the most growth doesn’t happen in the classroom when you’re studying abroad (some would argue that it doesn’t no matter where you are), and that approaching school the same way in Amsterdam as I have in Maine wouldn’t be conducive to my experience. I nodded and smiled and told everyone that I understood, but looked up the addresses to the best libraries in downtown Amsterdam regardless.

Now, five weeks later, I can say that I have in fact been to those libraries and I’ve spent a few hours every week studying in whatever café looks like it has the best cup of coffee. But shockingly (to myself and those who know me well) I haven’t spent a single late night in a library, and I’ve undoubtedly spent the least amount of time with my nose in a book since probably middle school. Despite that fact, I’ve learned more about my education than ever before. Being removed from my normal routine and has forced me to step back and look at what I’ve forgotten to truly appreciate for all these years.

Academia in the Netherlands is different than anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s probably been the biggest source of culture shock that I’ve had. I said earlier that I’m blessed to go to a school where professors make time for their students and my peers are interested in having conversations about any difference in opinion that we may have. I went to a high school where my graduating class had only 72 students, and my graduating class at Colby is only about 450 students. My academic experience, therefore, has been one that is full of personal interaction, interactive discussion, and an environment where if you haven’t done your work or put in the necessary time, there’s no chance you’ll get away with it. That’s all I’ve ever known, so I never stopped to think about how the actual educational atmosphere I’ve been in my whole life has shaped the student I am today. Being in a new education system has made me reflect on all the things I took for granted up until now.

This semester I’m taking classes at the Vrije Universiteit in Amstelveen, and I can honestly say I’ve never been so underwhelmed by a set of classes in my entire life. Before you get this image of me as ungrateful and pessimistic, let me explain. I believe that in school, students grow the most from the questions they ask themselves, their peers, and their professors outside of the structured lecture material. Questioning the words printed in a textbook or a Powerpoint slide, asking for more insight into complex topics: that’s how we become “better” students. Anyone can read a book; the difference between a good student and a great student is the internal analysis that comes with refusing to take what someone in a position of authority as gospel without truly understanding it. And see, my education thus far has encouraged me to do just that: to question and clarify and discuss and really, truly gain understanding.

It’s different here. It’s so different. Lectures are set up entirely in a lecture format, where we’re read a list of facts posted on endless PowerPoint slides, and expected to memorize them for an exam that’s worth 80 to 100% of our final grade. That’s not to say the professors aren’t incredible! I’m sure they are, truly. And it’s not to say that I’m not learning anything, or that the students at this university are not incredibly bright, because they are. The difficult difference that I’m grappling with here is simply that no one asks questions. No one seems interested in comprehending the material beyond the surface level, and the focus seems to be deciphering what types of multiple choice questions will be on the final exam. On the occasions where I’ve raised my hand and asked a question, I’ve been either ignored or given a simple restatement of what was already said. I feel like I’m memorizing facts, not learning concepts.

I understand that I’m looking at this “problem” from a very specific, privileged, Western standpoint. It’s different than what I’m accustomed to, and maybe I don’t like it because new things have a way of making us human beings uncomfortable. It’s likely that if I’d grown up with a Dutch education system my whole life, none of these thoughts would be in my head at all. But the fact is I didn’t, and the fact is they are.

I’m not writing this to put down Vrije or the Dutch schooling system or to say that the Western system is superior in any way. I’m not trying to say in any way that my professors thus far have been better or that my peers have been smarter, and I hope it’s not coming across that way. I’m just saying that through the education I’m receiving here, I’ve spent an exponentially lesser amount of time “learning” in the way that I’ve been accustomed to, and a lot more time inadvertently gaining a better understanding of myself and my education.

Cultural differences are evident in every aspect of my life here; more than expected in some ways, and far less so in others. The educational aspect was unforeseen, but has proved to be in the forefront of my experience. That’s what we’re here for, right? To experience new things and understand different outlooks on things that we neglect to see in “regular life.” I’ve realized that spending less time in the library doesn’t equate directly to learning any less. Maybe this is what it means to “live a little.”