The Old College Try


One thing that Piet and I have discussed on occasion is education and our opinions of it regarding any future BelgAmericans we will eventually produce. Education here is different from the U.S. and in many ways, from what I can tell, it’s far superior. I could go into how that turd W. destroyed American education with his No Child Left Behind travesty or how disappointed I am in the current Obama administration for not bothering to address the complete joke that is America’s public school system, but that would just dissolve into an acid-tongued tangent of pointless vent, so I won’t go there.

Anyway, in Belgium most people choose to send their children to either a state funded public school or a state funded private school. Both receive money from the state, but from what I understand, the private schools sort of have the right to make a kid leave if he/she isn’t performing to a certain standard of academia. The public schools have to take and keep everyone. Piet attended a private school and is of the opinion that any offspring of ours, assuming they go to school in Belgium, are best off in a private school as well.

I like the idea of the private schools here because there isn’t any tuition (unlike the salary suckers in the U.S.) and also because some of them have nifty uniforms which are not only cute, but in my opinion, go a long way to taking the focus off of appearances that tends to crop up once puberty arrives. That and it’ll save on wardrobe costs if the kids wear basically the same thing 5 days a week.
What I don’t like is the manner in which the information is taught in the private schools. A massive amount of information is given to the kids and they have to memorize it and then spit it back out on tests. From what I’ve heard there is very little class discussion or room for students to discuss their own opinions. They learn the information, they apply it to a given situation on an exam, they either pass or fail.

Which is why, I think, while there are indeed a plethora of highly knowledgeable, educated individuals here in Flanders, the majority of them are often very set in their ways and, in my (and other expat opinions) are significantly stunted when it comes to social interaction with people en masse.

Anyway, I’m more in favor, at least in Belgium, of sending children to a Montessori school, or somewhere where they will be evaluated on their individualism and personal strengths as opposed to how well they can force themselves into the standard Flemish methods of education.
When I made that clear though, Piet shook his head and said simply that children who spend their later years (maybe 10-17 years old)  in schools like Montessori or other alternative schools have almost a nil percent chance of succeeding in Flemish universities.

And I’ll admit, that shut me up quick.

I come from a family that stresses a university education and both Piet and I come from countries that put huge emphasis on receiving university degrees in order to be successful occupationally. My first reaction was to give in and agree that we should do what we could to have our kids do their best in university.

But this morning I was thinking more about it, and I realized…who cares about a stupid piece of paper that basically states that you are “officially skilled” in academic thought?
I have a college degree and it has gotten me nothing. My bachelors is in psychology, which I promptly decided I hated when I was 3 years into studying. I’ve done nothing with it and can do nothing with it here. It has actually given me problems in searching for a job because I was often considered too skilled for the jobs my language abilities limited me to and I had no practical training for anything my language abilities would allow me to do.

Similarly, I have an Egyptian colleague with a journalism degree that he is unable to use in Belgium. All those years he spent studying and he’s never been able to use any of it since he left Egypt. University degrees, both of us, and we’re working in a coffee kiosk in a train station.

Had I chosen to go to tech school or to be a salon specialist, or something along those lines, I have no doubt I’d have been employed longer in the U.S. and been able to find a job much easier here in Belgium. Unlike the state funded daycares here, I wouldn’t have to write essays on a high school graduates level in order to be eligible to work in a salon or something along those lines.

So, in reality, is a university degree really so important? Why be so set in sending our children off into the political games and chest puffing of academia when they could be much happier and financially secure by going to an alternative school and then studying to be an electrician or a carpenter?
Western countries have become so obsessed with highly educating their masses that they are now running short on skilled manual labor. The demand is always high and in places like Belgium, people are payed extremely well for their labor. As long as the human race uses indoor plumbing or light bulbs, they’ll need other people who are trained to repair and replace it.

I think I’d be more than happy to have my children be those people. They’re a lot more important than us academics give them credit for.


6 responses »

  1. WOW, you have made think about this one! Although I agree with you that in Belgium you don’t need a university degree to be financially secure (ask my neighbour baker who can afford to take almost 8 weeks vacation in a year!), I’m still quite biased towards doing my best so that my children can do their best at an university (if they choose to do so, of course). And although I also believe that having a degree won’t automatically mean that you’ll get the job of your dreams, I still think going to university is important. You see, I grew up in a country (Mexico) where manual labor is still sorely underpayed, so a degree will definitely increase your chances of finding a good paying job. And then there’s my personal experience, I have the impression that it is easier to fing a job in a foreing country if you have a scientific degree than if you have a humanities one, but of course a lot is still due to good luck and connections. I just hope that when the time comes for my children to decide, I will be able to set my own baggage on the side, and let them choose freely their own paths.

  2. Firstly, school uniforms. Being British, I always had a school uniform and they don’t do anything to take the focus off appearances. However, they do save money (despite being horrifying expensive) so I suppose they are a good thing on the whole.

    Secondly, University. I don’t think that not having a degree necessarily means that you’re limited to more manual sorts of jobs – I don’t have a degree and I’m an accountant. I’ve had to work hard and study in my spare time, but I think for me it paid off. If I’d gone to uni I would have studied something totally different and might not have been as happy as I am today. Sure, they’re essential in some fields of work, but not all. There should be more options for kids – they shouldn’t be told that they wont achieve anything unless they continue studying, and I agree with you – it’s happiness that matters the most at the end of the day.

    Sorry, I’ve ranted!

    • Laura,
      I completely agree that University is not a prerequesite to financial success, but in Belgium at least it is the ‘only’ way into quite a few jobs.
      Contrary to the U.K. professional qualification courses or ‘experience equivalents’ are considered of little value in Belgium. Pay grades and promotion opportunities for many civil servants is limited by their education. The highest levels can often only be reached if you have a Masters degree, whether you have 20 years of experience or not.
      In addition there are many unofficial glass ceilings related to education in Belgium. Going to college (obtaining a bachelor) or university (and de facto going for a Masters degree) is one of the major limitations for your job prospects. In my field, you will be hard pressed to find senior executives without Masters (or the older Licenciaat) degrees. Even at lower management levels it is normal for a fresh faced university graduate (Master) to lead/ be higher up the ladder than a team of experienced Bachelors (who studied the same subject).

      So, in Belgium at least, aiming for a full university education will help kids in the longer term. It might be of little influence in the first few years in a carreer, but the further you go the more important it gets.
      This is not to say that manual labour can’t be just as beneficial financially or enjoyable. But if you aim for University nothing stops you from going into manual labour later on, the other way round is more difficult.
      I tend to agree with Piet, a Montessori school is not a good idea in regards to University.

  3. Of my three kids, probably only one is destined for college. My oldest is planning on tech school, probably for law enforcement, and my middle child is still not sure what she wants to do. She’s only 13, though. She has time. Our youngest is our brainy one. He’s the one that loves school and loves learning. He’s only six, but we’re already telling him that he will go to college.

    I think there are definitely advantages to education and there’s definite advantages to skilled labor. I would say wait until you have kids. Once you see what kind of people they are, then you can figure it out. With kids, the best laid plans don’t just often go awry, they are trampled on and thrown into the ocean.

  4. I started to respond and then the computer shut down…so, I’m thinking that was the universe telling me that my previous response effort was not an appropriate one…errrrm….

    Let’s see, take two:

    Every system, no matter the country, has its pros and cons…truly…even though both the public and private education systems in Belgium are apparently state funded…the privates STILL have the privilege of tossing out those they consider the undesireables…that is totaly ABHORRENT (spelling?) to me and that is why I embrace the public school system…even with all of its foilables…I am a good product of the public schools in Pittsburgh (notice I didn’t say the finest or even the best…cause, I am not…but I am a GOOD product and I have achieved much on my abilities. I dare say that you are a good product of your public school education. Perhaps you might have had a better set of options had you gone to Ellis, but then you would have eaten dog food for dinner daily and I would have purchased your clothing from —geez, I’m not sure where—private kindergarten nearly set us over the edge for you and your brother!

    I believe one of the biggest mistakes made in education is forcing kids to go to college. Worse is to force them to decide what they ‘want to be’ when they don’t even know who they are yet! I ardently believe that every student should have the opportunity to take various trade school classes. How would ever know that you mike LIKE to be a carpenter or electrician or HVAC tech if you have never been exposed to it?? We have to stop looking down our noses at the trades…fact is, you can live without a lawyer (GOD, can you live without a lawyer) and you can live without LOTS of other people who have to go to college for their jobs….but you HAVE to have access to tradespeople who know how to fix the things that keep you going and living comfortably…like electricians, plumbers, automechanics, and dare I say…nail techs…don’t laugh…I would bite my nails down to the knuckle nubs were it not for my fantastic I love her and can’t live without her nail tech…..

    Let’s also remember that children often change their minds when in school and resist/ignore (take your pick) the suggestions/advice (take your pick) from the parents who often have the previous life experiences that might help them move in more appropriate directions—that is called screwing up and learning from your lessons and being gutsy and moving on….the strong survive…and one can choose to be strong, or not.

    Anyhow, computer hasn’t shut down on me this time, so I’m thinking the universe likes this one!

    Pittsburgh will be quite happy to have ‘goonch’ among its numbers in the public school system or whichever system you and Piet select upon your return to this side of the pond and said goonch will undoubtedly be a very good product of the schools too!

  5. I would never make choices now that rule out choices for your children later on. You talk about university: your children will be 18 by then with an opinion and a development of their own. But I’d never make choices like Montessori if that would rule out their option for university (I don’t know, don’t know these schools). But if they then like more a vocational skilled-based education that would definately give them good paying jobs in Belgium (we need welders, bakers, construction workers, etc…. not only academic people) then they can still do so as well.

    In Belgium quite a few (company) jobs still require a university degree. Read the job advertisements.

    It’s true that our high schools & academic education is very theoretic and focussed on reproducing but little by little it’s changing.

    I’m a bit shocked about your remark about our social interaction skills…. I’d consider us more modest, kept to ourselves when meeting strangers, and I consider this as a good thing (when I then immediately compare ourselves to loud roudy arrogant Dutch eg).

    private schools can send a student away but I’ve only known that to happen rarely and always students that are troublesome, never showing up, attacking teacherd or setting the school on fire, that kind of stuff. Never ever for their academic skills!!!!!!
    Yes , there’s sometimes waiting lists and difficulty to get enrolled because their school capacity is often limited. Then again the criteria seems to me rather “first come first served” or “you live in the area” or “if your brother or sister are already enrolled you get priority”….but not like you seem to describe it to me as if it’s only the rich, the snobbish, the most intelligent or so that get chosen. They cannot choose who they desire better than the rest at all. That is a faulty description. If they were so exclusive, why would 75% of all students in Belgium go to private schools? They are not an exclusivity club. They cannot send a student away who is underperforming. But a student that is underperforming can fail multiple times. And if the school eg is only teaching latin or so and no more skilled-based education, well then if the student keeps failing, he might better look for a different school that better suits his skills. But that’s the same for non-private schools.
    Both private & non-private schools get government control in content & quality.

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