Two weeks ago I moved to Germany, but let me talk about something completely different and seemingly unrelated. (I get to Germany later on)
I love and hate my degree simultaneously. On one hand, it lets me be an explorer of sorts. That extends much further than literal travel, although that certainly plays a part! On the other hand, it gnaws away at my attempts to hold onto my other interests. Where can I find time to create, be it writing, drawing, painting or music; when essays and language practice watch over like vultures?
I’ve been acutely aware for months how draining it is to sacrifice everything in the name of a piece of paper. That piece of paper will in the end be the bearer of a number for others to nod at with disinterest before nodding with disinterest at another piece of paper bearing a similar number. For me it may symbolize four years of loving struggle; a pursuit of knowledge and skills. Hidden within that number will be stories, excitement and pain, friends many gained and a few lost along the way. For the disinterested nodders, I will be that number, and that number will carry as much depth as curved line can without context to explain it.
Yet us students keep on striving for that number.
For the past two years my main goal has been to work less hard. Yes, less hard. The problem is, I just can’t do it. Back in the UK I would wake up early so I could work a few hours before uni began, then between lectures I would work. Some of that work I would do in coffee shops – that was my break for the day. Back at the flat, I would cook, then work again. For the last few months before I moved to Germany, I did actually succeed in making time for guitar most evenings too, and occasionally writing articles for my student paper. Weekends? What’s a weekend.
A small number of my readers will know that I used to write fairly profusely before I began my degree, and since then something has appeared here maybe once every couple of months. In every post over that time of sparse writing, I’ve written about how rarely I write, then claim that this time I’ll be back to writing properly…and then I’m gone again for months. That comes down simply to not giving myself free time.
For me, it’s a testament to why the myth that hard work guarantees success is just that, a myth. What I gain from over-work is to sit at a slightly higher than average spot on my degree, but far from the ‘best’, whatever that may mean. What I lose is peace of mind, and my interests outside of my degree. There is a difference between hard work and efficient work.
The paradox lies in how much I actually love what I study. Language learning is practically a game. You learn the rules, and as you progress you open up new skills, stories and places. Further on your entire way of thinking changes. It is no hyperbole to say that language learning does change your world entirely. But neither is it my whole world.
To further that paradox, my other interests which I am ‘losing’ to my degree benefit so much from my degree. My writing now enjoys global influence. Musically I’m no longer restricted to the (relatively) limited approach to music of the English speaking world. Yet with no time dedicated to letting these rich influences grow into my own creations, I’m left wondering whether in the end I gain or lose more.
Ironically my first step to escaping the domination of my degree over my life was to do even more. At the start of this year I started reading at least a book a week outside of my degree, and what a decision that has been. Aside from forcing me take time out from university content, my learning has become so much richer over the space of a few months. One books in particular has ripped apart my view of learning and exposed a certain futility in the organised education system which practically encapsulates my life.
The book is relatively well known, a cult classic so to say: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To those unaware of this book, it is much more gripping that the title makes it sound. In fact, Earth shattering is how I would describe it. I don’t want to give away too much about its story, but the book is extremely critical of modern organised education. The character Phaedrus is driven mad (ahem, got to be careful with words here) by university’s goal of good marks over accumulation of knowledge. As a professor he plays with removing grades entirely from his classes, which is met by opposition from students obsessed numbers on pieces of paper.
Phaedrus is also highly critical of modern education’s rationality. This may seem an odd criticism, but as he points out in the book modern society has rationalized the world to a point where all that cannot be empirically analysed. University sneers at any other approach, despite rationality’s interdependence on the irrational. What does a degree accumulate to? A number. What does self study result in? You choose. It doesn’t have to result in anything other than the journey. The point is, when education is too structured and too rationalized, it becomes a means to an end. An abstract number is valued thousandfold over the road taken to get there.
In passing I’ll just say that this topic is just one of many within the book. Up to the last sentence (actually, especially the last sentence) I found personal philosophies and world views being teased and snapped into tiny pieces. But back to education.
Applied to my own university experience, I see parallels with both Phaedrus (extremely worrying given the events in the book) and his students. The striving for grades is strangely counter-productive. In order to give grades, a particular content must be fed to students. In offering a particular content, certain elements must be considered more important that others, and each student learns not what is most valuable to them, but instead what is plastered onto all.
But what other option is there? We all need to get our little number so we can be chosen to be a number in another organisation further along the people production line.
An interesting thing happens when Phaedrus abolishes grades. That course suddenly becomes about the journey. With no way of checking progress, the students have to go out of their way to learn. With no abstract goal to achieve, the goal becomes the road instead.
I think rich, meaningful education is to be found on the road, not the mountain top. Somehow we all forget that once you’ve climbed up to a peak, there’s another path to take on the way back.
These ideas where actually coming into my head before I read zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance but the book helped consolidate those views. The fact I read it in the first place was a result of trying to escape the abstract goal-oriented university approach. It was only after reading the book however that it became clearer where the standard university learning approach was leading: Eventual burnout imposed disinterest to my studies and the loss of all my other interests. That is not the place where I want to be.
This is the context in which I start my time in Germany. Yes, I am studying here and that makes everything I’ve written here look contradictory, but really this is about unhinging the dominance of university based study. I intend to write regularly about my life here over the next few months. Much of that will be in this context of my struggle with structure.
At the end of March I moved to Leipzig, a city in the east of Germany near the Czech republic. These days it’s known as a cultural hub, with a huge music scene, a plethora of museums, and numerous events throughout the year. I’ve heard that people from Europe’s city of Cool, Berlin, are even moving to Leipzig. Sure enough, there is plenty happening here. I only need to walk for a few minutes from my flat and I usually find something interesting happening. To impromptu street gigs to guys painting forests on buildings, this is a city living and breathing creativity.
Yet Leipzig is in the former east. Not so long ago, it was one of the major cities of the German Democratic Republic. Hints to that past are everywhere. The west of the city where I live is a region marked for redevelopment, highlighting its past as a factory district. What is now the cool cultural part of town in the near past was dominated by industry. The city is much more openly left wing than anywhere else I’ve ever lived before too, and by that mean most of the left spectrum is covered. Die Linke are the German political party with its roots in the communist past, and they have a meeting place just down my street. They’re rather popular in the city. There’s a definite presence of something a bit more anarchic too in my part of town. Some of the local graffiti reads for example “Capitalism kills; kill capitalism”, or “Burn all prisons! Solidarity for all Prisoners!” On a lighter end of the political spectrum, social initiatives are everywhere, and there is a feeling of strong local solidarity. I haven’t got out with my camera yet, but I’ll have some examples from the street for you all soon no doubt.
Seeing as I’m here in Leipzig for a few months I’ll keep everything simply to an overview tonight. I’ll write more in detail as I have more to say!
Although my university course back in the UK is German and Chinese, that’s not what I study here. It would admittedly be a little odd studying German in Germany…as it’s best simply to live the language of a country where you live. As for Chinese, I get a much needed break. Instead, I study a mix of politics and German literature. I also chose a Swedish course as an opportunity to move forward a language that’s been in limbo for a while. Studying in a second language is quite the experience, so there will be plenty to write about there. The hours are unnaturally short in comparison to the course at Leeds, and this will hopefully be the perfect environment for working out my uni study and interest balance. I refuse to let Leipzig steal my writing time at the very least!
It was always my intention to get involved in the music scene here in Leipzig. One of the most exciting things for me, is that Leipzig is home to one of the world’s largest goth festivals. Now that’s something a bit different, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.
While I’m here I also need to be thinking about a dissertation topic. As it happens, as I was wondering around the streets near my flat, it suddenly struck me how much of the Leipzig vibe is dependent on it’s Communist history. There could well be a dissertation topic in there. ‘Ostalgie’ or nostalgia for East Germany is well documented, but most discussion of positive remnants left from the DDR are concerned with social elements and not culture. That needs more thought, but it could be really interesting.
So there we go. I’ll be writing as I explore Leipzig, but see this as an introduction of sorts. I just want to wrap this all up with a thought about my rant on education that makes up over half of this post. Although I am technically here to study, in many ways I am using my time in Leipzig as 1/ a break from the uphill fight that my degree has been, and 2/ an opportunity to balance the system with my drowned out interests. My time in Leipzig isn’t meant to be about goals, but about moving along a road and making that road a little bit wider.