That time I moved to Germany, and became critical of organised education


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.

 

 

 

 

 

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full circle.


I find it strange that, despite being agnostic, every time I finish a meditation I almost invariably bow my head and say thank you…to something…

Just an odd little musing to begin my little today’s writing with.

I’m really meant to be finishing off an essay for one of my Chinese modules this evening, but as I was walking home from my weekend-ly shop and coffee shop reading stop, I decided that what really clinched a higher point on the importance ladder was actually writing something on the web again.

I’ve been at uni for around 2 months now, and i’ve spent that time breaking the rules of being a student. What on earth do I mean by that?

Firstly, there is a myth that all first years do not in fact do any work.

This is almost true.

There are however some that end up working all the time, and it appears that a happy combination of German and Chinese (with a module in Arabic on the side) kind of forces your free time to take a holiday without you.

I’m actually loving being so busy though. It feels great to never even have a chance of being bored. Sure, I’ve had no time to write this poor, ignored, blog, among other hobbies, but to spend every hour doing things that interest you is awesome.

And that thought brings me round nicely to an interesting fact…

I believe one of the first things I ever wrote about online was the importance of doing what you believe in/have interest in/ are passionate about and how empowering that is. It seems that ideas move in circles, but beautiful, expanding circles that somehow meet again points where they are poignant .

What is poignant about right now for me then?

It’s common (at least for me) for beginning uni students to be asked a difficult questions by their peers on an almost daily basis – “so what do you want to do in the future?”

Some have a clear goal. Other’s have a rough idea. Yet more have no idea whatsoever.

It’s a good question though, and one that I’ve answered with numerous answers, depending on what feels right. Sometimes the answer of “I don’t really know” seems right. Sometimes to declare my goals as “either being in academia, journalism or politics” is my response.

Other times the answer is ‘I want to be happy’.

Just so you, as the reader, know, I ‘ll interject on my own writing here and say that I didn’t begin writing today with any set goal as such on where my writing would lead, so apologies if this all seems disjointed. I will post this as soon as I’ve finished writing rather than proof-reading. It just seems right today to do so. This is therefore a semi-disclaimer for disjointed content!

The truth is, I have many loose goals, enclosed by the last one – to be happy.

and that, is perhaps why everything around me currently seems so poignant. I’m at university – it’s a big change. I’m doing something I really care about – that’s a big deal. I’ve come back from life changing experiences from living in far-western China for a year – that’s of huge important. I’m now also in the position to look back on that in retrospect – that is definitely, without a doubt a huge deal.

So yes, it seems that in hindsight to the beginnings of this blog i have come full circle. But that would suggest that i’m back at a rhetorical ‘square one’, surely?

I’m not ashamed to say that when I started writing this blog, I was in a dark dark place. I used to suffer from severe depression, which I only ever told one person the majority of. I didn’t even tell him everything, as despite not being depressed anymore, I keep some secrets to myself (as some of my friends will be aware of – trying to work out the enigma that is me!). I’m definitely not back to this point, and although I would never try to erase my days of depression – it made me who I am – I don’t want to ever go back to that abyss.

I have however held onto part of my depression – melancholy. Melancholy makes me happiest. Perhaps it’s seems totally wrong for that to be the case, but even great artists of the past have accepted melancholy as not just an interesting concept to explore, but essential for expression. In a way, I see my years of depression as now being essential to being as happy as I can be. Whether you can share this opinion or not, there is no way you can have such an intense form of happiness without melancholy. So I hold that it seems things have come full circle, but those

circles are growing wider, more open, more all-encompassing.

Like a good, deep meditation.

And so this post too comes full circle.

Which makes it the perfect time to end.

I leave you with a picture of this time last year. Near the edge of western China, where it meets the stans. Yining, Xinjiang province.

Yining, Xinjiang province China

Yining, Xinjiang province China

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading, have a wonderful day.

Ni Hao! it’s the beginning and the end…


I said I would return after the stress of exams disappeared, and I didn’t lie!

So…this means I should get back to writing.

This post therefore shall be a ‘what’s happened in the last bit of time since forever then?’ post.

I have, as I said right at the start there, finished my exams and officially no longer a school student. It may be a year late, but I got to the end eventually! Next stop on life’s journey is China and I found out since last time i wrote exactly where I am going. My home for a year will be a city called ‘Kuitun‘ in ‘xinjiang’ province (which I recently found yesterday I have been pronouncing wrong…).

So! A little about xinjiang! It is the most north-west province in China, sharing borders with countries such as Mongolia, tajikistan, Pakistan and even a tiny little bit of Russia. In other words, it’s big. The biggest in China in fact. Apparently it may just be around three times the size of France. For just one province…

It is also the world’s most inland region. So not surprisingly, large areas are desert. Having spent my life so far in the UK – not known for its great deserts – this will be an experience. This particular desert is the Gobi desert, which (I believe) is famous for being the end of the Silk road. If living in a desert in an obscure part of China for a year can’t get me writing again, I don’t know what can…so watch this space over the next year, as as long as I actually can get onto wordpress through the Chinese internet censoring etc, this blog should be flooding with exciting things. If not, there will definitely be a blog from me in some form or the other, somewhere hidden on the internet.

The real reason I’ve put the title I have here as the Title was (other than the self-explanatory ni hao (without the tones! Oh how horrible it is to look at without them!)) that I just happened to be listening to a song of the same name (anathema – the beginning and the end), but it seemed to fit rather nicely. My exams finish, signalling the end of school – something which, although it is not amazing to admit it, ends up essentially being a person’s life until they leave it. That is the ‘end’. At the same time, it is the beginning. The beginning of something fresh and new. “Nothing that doth change, but doth suffer a sea change”. Sorry, Shakespeare just felt right there. Changed slightly so it fits better. Within a few months I will know if I will spend my university years in London or Aberdeen, and prior to going I will be in China. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t many things which are a new ‘beginning’ as that.

And I hope that words come streaming from it. There has been a great lack of them outside of essays for far too long.

English: The Gobi Desert stretches into Inner ...

English: The Gobi Desert stretches into Inner Mongolia, China. 中文: 内蒙古的戈壁沙漠。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer! The picture, although the same desert, is in mongolia and not Xinjiang! It is a rather large desert, stretching into many countries.

 

 

 

Where have I been?


So…I haven’t written anything here on my lovely blog for a whole 2 months now. Considering one of my most recent blogs (maybe between 5-10 ago?) explained how i was going to write a blog a day from that point on, it looks like I may have been sidetracked along the way. Well, I do hope I can say truthfully this time that i’m back! Writing-wise, I haven’t had much inspiration lately as it seems to be drowned under the endless work of the past months-mainly German work, but more on that later.

This year, as I believe i have said before, is my last school year ( a year later than it should have been, but never mind . What this means, is that the time to apply for university has finally arrived and therefore much of my time has been focused on that most challenging of tasks lately. Yet for the first time in months, As i sat in a cafe with an espresso in hand, I was blessed with the wonderful – and currently rare – combination of inspiration and time to write. In other words, I have a poem to put up soon! I’m very much looking forward to finishing it; hopefully tomorrow, and rejoining the wordpress community.

As i said above, I am in the process of applying to university now. Let me tell you for what and where I have applied. I will hopefully in the very near future be studying German and Scandinavian studies, and have applied to this course at UCL in London, Edinburgh and Aberdeen…none of which have yet given me offers unfortunately, but all three do say not to expect replies until January. I have also applied to two single honours German courses at Birmingham and Leeds; both of which have already given me offers, which is all very exciting.

I have expressed my love of languages before here on my blog (look for the ‘words of the world’ posts and a very poor attempt at a simple German poem), and since applying for German I really feel like adding a bit more of that language flavour to it. I am considering therefore putting up translations of some of the German songs I listen to, some of which have incredibly beautiful texts.

On a final note, I’m happy to see that despite not posting anything for months, i’m still getting the occasional view. I’m particularly happy to see that I got my first view from Finland, meaning that, Denmark-You’re the last nordic country left! visit soon!

So watch this space-new work will hopefully be on the way soon!