Although the television series “Mad Men” has yet to take up the subject of college applications, I could well imagine an episode in which ad man Don Draper spends his day consuming vast quantities of Scotch and cigarettes, only to come home and have his wife say (while ignoring the lipstick on his collar): “I spoke to Millie today, and she had some good things to say about Williams.”
When Britain still had an Empire, what mattered most was to get your daughters married and your sons into a good regiment. In Homeland America, all that matters to middle-class and affluent parents is getting their children into the best colleges that money can buy or that the Standardized Aptitude Test will allow.
Friends of mine who have college-bound children talk only about test schedules, AP credits, summer programs for gifted children, sports highlight reels, and the easiest routes to Duke or Pomona.
They search family trees for ancestral connections or minority status, and make charts of other friends who might know someone at Yale. Editors at the New Yorker are consulted about personal statements. During school downtime, kids are dispatched to examine China’s terra-cotta warriors or Seattle's soup kitchens, all with the goal of padding the college application.
I say all this as a parent who is about to launch his third child in the direction of the ivory towers, with no better idea than what guided us in sending off the first two. For years my wife and I have talked about colleges the way other couples play canasta. We use it to fill the lazy hours in the car or after dinner, as each of us is already familiar with each other’s reading lists and views about Rick Santorum.
What prolongs these familiar exchanges is that we are the parents of American children who have grown up in Switzerland, attending public schools in French. The college conversation has become a proxy for whether we are Europeans or Americans. Whatever decisions we make, they feel like the wrong ones.
When the children stay in Switzerland, I feel they have missed out on what I had in the American liberal arts, although when they leave for the States, it feels far away, expensive, and obsessed with the cult of Goldman’s Sachs-ism.
Swiss secondary education is roughly similar to U.S. high school, although collège, as it is called in French, has a thirteenth year and every year students are weeded out of the university track. Our daughter Helen was the only member of her sixth grade class to graduate from a Swiss university. Of the 350 students who started with her in the tenth grade at collège, only about 200 graduated; the rest were relegated to apprenticeships or trade schools.
For anyone in Switzerland who earns their high school diploma (known as a maturité gymnasiale), the entire university system is an open door, and tuition is $1000 a year. The country has little college testing and applications. To attend law or business school, a student merely adds his or her name to a list. The trick to staying at university is maintaining a B average, and only about two-thirds of each class does.
University in Switzerland is much closer to American graduate school than a U.S. liberal arts education. Students specialize in a branch of study, say, law, economics, literature, or engineering. Classes, at least in the first year, are large lectures, and the best grades are given to those students who write down what the professor has said and recall this wisdom on the final exam.
Readings only supplement the lectures. In later years, there are more seminars and papers, but the system recalls the hierarchy of a German universität more than a Berkeley teach-in. Facts count far more than expressing your feelings about Siddhartha.
In physical layout, Swiss universities look like inner-city high schools. Few offer social clubs, sports programs, psychological counseling, toga parties, or alumni gatherings. Their goal is to teach a specified curriculum. If the Ivy League is best understood as the first class ticket of higher education, a Swiss university is more like Southwest or easyJet—the seats are cramped and the champagne is extra.
With another daughter at an American college, I am struck—in comparison with the Swiss system—by the engagement that the U.S. professors have with their students, and at their goal of inspiring undergraduates to think for themselves. One professor said to my daughter, early on in her studies: “Laura, you’ve written a Swiss paper. I want an American paper. Tell me what you think.”
Of course, such independence of mind costs $200,000 over four years, so that your child can then spend another eighteen months as an unpaid intern at Sterling Cooper, gaining what the market, as well as Balzac, might call “experience.”
With our nineteen-year-old son, now in his last year of collège, we decided to split the geographical and financial differences between the U.S. and Switzerland, and encouraged him to apply to British universities, which are a cross between America's liberal arts and Europe’s narrow focus.
Three years’ tuition in England is about $50,000, and London is only an hour’s flight from where we live. We liked the idea that he would be studying in English and in small tutorials with eccentric professors. When I went with my son to his interview at Cambridge (he did not get in), I was struck by how detached Britain is from the rest of Europe. Not a single Swiss student has been admitted to the university in three years, and the translation of Swiss transcripts into English grades makes it clear that it might be another decade before any more are admitted.
Britain, like America, suffers from grade inflation, so everyone comes out of high school sounding terrific, with great marks and astonishing teacher recommendations. By contrast, the Swiss take great pleasure in grade deflation (the motto might be: “Every Child Left Behind”), and do a terrible job of promoting their students to the rest of the world.
An excellent average in a Swiss collège gets reported to Britain or the U.S. as someone with C+ grades. My daughter finished third in her Swiss class, and her recommendation letter from the school, in its entirety, read: “Laura Stevenson has fulfilled all the requirements of Collège de Saussure.” Little wonder that she was turned down at many American universities.
What do I want from a university for my children? I want them to be able to write clear, forceful English (or French) that is informed and, if they choose, amusing. I want them to have the intellectual ability to challenge accepted assumptions—for example, that the New Deal ended the Depression, George Washington had a great military mind, or Shakespeare wrote all his plays.
I would like them to learn to read critically, so that can they scoff at cant and pretense: for example, to see that Yale man Bob Woodward writes in language that looks as if it has been translated from Slovakian. I would also like them to view their education as a plant that needs watering on most days following graduation.
If my older son goes to college in England, we might be tempted to send our last child, also a son, to university in either France or Germany. That way, each of our children will have been educated in a different system. Then, in ten years, as we judge their successes or failures, we can rail about the rigidity of the Confederation of the Rhine, the British class system, Swiss banality, or U.S. careerism—or we can sing the praises of German rigor, the legacy of the English enlightenment, Swiss precision, or the iconoclastic American mind.
Photo: Prof Believeau's Yale University by Ina Centaur
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He lives in one of the wine regions of Switzerland. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.