Schoolchildren… just small adults?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 11.09.2020

Little Luxembourgish kids are just twelve years old when they are put, based on academic performance and teacher opinion, onto the school track that will determine their ultimate educative outcome. Hell, their outcome in life. You are earmarked for classical education or not, a fateful moment that influences everything, including your options when, a few years later, you must pick a section. Will you study or train to become a teacher, a salesperson, a dentist, an electrician, an artist? This is pretty heavy stuff, if you ask me. And it all happens when, age-wise, you’re at your absolute worst. Your fashion sucks, your body is producing new smells, your peers are devastatingly mean, and your interface with every detail of life hinges on how “cool” you think it is.

Little American kids, meanwhile, don’t face much pressure and certainly nothing that formally closes doors. In fact, every pretense is made to keep all doors open for American kids, to the extent that you aren’t obliged to choose a subject of study before the end of your sophomore year of college. That’s when you’re, oh, about twenty. Twenty! It might have been nice to get a foundational knowledge of your core subject by the time your four-year, $120 000 undergraduate degree is half over, but you didn’t. Too bad. You spent that time “shopping around” for a major, and now that you’ve got one (congrats!) the real world is hurtling towards you. Plus, your international peers are way ahead.

Is nobody else shocked at this eight-year difference in the moment when your studies are first narrowed down towards a specific subject or career? Eight years! Now, nobody wants to take lessons (literally or figuratively) from the American school system, which is famously underfunded and, well, disastrous, but I find twelve a smidge too young for the pressure of forging your future. On the flipside, twenty is completely exaggerated the other way: a bit more pressure would do you good as a freewheeling American teen.

I realize, of course, that I’m simplifying the pictures of both systems. Students in Luxembourg do have some flexibility in changing courses of study, and American schools do encourage kids to figure out and focus on their interests. Yet the spirit of the observation holds true: Luxembourgish schools start early on with testing, sorting, and focusing pupils based on ability and interest, while American schools, including universities, minimize their use of gatekeeping tests and impose far less structure on your curriculum.

I think that more is going on here than just administrative style. The respective systems, I argue, reflect the national cultures of each place. American society imagines the divide between adolescence and adulthood as absolute, and so its schools intentionally keep pressure off kids: you can screw up and fail a few tests without (necessarily) affecting your future, school programs formalize your “play” as extracurricular strengths that university admissions boards will consider alongside your grades, you aren’t expected to figure out your career or ultimate interests until after high school. In contrast, Luxembourgish society credits young people with being themselves (or their eventual selves) much sooner: your early school performance determines your future professional milieu, your intellectual interests define your curriculum, schools are strongly oriented towards academics (and not disrupted by school sports and mascots and dances and marching bands like in the USA).

To see the same phenomenon elsewhere, look at alcohol. As everyone knows, American parents are petrified that their little teenage babies might have a drop of beer, while Luxembourgish parents expect their youngsters to go out and, you know, responsibly enjoy their youth. The American drinking age is twenty-one (come to think of it, that’s around when you decide on a career path) and, while this limitation is famously ignored in movies and on college campuses, my experience is that most parents take it seriously. Cool parents do turn a blind eye towards a bit of drunkenness but, if asked directly, will still condemn it. Uncool parents, the vast majority, will ground you if they catch you drinking any of the devil’s drinks. As such, moving out of the house to go to college is a rite of passage, a coming out into the “adult” world of fermented drinks and doing your own laundry and choosing your own subjects to study. Almost overnight, you transform from child to adult.

Tellingly, the Luxembourgish drinking age is just sixteen, around when you decide your core school subjects. And having a drink or two before that, so I hear, is generally no big deal. At least from my vantage point, this supports the idea that Luxembourgish youngsters are imagined as small adults, expected to withstand the jokes their parents make about their first hangovers. Beer is even sold at lycée events. Beer at school! In the USA, someone would call the cops about that and it would make the news the next day.

I often wonder: how would I have done in the Luxembourgish system? Having a more structured curriculum earlier would certainly have been welcome – during an undergraduate exchange year at an Irish university, I saw how far behind I was. But, then again, as a little kid all that pressure might have kicked my ass. When I was twelve, I still kept a bunch of rocks in a drawer and called them “my family.” And I wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint my family.

Jeffrey Palms
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