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Comment: Danish universities not 'world class'

The Danish academic system offers a number of interesting things, writes international professor Linda Maria Koldau of Aarhus University in this featured comment. But a serious world class education in the Humanities is not necessarily one of them

I would like to briefly focus on two aspects that are a vital principle at Aarhus University. The first is the claim that Aarhus University offers a ‘world class’ education, the second is the principle that Danish universities should assume responsibility for an education that grants their students jobs.

It is my hope and wish that this will open up new perspectives and possibilities in our conception of a humanistic education, to the benefit of Aarhus University and of our students.

It is the aim of Aarhus University to offer academic education ‘of world class’ standard. In fact, the university has quite a tradition to build on: the first professor of Musicology was Knud Jeppesen – one of the most famous musicologists of the 20th century. In the natural sciences, Aarhus University can be associated with several scholars who were awarded the Nobel Prize. A fine tradition to build on – but also something to preserve:

‘Firm footing in the depths’

Aarhus University used to proudly display the motto ‘Solidum petit in profundis Universitas Aarhusiensis’ – ‘Aarhus University seeks a firm footing in the depths’ on paper and on websites.

Check out the logo on the top left corner of this site here, that has not yet switched over to the new logo:

Check it out here.

Indeed it was a fitting motto, representing what any scholar and any student should aspire to. The dolphins and the anchor possess a very complex meaning, based on various antique and Christian traditions, which I will not go into at this point.

Fragmented letters

Let us stick to the university motto ‘Solidum petit in profundis’ – who at Aarhus University is still able to understand the original text? The Department of History and Area Studies has abolished Latin as a competence that students of history should have. Quite recently, a reviewer of one of Aarhus University’s prestige publications, ‘Middelalderens Verden’, remarked that some of the essays reveal a deplorable decline in university education: It has become evident that some scholars working in the Middle Ages are no longer capable of reading and understanding Latin. Danish students of musicology have long since been liberated from the obligation to learn and understand Latin – thereby losing the ability to understand the greatest part of theoretical and aesthetic reflection on music and its meaning in Western history.

This process of modernizing the curriculum has a striking visual equivalent at Aarhus University – the university’s logo has recently been modernized, from the old, symbolically complex seal to fragmented letters, which have become the university’s hallmark all over Denmark:

Check it out here top left.

No latin, no musical notation

However, it is not only Latin that has become superfluous in academic education in the field of music (and it is indeed legitimate to discuss the necessity of Latin for the students who nowadays prefer to focus on ethnology, 19th-century music or popular music culture):

Adhering to the ideology of being ‘up to date’ with modern society, Aarhus University has decided that students no longer even have to be able to read musical notation in order to obtain a Masters degree in musicology. Not to speak of any knowledge to the basic repertoire in classical music.

How does this trend, perceptible both in the university’s visual representation and in its curricula, relate to the claim of being ‘world class’?

Ballet is world class

Denmark does in fact have a famous world class education in a musical field:

The Royal Danish Ballet has never lost its reputation of being among the world’s premier ballet companies. Denmark is proud of its native dancers, such as Thomas Lund, Susanne Grinder, or Gudrun Bojesen who indeed represent a standard everywhere of world class education.

Danish children do have a chance for a world class education in both music and in dance – if they enter one of the ballet schools affiliated to the Royal Danish Ballet. Besides their education in dance, these children receive a first class high school education – including music history and musical repertoire. How does the subject of musicology at Aarhus University stand in this national competition for world class education?

Dangerous word

Having been professor at Aarhus University for two years, I am afraid to state that these little girls after about two years’ schooling at their special high school will know more about music, its meaning and its relevance to society than any adult ‘Master of Musicology’ after a five-year ‘world class’ education at Aarhus University.

This is, in fact, tragic, since I have worked with Danish students who might have just as much potential as the highly talented ballet students. These students are, however, not given what they need in order to realize this potential. Some of them are bitterly aware of this.

One aspect of this problem lies in the contents of their education. Another lies in the pedagogical principles applied at university. There is one central principle for world class education that every dancer learns at the age of five. It is a simple principle which can be expressed in a single word. In all the discussions and debates at Aarhus University about world class education I have never heard this word – and I, as a professor, would become quite unpopular if I used it either in these debates or in my own courses. In fact, there was one person who once uttered the word at this university – in a debate about what world class education is and how it still can be financed in times of economic crisis. Tellingly, this person was not from the university, he was the Vice President of People and Organization, not from NOVO Nordisk, but from another international company. And he dared use this dangerous word:


Back to school

Even if we try to be ‘modern’ and up to date in our educational principles – we will never be able to avoid the fact that education demands discipline. That is, the determination to work independently, and the staying power to keep going. Even if learning is not always fun. (As a comfort to all the students reading: if you really are interested and committed, learning is great fun, even if it does require discipline.)

What, however, are the principles we, the academic teachers, are supposed to adhere to? Quite recently, a paper was sent around by the Board of Studies, as an orientation and admonition for our future teaching methods. In the introduction, it was stated:

»It is the government’s agenda that by 2015 at least 50 per cent of all high school students shall receive an academic education. This means, somewhat simplified, that we increasingly have students who aspire at an academic education yet display a weak personal commitment. These students are typically well-behaved, conscientious and ‘school-loyal’ students, whose primary reason to be at university is to get some education – no matter which. They experience their subject of studies as an obligation and thus do not seek information and knowledge out of their own impetus. They will, however, do this gladly, if the university – which they call ‘school’ – gives them some challenge in form of tasks (called ‘homework’).«

‘Job-oriented’ curriculum

How do we, experienced, but maybe somewhat ‘outdated’ academic teachers, cope with this new generation? Well, university magazines quote kindergarten pedagogues, who tell us about their educational insights – and admonish us that our students are not so much different from kindergarten or primary school children.

Well, after two years at Aarhus University, there is much in the Danish academic system that remains a riddle to me, especially in the discussion of ‘world class’ education and of a job-oriented curriculum.

For a foreign professor, the enormous responsibility Danish universities take on their shoulders is astounding: We are responsible for our students getting jobs! This is indeed amazing. In Germany, there was much hype to get an academic education in engineering or in economics in the 1980s. Almost every other high school student chose such an education, since there was the promise of excellent job prospects. Well, after their five-year education they came to realize that the hype about the job market had died away – leaving them without a job for years. At the same time, nobody would choose teacher education: bad job prospects. Now, Germany is dying for well-educated teachers in Maths, Physics, Latin, and Music.

Danish universities, in turn, have taken the responsibility on their shoulders that it is up to us, the university and its academic teachers, to prepare the students for jobs. What does this mean for the contents and methods we are to use in our courses? I cannot go into this complex and delicate question here – I just wonder if the idea to take a third of a – far too short – Masters education away in favour of some ‘job-profiling’ course really is doing the students a favour. If I look at what the students actually are doing in their courses, how they are trained to work and write their exams, I wonder how they ever will be able to cope with the tasks any job in the modern job market will challenge them with.

Another controversial word

Can it really be our responsibility to see to it that our students get jobs? And what about the students themselves? Besides discipline, there is another word I have dearly missed in all the discussions at university so far. A Danish colleague in fact asked me what it means, so maybe it does not exist in Danish?

‘Personal responsibility’

In Germany we talk about ‘Eigenverantwortung’, in English you can use the words ‘personal responsibility’ or ‘self-reliance’.

Expect the work

What does this mean in the context of university? Our students are grown up when they come to university. As young adults, they have taken the decision to get an academic education – which, by the way, costs the state and thus every single person paying tax in Denmark money. Money to pay for an education that gives our students better job chances and grants them a better salary and thus a higher living standard. The students have made the decision to dedicate three or five years to such an education. If they have chosen a discipline in the humanities, they should be grown-up enough to know that they have taken a risk – by choosing an education which may well mean that they will not find a job or that they will have to work in quite another field than the one they studied later on. If they nevertheless have chosen this subject, they should be grown-up enough to stand in for this risk – university will never, I repeat: never, be able to take it from their shoulders. Instead, the universities might think about what their job is: to give them as well-founded an academic education as possible. To do exactly what universities are meant to do.

Another vital part of this personal responsibility is commitment. If my students have chosen this education, I, as a professor, expect them to work – without forcing ‘homework’ on them and controlling this homework every week. Let the students stand in for their life and learn to take responsibility. It is as easy as that.

All they need

How do we then make students fit for their working life? I see it as my task to train them in one single task that can be described in four steps:

1. to gain access to a subject matter via self-reliant research and study of sources and literature
2. to be able to discern a problem within this subject matter
3. to be able to independently work out a strategy to solve the problem
4. to be able to present their solution in a clear, generally understandable way

This basically is all that our students need for their future job life. They can get it by studying Musicology, Chinese Studies, Archaeology, Russian Literature, or Maths. It is as easy as that.

Well, in the ongoing discussions here at Aarhus University I as a foreign professor keep marvelling at the Danish academic system. And I keep wondering if the Danish job market really needs and wants what our students are being trained in.

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