Mosaic / Special Topics / Study Abroad / October 31, 2012

Classroom? Berlin is my classroom

The Volksbühne Theater in Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz is one of several theaters that I go to as a regular part of class. (Matt Barry/TKS).

Something often lost, or at least decidedly de-emphasized, in the discussion of studying abroad is how much time you will spend actually studying. Though some brochures might imply otherwise, a semester in Europe is not a non-stop whirlwind of exotic locales and unforgettable adventures. Certainly it features both of those things, but at some point, you do have to take a break from them and actually attend classes.

Thus it is that I have to turn my topic this week to the classroom. “Classroom” though, as a word, has a restrictive feel to it that is entirely inappropriate to what going to class in Berlin is actually like for me.

What I love about my courses here is that they would be impossible to recreate in Galesburg. I will go to literature class on a Monday and read and discuss selected poems of Bertolt Brecht. Then on Tuesday, our professor will walk us five minutes to Brecht’s old apartment, now a museum, and we will spend class perusing the bookshelves and crowding around his old writing desk. These excursions feel less like field trips and more like the natural outgrowths of the class itself in a way that I have only rarely experienced in my educational life.
Or let’s take another example. In my drama class, the reading list at first glance seems entirely haphazard, as it skips around authors and eras with little obvious coherence. But it is actually entirely logical, because every play we read in class is being staged somewhere in the city and as part of the course, we go to a staging. The reading list thus adapts itself to the performance calendar of Berlin’s theatrical scene.  The city itself, in a sense, decides our syllabus. We have a normal classroom, but the theaters of Berlin are our classroom as well. Though Knox is blessed with a fine theater department, this sort of course simply could not happen even with English plays, to say nothing of Galesburg’s noticeable lack of German-language drama.

Now I love how Berlin offers me a way to study literature in such a fascinating manner, but as anyone who has read the Discourse section of TKS in the last two years is well aware, politics is my real passion. As appealing as Kultur is, Berlin’s real pull was always the way it offered me a chance to be in the thick of European politics during what is indisputably a critical time for the future of Europe.
Henry Kissinger famously once asked whom he would call if he wanted to call Europe. If Mr. Kissinger still wishes to place that call, he would probably direct it to the office of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. As the countries on the southern rim of the eurozone one by one fall into fiscal chaos, Germany, large and prosperous, is finding that the future of Europe may very well lie in its hands. What Germany should do with this opportunity is still a matter of heated debate.

The European financial crisis, though, is only one of the ongoing discussions. All of the most fascinating questions of the day — Should Greece exit the euro? What can the West do to help the civilians of Syria? Where is the Arab Spring headed? — are being discussed and argued over all over the city.

My political science professor, well aware of this, doesn’t really bother with syllabi, reading lists or midterms. He considers it a travesty to stay in the classroom and discuss politics while all of this is happening around us every day. Instead, he has created a politics class unlike any I’ve ever taken. Class consists primarily of invitations to political events happening all over the city — in diplomatic buildings, think tanks and political foundations. He lets you know what is going on, and then you decide the rest.

As a result, I can spend Tuesday in “class” hearing the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs defend the EU’s response to the crisis in Syria and then spend Friday at a discussion about what Europe will look like in 2020 between the Irish foreign minister and the German Social Democratic Party’s nominee for chancellor. Knox is certainly capable of attracting some fascinating political speakers to campus, but it is nowhere near able to offer this kind of diversity of events.
Of course, running around to different events around the city all day has its downsides. What you gain in opportunities you have to pay for in loss of community. In weeks like this, you realize that the ties that bind Knox together, both in an educational and in a larger sense, are really special and are not easily replicated. What goes on in Berlin happens nowhere else in the world. The same, though, is true of Galesburg as well. What I am ultimately most grateful for is that I get to experience both.

Tags:  Angela Merkel arab spring berlin Bertolt Brecht class Commisioner for Humanitarian Affairs EU euro Europe European financial crisis eurozone Galesburg German Social Democratic Party germany greece Henry Kissinger Kultur syria

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