Contrasting Academic Cultures: Canada and Denmark

About two months ago, I started my exchange in Denmark. I’ve been attending Aarhus University in a city of the same name, and I’m taking courses in a few different subjects including history, political science and international studies. Before starting classes, I was asked to attend the university programmed introductory days where they gave us a closer look at Danish culture, humor and customs. One of the most interesting things I learned was the Nordic practice of the Law of Jante. This law (that’s not really a law), is considered a type of code to live by where everyone is equal, and no one should ever consider themselves to be worthy of praise over someone else.

It can seem like this set of “laws” is saying that you’re a nobody, but what it’s actually doing is saying that everyone is someone and all these persons are equal. Who can disagree with that?

While this “law” is not practiced overtly, the main concepts of this law remain a large part of Danish culture—specifically, overall equality among all aspects of society: gender, class, level of education, etc. For me, this became very important when starting my academic life here in Aarhus. I wasn’t completely aware of the contrast to Canada until I read Jacklyn Marshall’s article, “Friendly Competition.” In this article, Marshall describes the highly competitive academic culture present in most, if not all, Canadian universities. Often, we worry more about surpassing others, rather than setting and reaching goals that are specific to our personal strengths.

My experience with a competitive academic culture began in elementary school. Those with the highest averages would receive awards that were handed out publicly, and being the person with the highest grade average in the class, while exciting, was also a point of disdain for others. You could be called a “try-hard,” among other common insults regarding intelligence or a drive to succeed—which, in elementary school, can be damaging. In high school, it was common to be asked what grade you received on an assignment. If you answered honestly with a high percentage, you would be told that you were showing off. If you received a low grade but blew it off with a joke, you were praised as being “carefree.” That was my experience, anyway.

You could say this is just kids being kids, but I prefer to see this as a reflection of the society we live in and have fostered. Intelligence should never be the focus of an insult, but that’s exactly what it’s become. When receiving an award of merit, we do not easily congratulate; we mock. The success of others threatens us rather than inspires us.

As Marshall explains in her article, this continues into university. If you slack off and miss class, you’re lauded as a hero among certain groups, and looked at with disdain by others. The person who always raises their hand, asks questions, goes to every office hour and always speaks to the professor after class is most likely the least liked person in class. And why should they be? Because they work hard? There is a considerable lack of support among university students for their peers.

In Denmark, the academic culture is completely different—again, this has been my experience, but based on chats with others, this experience is familiar.

One of my professors is not Danish but 90 percent of the students in her class are. This professor has us complete a participation questionnaire after each class. The questionnaire is filled with basic questions regarding whether we did the readings, if we completed the assignment, if we came to class, etc. The last question was along the lines of, “Write the names of the three people who spoke the most in class today.” I was initially annoyed at the question because I knew no one’s name and didn’t want to ask, but I tried to answer it. A few weeks later, with a similar questionnaire each week, we completed a class evaluation. The Danish students in the class spoke out about the last question, saying it went against their culture and felt “weird” to answer. My first thought was that they must be trying to get out of doing the quiz. I was wrong. They were genuinely dismayed at having to set apart three students from the class of roughly 20 as having done more work than the other students.

This was completely new to me and I was very confused. In high school, I had one class where a part of our grade was based on verbal participation. This is completely normal, but the grade we received was based on the performance of others. If someone spoke 20 times (this being the most), and another person spoke 18 times, and you spoke five times, the person who spoke 20 times would receive the highest grade. The person who spoke 18 times would receive a high grade as well (although not the highest) and you, at five, would receive a relatively low grade. However, the next time, if the person who spoke the most spoke five times, they would still receive the highest possible grade. The mark was not based on your performance along a certain set of requirements—rather, it was based solely on the performance of others.

At the time, I thought this was completely normal, besides being annoyed at having to verbally participate, I didn’t think twice of it. But hearing the response of the Danish students to a system based on similar principles made me think.

While competition can encourage people to work harder, it often discourages teamwork and pits us against each other. Someone may have an easier time reaching a similar goal that you’re striving for, but this should not make them an obstacle in your path, or an example that makes you think you can’t do the same. Rather, you should see this person and their success as a valuable asset who could provide advice and help you reach your own goals.

And what does this mean for our lives outside of class? We spend decades inside educational institutions setting us against each other. How do we live our lives in the real world? Are we so focused on being the best that we won’t help those around us? It makes for a sad image of the future.

Here’s a good starting point: education is not about being the best and it should not be about whose grades are the highest. It should be about broadening our minds, thinking in new and different ways and forcing us to abandon the preconceived notions we had of the world. Let’s make sure it’s not dwindled down to a “me vs. the world” mentality.

And as a final reminder: don’t fancy yourself as being better than any other. Because you’re not, and neither am I.

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