Pupil to Professor: Lottenbach Values U.S. Education
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Assistant Professor of Philosophy Hans Lottenbach didn’t go to his university’s graduation. In fact, nobody did. At the University of Zurich, Lottenbach said, “Nobody welcomes you, and nobody says goodbye.”
Instead, he received his diploma in the mail.
Lottenbach grew up in Zurich, Switzerland, where all education, from kindergarten through university, is public, and students generally attend the university in their city, a stark contrast with a place like Kenyon.
“[In America,] with the right high school degree you have access … to all the universities. It’s a very different system,” he said. “It’s not the universities that choose their students, it’s actually students who choose the schools.”
Lottenbach did not just escape the stress that usually accompanies the American college application process, he also escaped the tuition.
“I paid a nominal registration fee, the equivalent of $100 or something,” he said.
And after years of working under incredible stress in high school, Lottenbach said many students felt they deserved a reprieve in university.
“The top high schools are extremely rigorous. You are under constant pressure to learn, so after you finish … you want to relax a bit,” Lottenbach said. “[The universities] give you incredible choice: you can do whatever you want, you take a class, you don’t have to write a paper [and] there are no exams.”
Some students have stayed in the Swiss university system for 20 years. But this degree of leniency, while ideal for many, presented challenges for Lottenbach.
“You had to control yourself, so you had to set your own plan what to do since there’s nobody who would force you [to],” Lottenbach said. “The trick was to find a way of actually limiting your time and finishing fast without any outside pressure. So you have to force yourself to fulfill the very easy requirements.”
Lottenbach did not realize his interest in philosophy at first. He pursued diverse subjects, including classics, history and politics. After taking several philosophy classes, though, he was hooked and decided to continue on that path. He majored in philosophy with minors in history and sociology.
“I was interested in what I found in classical philosophy. The quality of the reasoning, the arguments [and] the intellectual discipline … struck me as impressive, so I stuck with it,” Lottenbach said.
As interested as he was in philosophy, Lottenbach said he became frustrated with his professors.
“Most of the teaching was done by assistants, and actually the assistants tended to be better than the professors,” he said.
“The professors tended to be horribly bad. Some of the professors were completely useless, I mean complete frauds.”
As someone who was attracted to the idea of a career in academia, Lottenbach said he decided that he did not want to be involved in a system that he did not respect.
“I realized that I have nothing to learn from these people; actually, I never had to learn anything from these people because they were incompetent,” he said. “That’s the reason why I left.”
Lottenbach came to the U.S. to pursue a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. When he got there, he found an environment different from the one he had left in Zurich.
“In graduate school … you’re part of a class, you take the same classes, required courses with the same kind of people,” Lottenbach said. “The social engagement is closer since you’re forced to be together, which was different from in Zurich, [where] you meet people loosely.”
After graduate school, Lottenbach held visiting positions at Princeton University; the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pittsburgh. He applied for many tenure-track jobs and accepted one at at Kenyon.
He said the differences between his life as a university student in Zurich and the lives of Kenyon students are everywhere.
“In Switzerland I stayed in the same city [for university]. I didn’t move. Nothing changed,” he said. “It’s not college life: you don’t live in a dorm, you don’t have a meal plan at some cafeteria.”
It’s difficult for many Americans to understand this concept, Lottenbach said, because it is so unlike the transition from high school to college in the U.S.
“Going to college [in the U.S.] is a big deal … because students for the first time are leaving their homes, going to a different kind of place, a new life. It’s a big break,” Lottenbach said.
As different as Kenyon is from what Lottenbach grew up with, he said he feels that he has found his niche here.
“This kind of teaching job suits me well,” he said, “since it seems this is something that I might have a small talent for.”