Voegelin on students (1973)

From Eric Voegelin’s Autobiographical Reflections:

I am frequently asked about my experiences regarding the difference between European and American students. There are marked differences but not of such a nature that I should say that one type is preferable to the other. They have their peculiarities. With the Germans, I found a very high degree of background knowledge that facilitated their progress to independent work in science. The people whom I admitted to my seminars, and especially the ones who became assistants and conducted their own seminars, had a knowledge of at least one Classical language and of course were able to read German, French, and English fluently. Some of them had additional knowledge of languages in their particular field. The Islamists, for instance, had under the regulations of the university to have a good knowledge of Arabic and Turkish; the students dealing with Far Eastern affairs had to know Chinese and Japanese in addition to the Western languages. That made for a group of highly educated, intellectually alert young people who certainly helped each other in the sharp contest of competitive debate of problems. One of their favorite games, of course, was to catch me out on some technical mistake, but unfortunately I could offer them the pleasure only rarely.

The American students belonged to widely different types. In Louisiana there was a considerable cultural background provided by the Catholic parochial schools. I had students in my courses who knew Latin and who took courses in Thomist philosophy with the Catholic chaplain at Louisiana State University. That of course helped. The average students, I should say, did not have the background knowledge one would expect of European students, but they had instead something that the European, especially the German, students usually lack—a tradition of common-sense culture. In the South especially, the problem of ideological corruption among young people was negligible. The students were open-minded and had little contact with ideological sectarian movements. My experiences in the East were less favorable. The ideological corruption of the East Coast has affected the student mind profoundly, and occasionally these students betray the behavioral characteristics of totalitarian aggressiveness. A great number of students simply will not tolerate information that is not in agreement with their ideological prejudices. I frequently had difficulties with students of this type. Still, on the whole, even the so-called radical students, short of the hard-core militants, can be handled by swamping them with mountains of information. They still have enough common sense to be aware that their own ideas must bear some relation to the reality surrounding them; and when it is brought home to them that their picture of reality is badly distorted, they do not become easy converts but at least they begin to have second thoughts. I cannot say the same of radical students in Germany, who simply start shouting and rioting if any serious attempt is made to bring into discussion facts that are incompatible with their preconceptions.

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