Education in the UK vs. the US: "What is Foucault?"

This is a blog post about liberal arts, the United States system of higher education, and my brief experience studying in Northern Ireland. Specifically, about the difference witnessed between my “breadth” of educational experience in liberal arts and the “depth” of background evidenced by my peers in the law program.

It is difficult to recognize and fully know your culture until you leave it. Studying abroad inevitably leads to experiences which challenge your idea of what’s “normal” and “expected,” both in a broad cultural sense and in education.

Queen's University in Belfast

Queen's University in Belfast

I was surprised by the degree of difference between the UK education system and my experience of school in the US. It’s easy to let “difference” translate into “good” vs. “bad,” but that’s neither a helpful framework nor an accurate one. Examining the differences offers a chance of greater understanding—both of the unfamiliar culture and of your own. Critical examination allows for greater understanding. So for the purpose of this blog post, I am going to attempt to be critical but not judgmental—to examine and explain the differences I encountered without pronouncing them “good” or “bad.”

Spoiler Alert #1: I should say at the outset, though, that my personal and unique way of relating to and experiencing education fits better with the US than the UK. Here’s why.

The background:

After almost twenty years in the United States education system, I traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland for a one-year Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law. I received a Mitchell Scholarship, which fully funded my year and the degree. I chose to split my program through a cross-border option that started my year at Queen’s University in Belfast before finishing my degree through the National University of Ireland in Galway.

My Masters in Law is not the same as a law degree in the US. It does not qualify me to practice law. My intention in pursuing this degree was to dig deeper into the subject of human rights, and to learn the language and international structures that seek to codify and enforce human rights around the world.

I also had in mind that this was a chance to try out law as a possible career path. In a one-year degree, I could get a sense of the aspect of law which was most interesting to me to see if it was a good fit for me. On paper, it was the perfect match: I care deeply about the ideals of international law, and have many of the skills and character traits of someone in the legal profession.

Spoiler alert #2: I do not want to be a lawyer.

School in the UK

I was surprised by the degree of difference in educational systems. I suppose I was a bit blinded by the common language and shared cultural heritage and assumed that school would be more or less the same. I made no such assumption before my first study abroad experience in Chile, which perversely made the differences a bit easier to recognize and learn to deal with.

I should also acknowledge that my previous experience of education was in Eugene, Oregon. Some of the difference I noticed might have been similar if I attended a school in a capital city like Washington, DC (this is particularly the case with what students wore in the classroom—I was the scruffiest, most comfortable student to ever cross the threshold at Queen’s. Never had I seen such effort at wardrobe and makeup in all my hippy-dippy days!).

I have tried to create this chart without bias or judgment. This is, of course, a set of generalizations and does not represent every student’s experience in either the US or the UK.

My experience of Human Rights Law in this context

Almost all of my classmates had studied law as undergraduates, and previously toward the end of secondary school. They knew law. The processes, institutions, and legal language were familiar to them.

I was warned by the departmental advisors not to seek out internships or overburden myself with activities, as I would be overwhelmed by reading and studies. This part of my experience is difficult to write about without sounding judgmental, since it was such a poor match for my experience and expectations. As a full-time Master’s student, I had four hours of class per week. Four hours. I was bored and lonely out of my mind. By the second week, I was climbing up the walls. There was an incredibly manageable workload. I knew almost no one and, in my education experience back in the States, was used to being part of multiple organizations, general education activities, and related causes and groups.

This brings me to some other, more cultural differences in relation to education.

At Queen’s

  • Most students were from Belfast or from a town near Belfast.
  • Most students went home to their families regularly—many went every single weekend.
  • Most students had gone through their entire education with the same group of friends.
  • Many of the people around me wanted to stay in Belfast for their careers.

I was surrounded by people deeply rooted in the community. They spent time with their old friends and family. They were preparing for careers and full lives in that same single place.

In other words, my classmates were in a very different situation than I was.


Those four hours of class each week were divided between two hours of core human rights law study (mostly focusing on the history and institutions governing international law and its enforcement) and two hours of electives. It was in one of these electives, that the title story for this blog post took place.

Not everyone in the world knows the name Foucault. I don’t know the names of most of the important physicists or architects or art critics. But Michele Foucault is a key theorist in the social sciences. He was fundamentally multidisciplinary: philosopher, historian, literary critic, and social theorist. His most famous book was Discipline and Punish, but his theoretical contributions extended from criminal justice and social control to linguistics, literary theory, and histories of sexuality. He had a profound critical eye for how we as individuals interact with structures of power and control in society.

In my undergraduate experience, I studied Foucault in sociology, history, comparative literature, and gender studies. He was everywhere. And he had a deep impact on how I understood how society works.

That’s background. So now, the moment itself:

I’m sitting and waiting for class to start, and the professor writes various subjects and theorists on the board for discussion. One of my classmates leans across the table and asks us all “What is Foucault?”

And I am the only one who knows.

What I take from this experience

I am a big believer in following passions. I think curiosity is the most important element of an academic career, and that a sense of joy in learning is critical to careers and to living an engaged and purposeful life. I spent my college years applying my studies to a variety of pursuits, activities, research, and extracurriculars, both within and outside of my major. I believe we should study in pursuit of things we care about.

If Foucault had not been assigned to me, I would have found him anyway.

This is all to illustrate my experience of studying in Belfast. I felt lonely in my passion. I was outclassed in depth of knowledge of law—there’s no question that my peers were better educated in the details and intricacies of law and human rights. But what I had was a desire to bring my knowledge into conversation and broader application: to relate my experiences to my studies and my learning to my interests in an expansive, unified sense. I wanted to know about Foucault. And no one else seemed to.

The Conclusion

I don’t want to overemphasize what is, after all, as single classroom moment. But I do think it’s interesting to think about the expectations and experiences of education. Why are you in the classroom? What are your peers’ intentions? Who controls your learning, and what is the end goal? How do you learn, and what do you want to know?

My experiences in Belfast taught me about myself. They showed me how important active, self-driven learning is to me. And that I want the same from my peers.

Without a sense of judgment or superiority, I know now that if I choose to pursue a higher degree, I will do so in the United States. It’s a better fit. It’s a better context for who I am and how I learn.

And that is one of the best and most interesting things I could possibly have gained from a short educational journey outside my comfort zone. 

If you enjoyed this post, you might like "Networking: My Belfast Case-Study," or "Learning a Language, My Journey in Spanish." 

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