Friday, July 31, 2009


Education is one of those things that sort of defines a culture, don’t you think? It’s one of the equalizers – we all go through it, for differing length of time and with different goals – but nonetheless everyone spends a decade or so in school. On the flip side however, is the fact that between different cultures educational experiences can be a polarizing element. Despite the fact that a US graduate, be it from high school or college, has more or less learned the same things (barring local histories and languages) as a Spanish graduate the way they went about learning those things, and more specifically the way they were evaluated on the same, has much less in common.

Except among the very top tier of students in a particular school, the competition for class rankings and high grade point averages simply doesn’t exist in Spain. Instead the kids just want to get by. This is particularly noticeable at the university level where not only is it common to fail multiple subjects throughout one’s college career, but where doing so is not really something to be ashamed of. Instead, it is a part of life. The university system (and correct me if I’m wrong primary and secondary curriculums as well) is set up specifically for that eventuality. It starts out as in the States – final exams after each of two semesters – but then Spain throws in a 3rd option. Exams in September, expressly designed for the student who didn’t manage to pass the earlier exams. And it’s not much more uncommon for people to fail (or simply not show up to) that 3rd exam, leaving the subject and final exam for the following year(s).

By the way, the limit for a passing grade is a 5/10 here – not a 6 (or 60% - D) like in the States.

People here are shocked when I tell them that in the States (in my experience at least) not only do you not get multiple chances at the same exam (without retaking the course), but that at some schools a low passing grade is only accepted a limited number of times. (Duke, for example, allows just two D’s over your 4-year course. After that, a D is like an F – no course credit at all.) In other words “failing” in the States is a much bigger deal than here in Spain. Here at least you get another chance at it, and taking advantage of that opportunity is the norm, not the exception. I’ve heard that the standard length of time spent getting a technical engineering degree, a three-year curriculum, is in fact no less than five years. The five-year “superior” engineering degree typically takes around seven or eight.

All of this comes back to my wondering if setting the bar “low” leads to people being more likely to fail. One of my favorite sayings is, “Reach for the moon. Even if you fail you’ll end up among the stars.” In other words, if you aim for a C, or a 7 on the Spanish scale, if you fall short you still manage to pass. Putting an emphasis on passing “well” perhaps encourages people more than just emphasizing the pass. After all, if you study just well enough to pass and then the exam throws you a curve ball where are you left?

There was an article published recently in one of the free newspapers that I can pick up on my way into work. They recently released the results of the grade level proficiency tests for the “sophomores,” a relatively new test for that particular grade – this was just the 2nd year – designed to evaluate overall proficiency in mathematics and language arts. The average score was 4,59 out of 10. A failing score. And the test revealed that only 32,7% of the high school students received a passing score in mathematics. In language arts they fared better – 68,9% passed that one. Let’s compare that the national average in the States – for the 2007 school year, in mathematics, 70% of 8th graders (no data for higher courses) received a “basic” or better rating – the benchmark that indicates the student scored at least at the minimum level for his grade. Similarly, in reading 73% reached that mark and in writing 87% managed to do the system proud. (Also keep in mind that the Spanish averages are for all students while the US averages are strictly the public schools. The argument exists that the US averages would be higher if they included private prep schools…)

Clearly this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. Perhaps the curriculum is more rigorous in Spain. Perhaps a portion of those US “basics” fall below a “passing” score. Regardless, the US system considers that a significantly larger portion of its students meet the established minimum level than the equivalent Spanish system.

And it all goes back to the point of my post. Following incredibly simplified logic - with such disparate educational evaluation systems, primarily the acceptability of “failing” and/or just “passing” here in Spain, can you not argue that the emphasis on good grades leads to better results? People try harder because they want to do well, not just well enough. And if something goes wrong, they frequently still end up passing…

Thursday, July 30, 2009

50 years

Today ETA committed its second attack in as many days – yesterday morning’s car bomb in front of a Guardia Civil residence barracks in Burgos caused physical damage and wounded a number of people. Today’s limpet mine underneath a Guardia Civil car in Mallorca killed both agents inside.

Experts have been warning for a few months now that ETA was going to make it an “active” summer. The theory is that, in light of the recent hits they’ve taken – a chain of short-lived leaders was arrested earlier this year, the group would be looking to boost internal moral by succeeding at some high profile terrorist attacks.

It appears that the experts were right. Tomorrow is ETA’s 50th anniversary. People are on edge – wondering what, if anything, ETA will try tomorrow.

Dr. Mario

It’s no great shocker for me to admit that I am fluent in Spanish. I don’t know quite when that jump was made – from really really good to fluent. Certainly sometime in the last 2 years that I’ve been living and working in Madrid. Sure, there are still words that I don’t know or grammar tenses that trip me up. But for all intents and purposes fluency is now mine. (After all, those who can claim to know every word in their native language are few and far between… and almost certainly lying.) This can be evidenced by two most recent vocabulary acquisitions – engedro (when used for definition b), locayo, and esbirro. But although I know that I’m fluent it’s not something that I ever think about unless I’m working on my resume.

Then I was talking to my friend yesterday about a recent trip to the pharmacy. I stopped by on Monday to ask the pharmacist about a potential complication that I’d read on the prospectus of one of the medicines I’d bought last week. I just wanted to see how prevalent the complication was, what he recommended, etc. As I was relating this story to my friend she interrupted me and said, “ Did you ever think you’d have to have that kind of conversation in another language? It’s not exactly the type of vocabulary they teach you in school.” And I realized she was right. Somewhere along the way the leap was made from opening a bank account, buying groceries, heck even debating American foreign politics to discussing the finer points of illness, medicinal interactions and long-term health. If I had tried to plan that conversation, my query, ahead of time I probably would have chickened out and made Nacho do it for me. But this was just another stop in my long list of Monday afternoon errands. And it went off without a hitch.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Writing on the Wall

Si tu Dios es judío, tu coche japonés, tu pizza italiana,
tu gas argelino, tu café brasileño, tu reloj suizo,
tus cifras árabes, tus letras latinas...
¿Cómo te atreves a llamar a tu vecino extranjero?

I was out and about (unfortunately sans camera) last week when I came across this message painted on a wall in the Lavapiés neighborhood. It can be translated as the following:

If your God is Jewish, your car Japanese, your pizza Italian,
your gas Algerian, your coffee Brazilian, your watch Swiss,
your numerals Arabic, your letters Latin…
How dare you call your neighbor a foreigner?

Lavapiés is perhaps the most heavily immigrant-populated neighborhood in Madrid – Wikipedia states that around 50% of the population in non-Spanish. And I would venture to say that the bulk of people who visit the area, frequently for its authentic “ethnic” food, are of the more open mindset, so it’s not that the sentiment is falling on deaf ears, but rather on those that are already singing in the choir… perhaps it would be a better message for the residents of my neighborhood… I wonder how long the graffiti would be allowed to stay up were it painted on a wall on Calle Serrano?

On another note, translating the message got me to wondering… why do we capitalize nationalities (and languages for that matter) in English but not in Spanish?


Don’t ask me why but the other night Nacho and I were singing the theme song to Married with Children. You know how it goes…

Love and marriage, love and marriage.
They go together like a horse and carriage.

That’s when I realized that something was off with Nacho’s singing. He was unintentionally putting a more modern spin on the song. After all, who drives carriages these days? A better fit was Nacho's song...

Love and marriage, love and marriage.
They go together like a horse and carrots.

Language is such a funny thing.

(Thanks to
google for the image, not the editing though - that was all Nacho-inspired.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday thoughts

If I only I had my camera with me here at work… then I’d post a picture of the current state of my office refrigerator. It’s stocked full of tantalizing bottles of Lambrusco. And a big cake. Clearly someone is celebrating. And celebrating in Spain means alchohol. Even if it’s at the office. Even if it’s at noon. I might have to join in. Even if it’s not for my department…