This summer I spent a month studying law, politics and society at the Freie Universitat of Berlin, summer university programme. As a sentence that may seem pretty underwhelming, but my experience wasn’t.
The course itself was interesting, challenging and unexpected. I picked this course amongst a selection of others, primarily because of the way it was taught: the grading gave a great deal of weight to in-class participation (40%) and a final presentation (30%) with the final exam only accounting for 30% of the grade. While some may interpret this as an “easy-going course”, I found it to be the exact opposite. The constant evaluation meant that you couldn’t afford to come unprepared to class, and the emphasis on “active participation” favoured discussion-based learning over lecture-based learning, which had the double effect of keeping you awake and encouraging you to constantly make connections between the various themes of the course. Being able to experience this approach to learning has further encouraged my pursuit of a collaborative policy proposal on how to reshape education at the University of Edinburgh to make it more accessible to different types of learners, due to appear through the Buchannan Institute later this semester.
One of the things I most enjoyed about the course was the weekly excursions to various sites of historical relevance, including memorials and prisons from both the Nazi and the Soviet period. The sites that were chosen were by no means the most iconic, or the most famous, but for me personally this served to further hammer home the visibility and omnipresence of atrocity in these periods. All of this made for interesting points of reference when considering philosophical and semantic questions such as “What is the law?”, “should the law be just?” and “can we obligated to disobey the law?”; questions which I – and centuries of academic thought – haven’t quite answered yet, but which this course certainly helped to frame in new and interesting contexts.
Academically my experience was enthralling, but on a more personal level, it was unexpected. Many people when they think of Berlin conjure images of techno vikings or impenetrable night clubs (read Berghain), but my experience over the course of my stay taught me that there is a much softer, more relaxed side to Berlin, which is ultimately what makes the city so liveable. For me, Berlin wasn’t so much about the 24-hour partying and ubiquitous techno, it was about sitting in the sun, going to the lakes, reading a book, making friends, riding the incredibly efficient public transport, and maybe having a beer or two– but not necessarily in that order.