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Baccalaureate Bologna
November 20, 2012 - 8:41pm

As a result of some cosmic hiccup, I have to register my baby boy for high school this weekend. Then, one of his friends asked me to explain International Baccalaureate programs as I drove him home yesterday evening. Already in a state of middle-aged-maternal angst, I embarked upon a frenzy of IB research last night and this morning. The following paragraphs attempt to disambiguate my parental self-flagellation and pedagogical frustration from a fledgling proposal.

First, flagellation:  IB programs provide the well-rounded exposure to languages, cultures, and intellectual apparatus all children should enjoy.  Why didn’t I place my boys in IB schools?  The answer addresses the problem: national exceptionalism.  To address the low standards of a US high school diploma by any international standard, Americans invented the Advanced Placement (AP) exams.  This was how elite students proved they had already completed undergraduate (ie Bachelors Degree) level courses while still in secondary (aka High) school.  My local school system prides itself on its incredible array of AP offerings from Multi-Variable Calculus to French.  However, the programs provide a shopping list - not a system.  By contrast, the IB programs I researched offered a systemic approach to bilingualism and integrated advanced curricula that most American school systems would be hard pressed to produce.  These schools then claim their graduates hold a Baccalaureate Diploma - or translated into English - a Bachelor’s degree.  Why would such a person wish to earn a second Bachelor’s degree granted by a university?

Second, frustration:  The hand-wringing over the utility of American bachelor’s degree seeks to answer the question above.  What is the added value of an undergraduate education?  Part of the American answer is simple.  US colleges attempt to play catch up for our erratic primary and secondary non-system.  If someone holds a BA from a reputable college, a graduate or professional school’s admissions committee has confidence that he or she has achieved International Baccalaureate levels after additional years - to quote Tom Lehrer - with ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls.  However, few question the added value of a BA from Amherst or BS from CalTech over an IB from the most elite international school, but why?

Third, proposal: The answer lays in the use made of the second two years of college.  The IB and AP programs mean to take students through the basics of a subject - the same goal of most core requirements met in the first and second years of college.  After A levels in England, traditional gentlemen traveled abroad on their grand tour before they entered Oxbridge.  In the US, students took flight during their Junior Year Abroad to meet the same need for international exposure before specialization.  Elite schools, like Princeton, demanded a senior thesis in the fourth and final year.  These two things - a year abroad in an immersive language program and an independent research year - constitute the nature of an honors degree whether earned at Michigan State or Stanford.  Just as the IB outlines necessary elements of their primary, middle, diploma standards, we need an international standard for undergraduate education.

Final thoughts:  The European Union’s Bologna Accord attempted this herculean task.  They outlined what a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degree should mean anywhere in Europe.  To achieve this, they chopped time off the traditionally five year continental university degree to make a three year BA and if a student spent a full year abroad a four year BAPlus.  As more US students complete their BA after three years in sync with their UK cousins, US and UK institutions create new offerings for BA/MAs that concluded simultaneously at the end of year four.  Brown University recently formalized a new program to guarantee their students a BA/MA (dubbed Brown Plus One) granted with an overseas institution over five years.  If I - someone who has given public presentations on this lexical labyrinth - barely manage to translate among the options and their meanings, what will the average eighteen-year-old educational aspirant make of it all?  In my experience as an adviser, they make short-sighted decisions simply because they cannot find a sufficiently high berth from which to take in the panoramic view.  A helping hand is long overdue.

Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to


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