A college in Berlin that combines the best of European and US teaching is asking ‘what should an educated person know’ and two Irish academics are helping find the answer, writes DEREK SCALLY

THE PEACEFUL, leafy streets around Friedrich-Engels-Allee once lay at the heart of East Berlin’s embassy belt. Now eight of the former ambassadors’ villas in Berlin’s northern Pankow district are the laboratory for an educational experiment: the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA).

Almost a decade old, ECLA is no typical educational institution. Shunning formal departments, the school aims to combine the broad education of the European university ideal with US post-war liberal arts ideas.

ECLA asks the provocative question: what should an educated person know? Helping find the answer are two Irish academics.

“You go to university to learn about things not given to you on the outside, to read challenging books or learn things not necessary for getting a job, like how to look at a painting,” says visiting faculty member Bartholomew Ryan, a graduate of TCD, UCD and Aarhus University in Denmark.

ECLA is deliberately, unapologetically small. It offers its 60 students a faculty-student ratio of 1:7 in core modules, electives and language courses. Learning is a two-way process: based around close readings of primary texts and it’s supplemented by small-group seminars as well as essays and projects.

Listen as you walk from one villa to the next and two things soon become clear: ECLA’s working language is English but, for the international student body, that means almost everyone is working in a second language. Combine that with their varied cultural and educational backgrounds and you have a heterogenous atmosphere where there are few places to hide behind lazy thinking, canned arguments or academic jargon.

Danish BA student Sandrine Rose Schiller Hansen was “sick with stress” at first with the ECLA approach, but she soon adjusted.

“I was used to passively taking in but here you have to take in and produce all the time,” says Hansen, 24, who followed studies in Copenhagen with a year at ECLA studying the German philosopher Heidegger, technology and society.

Half of the students here are pursuing a four-year BA programme in value studies – more of which later – while the other half are pursuing one-year programmes to broaden their horizons and, in many cases, build a bridge to graduate school.

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