Why Universität Wien Should Be Eisbären

My time in Vienna is coming to an end, and while part of me is sad, another part can’t wait to get back to good old Swarthmore.

I haven’t talked much about the academic aspects of my study abroad program so far, but there’s a good reason for that–they’re only funny in how bad they are.

The University of Vienna was founded in 1365 and is consequently the oldest in the German-speaking world, and although they claim that distinction on a technicality–when originally founded in the 1340s, Charles University in Prague was actually German-speaking–they did come by all of their nine Nobel Prize winners honestly. I have a picture to prove it!

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That’s Edwin Schrödinger (past Nobel prize winner) with some dude.

But the guy who had it out for cats is about where the University’s prestige ends and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Nazis had a lot to do with it. Give them seventy years, and as far as I’m concerned, they haven’t managed to pick the ball back up yet.

What I know now is that the University enrolls over 70,000 students in 130 different degree programs and that only 8,000 of these manage to wrest a degree out of the place per year, perhaps in part because they can’t figure out how to register for classes, since procedures are different for each department. Professors aren’t much help–during one class I sat in on, a professor nearly burst into tears because she’d been here for two years and still couldn’t figure out how to get course readers copied.

I know that there are 6 million books spread across over fifty different libraries which are in turn spread across at least five different districts, that all of these are open at different times, and that not a single one is open past 9 PM or on Sundays.

I know that when I actually managed to register for a course and find the room on time, it was a 500-seat lecture hall and there were still people sitting on the steps. The second time I showed up the number of people was halved–not because there were fewer people taking the course, but because most people only show up to the first class (to figure out when the exam will be and where they can get copies of old ones) and the exam. Why shouldn’t they? There’s nothing required of you in between.

I know that the tuition is 380 Euros a semester for EU students and 743 Euros for the rest of us, and that you get the guidance you pay for. It seems absurd to me to name a room in your University the “Student Point,” because shouldn’t the whole University be a student point? But no, not in Vienna. It turns out that the “Student Point” staff are the only people willing, if not necessarily able, to advise you on anything and that they only provide this service for four hours per day.

I realize that Swarthmore is not the norm in the United States. More students are sitting in 500-person lecture halls right now than 2-person honors seminars. Maybe more professors are teaching four courses a semester every semester without even knowing how to use the departmental copier than not. I’m coming from a position of ridiculous educational privilege and so shouldn’t be sneering.

But the problem here is that the University of Vienna and its counterparts are pretty much your only option in Austria–there’s no such thing as a “small college” or a “liberal arts education.” And although there is such a thing as “paying 600 bucks a semester for college,” and the value of such a thing is perhaps not to be sneezed at, five minutes in that building and I want to go shake an administrator and say “I heard brain drain was a problem for your country? I WONDER WHY.”

The EU is hard at work trying to do something about its universities, namely implementing the Bologna process, which is supposed to ensure uniform quality standards by, among other things, developing a uniform credit system which says it should take three years to earn a bachelor’s and that you should occasionally be evaluated on something besides exams.

But hell if I know what that is going to mean in practice. I suspect the current problems have more to do with abysmally low admissions standards, intense overcrowding, the natural bureaucracy of a state-run institution, and the fact that the universities simply don’t have enough money rather than the number of credits people have to take. Some students now have to pay tuition because of Bologna, such as the Austrians, who only started having to pay in 2000 and who are hopping mad about it, but 400 Euros a semester? Is that really going to make a dent?

So here I am looking skeptical about the Bologna process:

But let’s give up talking about areas in which I have little expertise and get back to the Nazis for a second, who I like because everyone can agree on them.

This plaque is on the staircase of the philosophy department, and says: “Moritz Schlick, Member of the Vienna Circle, was murdered on this spot on June 22, 1936. An intellectual climate poisoned by racism and intolerance contributed to the deed.”

Which just makes me want to say “Intellectual climates don’t kill people, guns do!” and, after that, “Guns don’t kill people, former students who imagine that their professor’s philosophical theories are part of an evil Jewish conspiracy and get parole after two years to join the Nazi party do!”

And they did. I wanted my friend to lie down on the plaque and play dead, but he has more of a sense of propriety than I do, so we just took some respectful pictures and vowed to see as many sites dedicated to the Vienna Circle as possible.

The Vienna Circle was made up of a bunch of philosophers who believed that all knowledge came from experience and that said knowledge ought to be treated with symbolic logic. They liked analyzing language and talking about the possibility of a “unified science” and, well, sitting in cafés and drinking Wiener Melange.

I imagine the most famous philosophers associated with the Circle were Kurt Gödel and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who must not be very famous, because for an intellectual movement named after a city, the city cares surprisingly little about them today.

We looked in vain for traces of the philosophers. We accidentally found a plaque or two about Schlick and a “Karl Popper Society” next to the Spanish Embassy, but the only philosophical site we could find in the guidebooks was the house that Wittgenstein built for his sister.

Just because you can find something in the guidebook does not mean very much. We arrived at the noted address to find a closed gate, a plaque, and a small unmarked doorbell. We pressed the doorbell and nothing happened.

“You go around the block,” I directed my friend, “and I will stay here because I speak German and so if anyone answers the doorbell…”

Nobody answered the doorbell until five minutes later, when a puzzled voice emerged from the box. “Hallo?” I jumped in surprise and replied,
“Wir möchten Wittgenstein Haus sehen, bitte? Ist dieses das Wittgenstein…”

It was, as it turned out, not so much the Wittgenstein House anymore as it was the Bulgarian Cultural Embassy, and when we were let in we were charged three Euros for the privilege of walking through a gallery of Bulgarian abstract expressionism and past some foreboding offices where people shouted Bulgarian at each other behind the doors. We returned to the front desk. “Wir haben gedacht, das dieses das Wittgenstein…”

She asked us if we hadn’t picked up the typed sheet of paper about Wittgenstein. We had picked up a piece of paper explaining that Wittgenstein had designed a house for his sister, which the Bulgarian Cultural Embassy was happy to show today’s most honored guests who might also like the fine wines of Bulgaria! And the painters! And the charming women of the country singing folk songs! Book your vacation today!

In exchange for another five Euros, we eventually received a small green book in German about the architectural specifications of the house, the perfection of which mirrored the perfection of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and raised man to a more rational plane, where one was silent when one ought to be silent and where radiators designed to fit corners were like propositions just brought into being.

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We were happy with this, possibly because it wasn’t nearly as nonsensical as the museum where we learned that Beethoven was most productive when he lived in houses that had good Feng Shui, and that his Ninth Symphony in particular was written when the water element had a strong influence on his work space.

(Well, we mostly enjoyed sitting on the same toilet as Wittgenstein once did. But I digress–my philosophy major friend was happy because dude, Wittgenstein and I was happy because dude, Bulgarian folk music.)

Thinking about the Ludwigs and how they constructed their personal space so that it would be most conducive to their work, I realized another reason I can’t learn anything at the Universität Wien. They don’t have a mascot, no figure which I can think of fondly as I stand in lines to print papers and sit in classes for which the professors are being paid nothing. I would like to propose twin baby polar bears.

The Viennese twins are even cuter in light of recent allegations that Knut is a cold-blooded killer of fish, also known as a polar bear, which apparently utterly disqualifies him from being a national icon.

But you want the photographic proof, right?

Here’s mommy with the two babies. (Daddy isn’t allowed near them for fear that he will eat them.)

Here’s the two twins, who still haven’t been named yet.

Mom liked to stand up against this rail to watch the kids in the bottom part of the enclosure, and one of the kids really liked to poke his head through her paws and try to bite her. How adorable is this picture?

They’re even cute when they’re pooping!

Now I realize that the University probably doesn’t have a mascot because they don’t have sports teams, or any sort of college organizations at all, or, hell, much of a reason to feel pride in their institution since 1936, but damn. The Wiener Eisbären, cuddly yet vicious since 1365? I could get behind that.

Until then, I’m ready to get back to Swarthmore.

Eisbären! Eisbären!

Lauren Stokes


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