Alkeline van Lenning

'You must remember that your own perspective is not the whole story'

If there is one thing which can help you cope in a rapidly changing world, it is character. To develop character calls for ‘slow education’, according to Tilburg University’s new educational vision. Students must step outside their own ‘bubble’ and engage in critical self-examination.

Science and innovation are the success factors of the knowledge economy. In the past, slogans such as ‘Knowledge plus skills equals money’ prompted much discussion, with some asking whether it is appropriate for a university to focus on commercial or financial gains. “Of course we are here to offer students the latest scientific insights and help them develop the skills they will need to apply that knowledge,” states Alkeline van Lenning, education professor at Tilburg University and head of the University College.

“But we want to go further. We want to produce graduates with knowledge, skills and the desire to help create a sustainable society.” The new educational vision is therefore entitled, Knowledge, Skills, Character. It has been produced by Van Lenning in collaboration with Herman de Regt, whose specialist field is the philosophy of science.

Slow education

You can’t timetable character-building as a Tuesday afternoon lecture, and neither can it be learnt from a book. It calls for what Van Lenning terms ‘slow education’, a process of reflection, training developing empathy, and learning to give and receive constructive criticism. “You have to put yourself in other people’s shoes and learn to see things from their perspective. You must not only develop your talents, but recognize your shortcomings and find ways to overcome them. This is essential in today’s globalized world. Cooperation and consultation at the international level are already commonplace and likely to become even more important in future. ”

Character-building is very much part of the philosophy espoused by the university’s founder, the economist Martinus Cobbenhagen (1893-1954). “Read his work and you will soon realize that Cobbenhagen would not approve of a society in which knowledge is merely a production factor and the university just a factory turning out graduates on a conveyor belt. For Cobbenhagen, everything revolved around people, the human dimension, interpersonal communication and empathy.”

Not dated

Character-building, enlightenment, Bildung. Some might dismiss such concepts as patronizing, ideological and dated. “And Catholic – don’t forget Catholic!” says Van Lenning with a wry smile. “We are at risk of creating an education system which is entirely devoid of direction or values. But society demands values. Knowledge is not an end in itself but a means to an end. How and where should you apply that knowledge? Our vision states that Tilburg University should strive to produce graduates who can help to advance society. They will relieve suffering, ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and promote talent development. Is that ever dated?”

Building character demands effort and commitment from teacher and student alike, Van Lenning stresses. Education must be both active and interactive. It demands concentration, participation, the willingness to ask questions and join in the discussion. Teaching staff must provide challenge and students must show daring. Small groups that allow close contact between student and teacher are essential. The university is to make additional resources available to encourage small-scale group education.

However, this does not mean that there will no longer be any place for lectures or individual study. A committed and enthusiastic scientist can hold the attention of a large audience. Modern ICT resources such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Skype, YouTube and Web of Science enable experts to literally share their knowledge anytime and anywhere.

Beyond your own perspective

Discussing the material in a small group is one way in which to achieve further depth. “The small-scale setting allows the teacher to go beyond knowledge and skills,” states Van Lenning. “In my classes, I ask students for their opinions and I ask them to explain their thinking. But then I get them to defend the very opposite opinion – playing devil’s advocate as it were. This helps them to see all sides. This is a key skill in today’s world. Social media create a bubble in which people only hear from those with similar opinions. You must remember that your own perspective is not the whole story. At some point, most students will find themselves working in an international setting and as part of an interdisciplinary team. They will have to contend with cultural differences and interact with people who hold different standards and values. Achieving the team objectives will call for knowledge, skills and character.”

What students think of the new educational vision

Amber (3rd year BSc):

“I would welcome more discussion in the classroom. I went to Australia as an exchange student. There, participation in the group sessions counts towards your final grade: it makes up ten per cent of the score. I noticed that I was more active and more engaged, because I knew that I would have a turn to speak. I found this approach very educational and it is nice not to have to listen to the same voice all the time.”

Sevket (3rd year BSc.):

“No, I don’t think that character-building sounds patronizing. I agree that the task of the university is to produce graduates who can make the world more sustainable. Our generation must take the lead. We must promote change and we must make the difference.”