“To me, character means: educating students to become resilient citizens of the world”
When Emile Aarts first became Rector Magnificus, the current Tilburg Educational Profile ‘Knowledge, Skills, and Character’ was adopted and implementation of the profile was initiated. A few years down the road, now seems a good moment to look back with the Rector and take stock. What characterizes the Tilburg Educational Profile? Where do we stand now? What, in this view, should be the next few steps? And what is his own definition of character?
by Annemeike Tan
Alkeline van Lenning and Herman de Regt were the first, in their essay entitled ‘Exploring an Educational Vision for Tilburg University’, to articulate the three pillars of the Tilburg Educational Profile – Knowledge, Skills, and Character. In relation to ‘character’, they referred to the concept of Bildung, as defined by the German scholar and diplomat Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). They describe Bildung as ‘a kind of self-realization that can only be achieved in freedom, in confrontation with others, and in a community of people’’. How important is this for you?
Emile: “I embrace the concept of Bildung. The idea behind it was that, in Von Humboldt’s time, the German nobility was too small to shape the country’s future, while there were non-aristocratic people in Germany who were smart as well (or should I say ‘who were smart’!). I think it is a great vision and I certainly see links with the origins of this university.”
Emile: “Looking back on the genesis of Tilburg University, I would like to start with Hendrik Moller rather than Martinus Cobbenhagen. Hendrik Moller was the man who a century ago took the initiative to raise higher education in Brabant to a higher level by establishing four Moller institutes, one of which was to be a business school. The Episcopate embraced the plan, struggling as they were with the fact that many Catholic youngsters had to take their training in Rotterdam or Amsterdam, due to the lack of higher education facilities in Brabant. There was a need for higher education on a Catholic basis. The original intention was to also found a university, next to the Moller institutes. This latter plan failed, and subsequently Nijmegen took the credit for being the first Catholic University in this country.”
Emile: “As a kind of consolation prize, it was decided that there was going to be a business school here. That is where Cobbenhagen enters the picture. Being both a priest and an academically trained economist, he was to concern himself with the content of the program. He felt that, in addition to knowledge of their scientific discipline, students also had to be trained on an ethical level, because otherwise they would not be able to assess their activities against the backdrop of what society needed. In addition, he felt that students would also have to be confronted with other disciplines, such as ethics, theology, law, and psychology. The current line of thinking at Tilburg University can thus clearly be traced back to its very beginnings, as is apparent also from our educational vision.”
Neutral vs ideology
The conclusion we could draw from your outline is that Character is part of the DNA of our university. But how do we incorporate this in our teaching? The impression I get is that we are still very much searching for a way to implement ‘character’ in our programs.
Emile: “Its has been two years since we introduced the educational profile, and since then new insights have emerged. We have processed the excitement generated by the novelty of the approach and we have now entered a phase where we go into things on a deeper level. There are very interesting discussions going on right now. A lot of people are enthusiastic, saying “This really suits us, and I’m going to start working on it.” Others are wondering; “What does this mean exactly, and how will it manifest itself.” And still others feel that the vision is inspired too much by ideological considerations. They feel that science should remain entirely neutral, while character building will always take place starting from a particular ideology. Naturally, I respect these differing views on the matter. They force us to reflect more deeply on the interpretation of character building.”
What is wellbeing?
What are your thoughts on this?
Emile: “From the first university of Bologna in 1088, the transfer of knowledge has always been the most important part of formal education. But as far back as the Ancient Greeks, this has been linked to personal character building. Later on, education also began to be linked to the development of prosperity. You often hear that the more a country invests in education, the more prosperous it will get. And this prosperity is not expressed solely in terms of the Gross National Product. It is very much associated with comfort and wellbeing, and yes, things do get a little normative there. Because what exactly is wellbeing? What does a society characterized by it look like? From there, it is only a small step to the question: “What constitutes good leadership?” New-Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is both resolute and empathic, is a fine example of good leadership. I tend to want to confront young people with examples like these to show them how they can develop themselves. They can always decide for themselves whether or not they want to go in a particular direction. But you do need to discuss these matters with them. Give them the vocabulary they need to put things into words, give them the language they need, so that they can communicate about these things, and act in accordance with them.”
Standards and values
Emile: ”During the Open Days for prospective students, there is always what I call a ‘character cart’ there, where visitors are asked: ‘How would you define character?’ [see photograph below]. I always position myself there for a while, and I talk to these prospective students and their parents. The most interesting conversation I had there was with a father who was there with his daughter. He was a police inspector, and when he was asked the question about character, he started talking and there was no stopping him. About behavior in society, about standards and values, about solidarity and safety. He told me about his day-to-day experiences and made a clear link between these day-to-day experiences as a police inspector and the way Tilburg pays attention to character in the programs. He walked out floating on air. This example illustrates how the Tilburg Educational Profile promotes reflection in our courses on social issues in a society where ‘thinkers of character’ can play an important role.”
Resilient Citizens of the world
Now that you mention this ‘character cart”, what in your opinion is character?
Emile: “If you ask me what character is, my answer will always be: it is made up of two elements. On the one hand, it is about making people resilient and on the other, it is about turning them into citizens of the world. The former is about ourselves, as individuals in relation to our environment. Think, for instance, of the enormous amount of information coming our way every day. How do we process that? It is often too much for our brain to handle. By teaching people what goes on in their brain, teaching them how to deal with situations like these, we can hopefully make them more resilient, able to stand their ground, and if they can stand firm, they have a responsibility towards society to help others and embrace citizenship of the world. This means you develop activities that will advance the world. Character for me is to train students to become resilient citizens of the world. And to that I would like to add the following: I am from a world where people say: What is good for society, is good for the economy. This a something I believe in very strongly.”
What can teachers do to successfully include character building in their courses?
Emile: “I think it would be a good thing if every teacher were to ask themselves: ‘How do I view character building?”, and to subsequently reflect on this question. You could make it part of the University Teaching Qualification that they have to obtain (UTQ – BKO). Teachers can present examples of things they have experienced in their own environment, and discuss these in class, to show students what ‘character’ means. If reflecting on it becomes second nature, you will get more of a grip on it, until you manage to capture its essence. As long as we have not worked out precisely how character should be incorporated in our courses, we need to give ourselves some leeway in working this out in detail, to grow in the process, and in my case this would no doubt land me at the concept of narratives, at telling stories. Just start telling stories in your teaching.”
‘Tilburgs Bekske’ – The ‘Tilburg Cup-of-Coffee’ project
And what role can students find to play in this?
Emile: “Get active and make a difference! Let me give you an example: the ‘Tilburgs Bekske’, a project that students of ours are participating in. Women in Rwanda are taught how to plant, grow, and harvest coffee beans. The beans are transported to the Netherlands, roasted here, and sold under the name of “Tilburgs Bekske” (‘Bekske’ is a ‘cup of coffee’ in the Tilburg dialect). I talked to two student teams that have been to Rwanda, and I saw with my own eyes how this journey had been a formative experience for them character-wise. The students had witnessed first-hand how the women in Rwanda had to come to terms with all the misery they saw, and how in that process they had developed an extreme form of willingness to forgive. They have had to forgive the likely perpetrators of atrocities, and that is an element of resilience of the highest order. You can tell this has affected these students. So what can students do? They can engage in activities like these, and such activities can also be found closer to home. I say, go for it!”
 Herman de Regt and Alkeline van Lenning, Exploring an Educational Vision for Tilburg University”, 2018, p. 55.