'Morality in academic education makes a comeback'
Joining forces to make the world a better place, more room for reflection in academia and the hope that students will start seeing each other less as competitors and more as companions. These are some of the thoughts of departing Dean of Tilburg University College Alkeline van Lenning. At the end of this month she is saying farewell to the university where she has worked for over forty years.
“In the past, the teaching material made you feel like you were climbing a high mountain while being dragged down by heavy bags. These days it’s more like being dropped at the top by a helicopter and thinking you understand what you see, but the experience is fundamentally different.
Freedom in academia is not the same as doing whatever you feel like. It’s the ability to reflect and be independent
- Alkeline van Lenning
Looking back at a career of forty years at this university and my time as a student in Amsterdam, I’ve seen academic education undergo a huge change over the past half a century or so. When I was studying in Amsterdam, I read texts in English, German and French, but all classes were in Dutch. The teaching material consisted of paper syllabi, which were generally made up of badly printed photocopies, with the openings of the O’s and P’s pasted shut, and crooked lines of text running off the paper so we had to guess how they ended.
In current textbooks, everything is ‘studiable’, with illustrations, summaries, sample exam questions and text boxes. Everything’s in English. You can Google standard works and it’s extremely easy to find a summary. For example, what were Freud’s most important insights? Found with one click of the mouse, summarized in only a few sentences. Students sometimes think they have the knowledge, but if they haven’t put in the work to acquire it, that knowledge is superficial.
In my time as a student, I read Foucault, Althusser and other philosophers in French and made handwritten summaries. I didn’t have a clue what Foucault meant by ‘discours’. I studied everything about it until I understood. Students nowadays know how to find something quickly, but that’s exactly why they lack the humus, the fertile soil. Proper studying is like walking on soft sand. This gives you ready knowledge and, eventually, understanding. Because data doesn’t equal information and information doesn’t equal knowledge and knowledge doesn’t equal understanding and understanding doesn’t equal wisdom.”
“You can’t blame students, they’re just products of their time. But we weren’t as ‘credential-oriented’ as they are. Of course, our circumstances were completely different. I took a long time to complete my studies, I lived in various squats, we were part of the alternative scene and we were all about civic action. Some of the people around me wanted to be artists. They painted or wrote poetry, barely needing to make any money to get by. Now, students are worrying if they’ll ever be able to afford a mortgage.
I keep hoping for a new ideology, but I can’t make one up on my own
- Alkeline van Lenning
We’ve transitioned to a very different way of thinking. After the Berlin Wall came down and the West had defeated communism, there was this idea of freedom without doctrine. This facilitated the rise of neoliberalism, which inadvertently produced the current generation of students. People are free, there are no guidelines on how to live.
I see that students have been influenced by this development and I’m worried about them. Sometimes I get angry. I read about the elections for the representative bodies and I couldn’t believe how low the turnout was! Why don’t students vote? Part of the problem may be that students on those bodies see it as a career thing. Over the years I’ve come to understand that students don’t see each other as companions, but as competitors. Many of them are scared, lonely, and obsessed by their resumes. This pains me. No wonder they’re stressed out and complaining about performance pressure.
Since 2007 I’ve held admission interviews with all the new students and I always ask them about their favorite book. It went from 1984 by George Orwell to Harry Potter, and lately it’s often self-help books about how to be happy. They don’t read novels anymore. Which is a shame, because books can become your friends and help you think about and give meaning to life. I myself have considered it a privilege to work on something that transcends my personal existence, a greater purpose you can serve. At first it was women’s emancipation, and later it was Liberal Arts education.”
“Major developments have taken place over the past five decades: climate change, globalization, emancipation, individualization and digitalization.
In a degree program you can’t always keep up with those rapid developments. ChatGPT beat us to it, so plagiarism checks don’t work anymore. We have to change the way we assess students. And there is a lovelessness in using those new methods to create texts. Students should be challenged to write a good story that engrosses the reader from beginning to end. That’s an art in itself and if you master it, it will also help you to order your thoughts. A minor in Sustainability is starting next year. I’m happy about this, but I would’ve liked to see it sooner.
And we have to appeal to students’ sense of morality. More and more of them are reporting mental health problems, saying they are lost or even depressed. A concept that’s subject to inflation: if you’re feeling unhappy for a while, someone’s bound to call it depression.
Freedom in academia is not the same as doing whatever you feel like. It’s the ability to reflect and be independent. This takes hard work. I’m a bit lazy myself. Who isn’t? We’re constantly fighting ourselves. I did have a very disciplined upbringing. All those hours of sitting quietly in church taught me to undergo a great deal of ‘time’ at a very young age. You couldn’t act on impulse. More and more students seem to lack the ability to concentrate on something over a longer period of time, always moving on to the next thing on their PCs or smartphones. Academic education ought to train their attention spans. Students definitely know what dedication is, just look at how they exercise. They can train their bodies, but need guidance when it comes to training their minds.”
Making the world a better place
“I keep hoping for a new ideology, but I can’t make one up on my own. I’m currently engaged in climate activism. In this context, I meet many passionate young people who care deeply about the future of the planet. Individualization often makes students feel powerless, but they’re less lonely if they start or join a movement.
Around me, I see that morality is making a comeback, is being dusted off. Some people may think this reeks of petty Christian citizenship, others may be afraid of leftist indoctrination. But it’s neither. In Liberal Arts, it’s not just about knowledge, but also about character building, about fostering the development of a moral compass. Academia doesn’t work without morality. Developing AI or studying and applying law or economics without asking questions of morality is dangerous. We’re not teaching students what to think but how to think, showing them that self-criticism is integral to independent and critical thinking. These are things that matter.”
Alkeline van Lenning received her doctorate from Utrecht University in 1992 with a dissertation on anorexia nervosa. At Tilburg University she worked as a lecturer in women's studies, later as lecturer and program director of sociology. Since 2007 she was vice-dean of the BA program in Liberal Arts and Sciences. Since 2016, she was dean of University College Tilburg.
The farewell speech of Professor Van Lenning will take place on 29 Juni, 16.15 in the Auditorium (with livestream). The speech is entitled: Academic Education in the Rapids of our Time (in English). For more information please contact Tineke Bennema, tel. 013 4668998 and via firstname.lastname@example.org.
(By Tineke Bennema)