In Defense of a Dutch Education Reform: Why Graduating High School Should Not Have Been That Much Work

education-systemAbout a month ago, I first read about the possibility of a “customized” secondary school diploma in the near future, meaning that students would be able to graduate in subjects on different levels. Paul Rosenmöller, chairman of the Secondary Education Council (VO-raad), wants to implement this proposition soon. Aside from a few hang-ups, I am a big proponent of that and will explain to you why.

Dutch students have officially dropped their pens a few days ago: finals are over. If you graduated with a Dutch pre-university diploma (VWO), you know that the requirements are no easy feat. They weren’t for me, at least. In order to get your VWO diploma, you have to graduate with an average of 5 for math and at least a combined average of 5.5 for math, Dutch and English. As 5.5 is a narrow pass, this might not seem too difficult, but my math grades hardly got close to a 5 during my first years of secondary school, let alone a passing grade. I did well in all other subjects, but boy, math certainly made up for most of my schoolwork!

For me, math tutoring began while I was still in elementary school. However, when I went to a Gymnasium (grammar school), I had to triple my efforts. At one point, I had to be tutored three times a week (yes, really) and would feel stressed about an exam a month in advance. Nevertheless, my grade average still circled around a 3,5 out of 10. Ouch. At one point, my math teacher told my mother that “he had never encountered a case like [me] before.” I transferred to a different school over the Christmas holiday and, with my new teachers’ support, even more tutoring and an intensive three-day prep course at Leiden University, managed to graduate with a 6 on my diploma. Victory was mine.

I can still look at my diploma with great pride, as I invested hundreds of hours in getting it. But the downside of this story is that wanting to go to university would not have needed to be such a battle if I would not have had to take math at a VWO level. I knew I would never go into any sort of profession where math would play a role, so what was the point of fighting for it? I did it not only because I wanted to go to university, but also because I did well in all other subjects. It felt like a waste to go for a less challenging diploma.

According to Rosenmöller, it’s “old-fashioned to receive a diploma at your worst subject’s level.” I agree and believe that a shift in the way we look at secondary education is necessary. There are plenty of people who do not exactly have what it takes to be a VWO graduate but would make a fine or even excellent university student.

I hope that Dutch politicians will come to realize that a pre-university diploma should not be a one-level, one-size-fits-all sort of thing and allow all Dutch secondary schoolers to be able to reach their maximum potential without having their worst subject(s) stand in the way of their future career.

 

Rivka

Header image courtesy of readwriteteach.org

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Interview: On Fictional Languages and They Should Pay Us For This

“Valar morghulis.” This phrase may be familiar to you, if you have watched a season or four of the television series Game of Thrones or read a book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. It is a phrase from a language called ‘High Valyrian’, and it is translated as “all men must die”. High Valyrian is a language that is not actually spoken by any native speakers, and the possible speakers, if existing, are probably fans of the series. It is one of the many planned languages in this world, human-made and often used in a book- or television series, as well as films and games. In another category of planned languages, you will find languages such as Esperanto, meant as a second language for all human inhabitants of planet Earth, so everybody can understand each other.  Continue reading “Interview: On Fictional Languages and They Should Pay Us For This”

Higher Education is Mental

stress-groeningWhile Yentl wrote about the over-sensitivity and the tendency to romanticize melancholy that seems to apply to our generation, I’d like to write about what also seems to be a big issue for people around twenty. Perhaps it goes hand in hand, or little finger in little finger, with the over-sensitivity that we were raised with, bottom line is that there is a problem.

A couple of years ago, just around the time I started university, while skimming my way through the humongous pile of flyers, newspaper articles about the shrinking labour market that my mother had started gathering for me and a general load of information that you would need three brains for to process, I read something about how a lot of students had to deal with psychological issues during their studies. It seemed logical to me that causes were, for instance, due to unstable living environments. Since I counted myself lucky that I did not have to deal with that, and seeing those psychological issues as something far removed from me, I soon forgot about the article.

That is, fast forward two years, until I found myself reading flyers at the student psychologist’s office, after having to admit that I had become one of those students. I found out the number that had been described as many was actually 49 per cent – half of the students have to deal with psychological issues, and for many of them, from both university and HBO this is due to the pressure that is put on them because of their study.

Research of the LSVb (Landelijke Studenten Vakbond/ National Student Union) elaborates that the most common issues are depression, fatigue, stress, anxiety, as well as performance anxiety, concentration issues, burn outs, and demotivation. Although I was slightly surprised by the number, I was not surprised by the causes. I did want to know how it could possibly be solved.

Some people may try to hand you a straightforward answer: students just should not want to do it all. Students should realize, they say, that it is impossible to study the required amount of hours a week – which is 40 hours, as you may know, and manage to gather enough points to have a bachelor within three years. All this while holding a part-time job so you can live on your own, preferably something that helps you build your resume for future use and if that is not possible both a job and an extra curricular activity aimed at the future career. We should not forget that a social life outside of it is important as well, probably involving study or student associations, sport clubs and/or just a circle of friends outside of that – they promised you this would be the best time of your life – and besides that, have enough time to relax every once in a while. Just summing it all up makes me want to crawl into a nice pillow fort with a dozen of books, television series and food and preferably never come out to face my responsibilities ever again. Oh, and hopefully those are your only activities, and you do not have any hobbies, a need to sleep at least 6 of the recommended 8 hours a night and a natural inclination to become an adult (which comes with enough problems on its own).

In order to minimize the stress, students are advised to stop doing, or at least cut back on doing some of these things. Naturally not on studying – heaven knows where you end up if you do not study at least 40 hours a week! Under a bridge, probably, trying to find out which of the needles lying on the ground next to you is the cleanest. And even when cutting back on the hours – which, at least 80% of the students is doing already, 168 hours a week is not enough to keep doing the things you have to do to ensure a future career, especially when your field of choice is not economics, medicine, science or law, and to get a degree in time to evade a crippling debt. If you need a bit longer than three years you probably end up under that aforementioned bridge accompanied by those needles of debatable cleanliness as your debt in combination with the shrinking labour market and the fact that you decided not to do that one internship because you could not handle more debt and stress means that you’re basically done with.

Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons not to stop on activities that are not your studies, job or internship. Relaxation, sleep and a social life are important for every person. You cannot order someone to just stop living for a couple of years and just to build a future.

Now, of course, every person has their own capacity of how much they can handle, and plenty students manage to do very well; everyone divides their priorities differently. Even if for some, or for many, this problem is caused by the way we have been raised to be very sensitive, the amount of students who do not completely manage is, well, mental. At some point, I hope to find figures about how our parents’ generation was doing mentally, although it is impossible exclude the current shrinking labour market and the time pressure caused by the financial situation from the equation.

Perhaps we should look a bit beyond what the students do, and a bit more at what the government does. The ultimate question is: what happens when eventually half of the higher educated population sits at home with panic attacks, fatigue or a burn out?

 

Tessel

Humanities: Rethink, Redefine, Reform

6,6--17,7 Winter, 2010 (Article Ilona)It’s a tough world out there as a humanities scholar. Facing virtuous doctors, renowned mathematicians, and heroic physicists, we are more than often advised to celebrate the wondrous worlds of Raphael’s Stanze, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whilst occasionally throwing around a Judith Butler text, alone, without claiming their utility. Studying humanities is a way to enrich your life. It underlines our pursuit of knowledge. Its intrinsic value is so prominent and elitist already that there is no need to associate the humanities with other fields of science. Apparently we are just studying a lifestyle. Thus, humanities scholars need to defend themselves in this polemic academic disunity. And we’ve done so poorly.

In the ongoing debate of Profile 2016 and the humanities departments in universities in general we, as humanities scholars, have the tendency to defend a position in which we establish two dichotomies. The first one is a simple one and emphasizes the differences between the humanities and the hard sciences[1]. The second dichotomy refers to the ongoing debate of how we should defend the value of the humanities with the obligation to ‘choose’ between its intrinsic or its instrumental value. However, a number of recently published articles have pointed out that there is a need of philosophy, literature, language, and history in other fields of science, and even in the U.S. Air Force Academy[2] (“Greater emphasis on humanities means more well-rounded decision making”). And it’s in the argumentation of these new discourses that the humanities scholar is to find a new defense.

In May 2014, The Guardian[3] argued that the humanities are necessary because of the enrichment of art and literature in our lives, but are not essential to democracy and therefore their instrumental value is doubtful: “The arts and humanities cannot claim to be essential to democracy, economic success and social wellbeing. Most people do perfectly well without direct engagement with culture.” However, there is one thing we should not ignore in this article: “At their best they [the arts and humanities] can engage us in a continuous search to understand the human condition.” And where The Guardian fails to elaborate, Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination picks it up: “I object to the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more “useful” fields. In fact, imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions.[4]

So, if we can take humanities into our world of democracy and even as far as the U.S. Air Force Academy, why do we still establish and emphasize the dichotomy between the humanities and the hard sciences? In its most recent issue of De Gids, Netherlands’ longest established literary and cultural magazine, Bert Keizer in his essay on the medical sciences stresses the importance of philosophy of science, but also acknowledges the difficulties of application[5]. In this, there is a glimmer of hope for the humanities scholar. I’m not saying that we should go around saying we can save lives telling medicine students what to do. However, in the possibilities of reforming departments in universities, we should keep in mind the value of humanities, rethinking and redefining it continually.

 

ISA

 

Footnotes

[1] For example: http://spunk.nl/blog/we-zijn-geen-betastudenten-dus-we-kunnen-onszelf-beter-weggooien.

[2] http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/11/at-the-air-force-academy-stem-education-isnt-enough/382793/.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/29/study-arts-humanites-enrichment.

[4] The Republic of Imagination, p. 11-12.

[5] “ Waar zijn we in terechtgekomen? Midden in het cartesiaans dualisme. Dat is geen filosofische positie, maar een filosofisch probleem.”Read the full article in Dutch on Blendle: https://blendle.nl/i/de-gids/geloven-hopen-en-weten-in-geneeskunde/bnl-degids-20141201-18949_geloven_hopen_en_weten_in_geneeskunde.

It’s The Hard Knock Life

The biggest obstacle for me in my hopefully-soon-to-be-finished BA trajectory has been the course “Wetenschapsfilosofie”. Twice. After having done two of its exams in the first exam week, I am once again feeling the anticipating fear and despair in my gut of having to wait for the results and getting to know whether or not I will have to delay graduation for another year. Now I’m not exactly a straight-A-student to begin with, but this is just one of those courses that is aimed at making you fail.
There are several reasons why I feel that the course is set-up in an illogical manner, and is meant to give you a hard time, rather than actually allowing you to learn what it teaches. I would firstly like to explain the structure of the course for those who have not yet had the pleasure of taking it: Philosophy of Science is divided into two parts: a general part and a part that is specific to your actual course, like English in my case. The general part is taught in Dutch (more on this will follow) and the English part is sub-divided into two modules: Linguistics and Literature. The general part lasts 16 weeks and the Linguistics and Literature modules each last 8 weeks and they follow each other up respectively. Like so:

linguistics

It seems to be constructed in a fair way, but in practice this structure simply does not work very well. Both the general part and the English part (in specific the Linguistics module for me) require a great deal of hard work, attention and effort in order to keep up with the material and getting good grades. If you’re someone like me, who has to also take an elective, work at a part-time job, have personal projects and a half-assed social life as a result, you will find that Wetenschapsfilosofie is too much in too little time. For the general part, you’re force-fed an average of 30 pages per week on complex topics in an academic language that you’re not used to (Dutch), while simultaneously having to put at least as much effort in the English part, for which you must have a 5,5 for each module – no compensation allowed. Luckily, the general Dutch part can be compensated by the English one, but for a non-straight-A-student, this is Mission: Impossible, meaning that it all works out in the end, but you have to work your butt off astronomically.
As I mentioned before, I take issue with the general part of this course being taught in Dutch. It does not make sense in any way to have a course that is taught to all studies in the Humanities department in a non-international language. Yes, part of my reasoning is because I want to be taught in English, a language I’m used to, but I have heard from more than one international student that it is very difficult to follow this course in a language that they don’t know very well (gee whiz, why would that be?). I find it odd that such an essential part of a course, content-wise and audience-wise, is not taught in a language that is understandable for everyone. Because not only does this affect the grades of international students badly, but those of others as well – there are more studies that are predominantly taught in academic English and not in academic Dutch. I just hope for future Wetenschapsfilosofie students that someone somewhere who is in charge of changing this course will make some effort into improving this issue. Mostly because it is so easy to improve: change the Dutch material into an English equivalent. I’m sure there are plenty of study books that are just as good, if not better than the Leezenberg & de Vries book.

I would only like to conclude that I genuinely enjoy the material taught in Wetenschapsfilosofie – yes, even the linguistics module, terrible though I am at it -, but the course is made in such a way that unfortunately I’m not really allowed to savor the knowledge I’m ramming down my brainpan at lightning speed with the delicacy of a raging rhinoceros.

 

Ines

On Authors In Focus 1

“Authors in Focus 1” is a six-credit course on Oscar Wilde’s novel, plays, short stories, and mostly his mysterious personal life. Last week, the main reading was a selection of Wilde’s short stories. In class, whilst we were fervently discussing and analyzing the reasoning behind the choices made in the stories and how these choices may have been a reflection of Oscar Wilde’s personal life, I felt how the classmate sitting next to me grew more and more frustrated. At a certain point–I believe it was when The Selfish Giant was dubbed a pedophile and this was connected to the possible homoerotic encounters Wilde had with young men–my classmate held up his hand and asked something along the lines of “What if we’re reading too much into it?”

I’ve asked myself this question many times. As most of us English students (or any students of literature) have experienced, it happens on occasion that we will have to analyze or deconstruct a work that is close to us. A piece of writing that we feel ought to be taken for what it is, because it meant something to us at a specific time in our lives. Or maybe because we enjoy it so fully that taking apart and observing the reasons behind the enjoyment seems unnatural. I am surely not the only one who has refrained herself from picking her favorite Victorian novel for that final paper, just because I didn’t want to stop loving it.

This is not to suggest that analyzing narratives is a bad thing–otherwise I wouldn’t have studied English. No, to me, taking stories apart and uncovering as many elements as you can is definitely one of the most enjoyable activities of the Engelse Taal & Cultuur studies. In fact, there are many books that I have reread in which I read more, understand more and appreciate more. If it weren’t for Rudolph Glitz’s first few classes of the course then called “Literature in Theory”, I would probably have given my copy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw away after writing my very first essay on it. Now, it’s proudly standing amongst Stranger in a Strange Land, Waiting for Godot, and a whole bunch of bandes dessinées that helped me shape myself to become who I am today.

However, the point raised by my classmate in my Oscar Wilde class (which is a fun and intriguing course, I recommend it to any English student) could not get out of my head for a few hours after class. How is it exactly that analysis counters enjoyment? What is it that triggers in us the feeling to protect certain works from being taken apart–when taking them apart could potentially enlighten us more? My answer for now is that books and stories are so strongly connected to memories that when we take them apart, we might forget the feeling we had a long time ago. Maybe someone ought to write an essay on this. Or maybe someone already has.

 

Ines

Header image taken from Wikipedia

Introduction to the Deep Dark World of Cyberpunk Fiction

cyberpunk by mjbauer

My academic year started on a rather chaotic note. Four days before the first semester was to start, I realised I hadn’t enrolled in any courses. Thankfully I ended up managing to enroll in whatever courses caught my eye (that is, in my 1-second glance of hurry-up-hysteria). Consequently, I found myself stranded in a classroom with a PowerPoint on in the background, displaying grey buildings, computer screens, and an overall immense amount of green little numbers in diagonal columns (you know, like the ones they have in The Matrix, which turns out to be my first and foremost point of reference when trying to say anything remotely intelligent about Science Fiction cyberpunk or whatever dystopian genre you find to your liking). Now, if you’re like me, naively trying to broaden your horizon but then finding yourself gob-smacked at all the talk of technology and cybernetics, with a face that can convey you have NO IDEA what is going on and would VERY MUCH like a PRECISE definition of WHAT THE HELL cyberpunk is… well, then you’re in the right place.

My parents have always encouraged me to read. It was the thing to do before bedtime: “only ten more minutes and then lights go out,” was a regular. At the age of eleven I had mastered the secret ‘under the duvet cover with a flashlight’ move. I like emotional books. Humorous ones occasionally. Science fiction was an utterly unknown genre to me. Not that the aforementioned qualities can’t be found in SF, the latter certainly can, but in the context of technological infrastructures and cyborgs I seem to not be able to appreciate these notions, because the whole thing has to be real for me. Well, all right then, “what is real,” you might ask.

Questions similar to “what is real?” come up in class, but they often seem hopelessly unsolvable to me. I mean: are we really going to delve into subjects like that? The notion of consciousness has also been quite a conversational topic, but its complexity mainly poses a really good excuse for me to drift off into the realms of Half-Awake and Half-Asleep. There, I think about the latest Siri Hustvedt book I just bought, plan on how to factor ‘me-time reading’ into ‘cyber-time’ reading, because yes, rather than the dystopian notion of technology taking over ones life, the reading of cyberpunk fiction has taken over mine.

After about three classes I finally managed to somewhat consciously follow what was going on. The reading was Burning Chrome, written by the grandfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson, and I had read the story, but apparently neglected to understand the part where the main characters were in cyberspace, This meant that they didn’t have bodies, which meant that the sentence “Bodiless, we flew through space” did, in fact, make sense. Eureka! I felt on a roll after this one, read back my notes from the first class and what did I find hidden within my illegible writing? The answer to your prayers: the definition we’ve all been waiting for. No, cyberpunk is not a Sex Pistols song recorded in space. Rather, it contains the word “punk” because it embodies everything describing countercultures, shifts in lifestyles and societal rules. The punk era consisted of putting diaper pins in ears rather than in babies’ diapers, so the function of pins here, was warped. The “cyber” aspect of course stems from “cyberspace”: an imitation of the real world consisting of information. This combination of punk and cyber makes for a highly dystopian genre causing much time and space confusion. It is up to you to choose whether you want to be confused in a realm of floating around in identity crises, organized information systems and despondent thoughts about humanity. But I think my chaotic mind calls for floating around in the here and now, casually reading a SF book here and there, but mostly enjoying the daylight outside which frequently permeates my light reading.

 

ISA

Header image by mjbaur on deviantart.