Organisation - November 13, 2014

Out of the straightjacket

Albert Sikkema

Louise Fresco has written a new book about science and culture: Kruisbestuiving (Cross-pollination). In it, she makes a plea for ‘knowledge for the joy of knowledge’. So what advice does author Fresco have for the Wageningen executive board? An interview about the book.

Learning how to learn and how to keep an open mind is the crucial task in an academic education,’ says Louise Fresco. And that is the reason why she devotes a chapter of her news book Kruisbestuiving to what she calls Lernen. ‘Lernen, lifelong learning, is an attitude. It means going on learning and asking questions, and discussing them continuously. Knowledge for the sheer joy of knowledge, not measured against its instrumental value or usefulness to society, not funded by government or business, and not primarily for the purpose of addressing social issues, let alone constrained by the demands of innovation plans, platforms and core business,’ writes Fresco.


This raises the question: how is Fresco the executive going to make this a reality in Wageningen?

‘To me it’s about a campus culture in which we are open to other knowledge  and to students from various different cultures, because that enriches our lives. We do have a multicultural campus here, but is there enough contact between all the cultures? I hear that some chair groups address this through shared  meals. We need more of those kinds of ini- tiatives. Another nice example is the Nexus Institute in Tilburg, which hosts lectures on seemingly quite esoteric sub- jects such as: what is time, what is culture, and what is the importance of Beethoven? Much to my amazement, a lot of young people attend these lectures, even at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning! People do want to learn about things that are not of immediate practical use as well.’


Do you want to do something along those lines in the Wageningen curriculum?

‘Lifelong learning is partly about how you teach, and whether you get your students to look beyond their subject and the qualifications they need. The teachers who are chosen as Teacher of the Year already do that, I think. They do a bit extra.’


You write: ‘The idea of untrammelled erudition and the joy of amassing knowledge took me back to my student days at Wageningen in the 1970s, when you could still take the most diverse range of courses with inspiring teachers (…) No course was ruled out for someone who was curious about everything.’ You also write that there is a great temptation to ide- alize that period because ‘from the 1970s on, the universities quickly fell prey to the suffocating dogma of immediate usefulness and the iron grip of the market.’

‘During my studies I took the strangest courses, but not everybody did so. I am not saying all will be well if you just offer a wide variety of courses; it’s more of a question of attitude. What helps in Wagenin- gen is the small-scale nature of the university and the freedom of choice within the degree programmes. There is a reason why Wageningen has been coming top for years in the Dutch higher education guide De Keuzegids. It is because we know the importance of intensive knowledge transfer. I hope that we can continue to provide this with the current funding.’


You express that a bit more forcefully in your book. There you say: ‘Lifelong learning is a lodestar. (…) In a world which is more dependent than ever on the increasingly instant application of knowledge, and which is therefore changing radically and irreversible, idiosyncrasy, openness, critical capacities and integrity are indispensable qualities.’

‘We now have an accountability culture, imposed on us by society, and we think in terms of students and projects which we deliver as products. Of course that has its usefulness. But there is more to a university than that. I encourage seeking out ideas and people that we know very little about. Get out of the straightjacket! But at the same time, you do need a solid knowledge of your field, because a critical dabbler is no use to anyone. You’ve got to understand statistics and have some grasp of food chains and the environment. And we know that in 20 years’ time you will need a lot of different knowledge and skills. And your academic training will help you then.’


But is there really space for all this in the current degree programme? How do you facilitate this space to explore?

‘I think the upscaling and globalization in education and research will go on. Partly due to the internet, more than 10 million academic articles are now published every year. The trend is: higher production. We try to counter that with small-scale education and sufficient contact hours. I foresee education with a combination of large-scale internet classes such as MOOCs, and small-scale teaching on the Wageningen campus. And then we won’t be aiming solely at applicability and payoff, but also at an open and inquisitive culture.’

Illustration: Kito