Science - April 14, 2005

Propositions: burden or fine tradition?

After years of toil the PhD thesis is finally ready. Time to sit back? No, now your supervisor reminds you that you have to write propositions, a peculiarly Dutch custom that is part of the PhD defence.

A swift analysis of the propositions (stellingen) produced over the last year in Wageningen, a hasty loose-leaf addition to the PhD theses, indicates that clichés are popular among the international PhD community. ‘Poor people can be rich in heart and knowledge’, or ‘it is important to remember that one of the ceaseless wonders of the world is the power of a smile’ are not exactly meaningful statements. The Dutch are no exception either: a gem like ‘a day without a smile is a day not lived’ is the kind of saying you expect to see hanging in the toilet.

Borrowing the wisdom of others, whether openly or undercover, happens a lot. Proverbs from all corners of the earth are presented as propositions without batting an eyelid. It seems that among the pygmies ‘it is better to have no law than not enforcing it’. And those who cannot find an obscure proverb often turn to a book of quotations. While the foreigners go for the big ones, like Kant and Confucius, the Dutch set their sights a little lower, as if to say they do not take it so seriously. This impression is also confirmed by the more trivial own creations such as ‘no lettuce grows on an iceberg’.

Evidence of erudition
The more amusing propositions raise a faint smile, and often find their way on to the back page of Wb, but they cannot be defended scientifically any more than quotes from Buddha or grandmother’s proverbs. For Professor Rudy Rabbinge they are a thorn in his flesh. One of Rabbinge’s responsibilities on the Doctorate Board is to assess the propositions. He believes that many academics do not appreciate the tradition. ‘They are not a joke, or just the icing on the cake. Propositions are supposed to give evidence of being widely read and having a good academic background. It was not without reason that we tightened up the instructions on propositions in the PhD regulations a few years ago.’

The rules state that a PhD candidate must compose at least six and not more than eight propositions. Of these, two must be related to the subject of the PhD thesis or the experiment design, two to four must be related to another area of science and two should be socially relevant. They must also ‘not be contrary to good manners’, and a proposition is ‘a concisely formulated scientific statement that can be defended or opposed’.

This last definition indicates the origin of the propositions in the tradition of debating. Proposition writing in the Netherlands goes back to the founding of the University of Leiden in 1575. The goal of academic education in that time was to nurture erudition: ‘learnedness, combined with taste and critical faculties’. During the PhD graduation ceremony (promotie) the emphasis was not initially on the dissertation itself but on the public defence, which took the form of a debate. The promovendus would publish propositions beforehand on a range of scientific subjects, and if he managed to defend himself well, he was entitled to call himself doctor. It was only in the eighteenth century that specialised knowledge of a particular subject gradually became more important and therefore also the thesis.

Appendix
That propositions still exist in this era of highly specialised academic research has more to do with a feeling for tradition, says Professor Willem Otterspeer Professor of University History at the University of Leiden. ‘It is an appendix, and I mean that literally: a part of the body that no longer has a function. But we should certainly retain it, as a meaningful reminder of a wonderful past.’ Meaningful. ‘Wisdom and understanding is better than silver and gold.’ Is that meaningful? No, answers Otterspeer. ‘Propositions have to be academic; they should include originality, but they also have to be formulated in a way that they can be opposed. If you are only doing it for the form, then the form has to be good, and it is up to the promotor to ensure that that is the case.’

It’s all very well, is Professor Anke Niehof’s reaction. The chair of Sociology of Consumers and Households, Niehof says a promotor has better things to do than to worry about the quality of propositions that disappear onto the bookshelf. ‘It is just an extra burden. Finally the thesis is ready, and you still have to think up the propositions. I would not have accepted the one on wisdom and understanding. That’s the kind of platitude they put on a tile hanging above a bed. It’s hopeless. As far as I’m concerned we should get rid of them.’

Dutch students tend to find propositions a nuisance at a time when they are busy looking for a job. For foreigners you have to explain the whole phenomenon, as sociologist Professor Kees de Hoog knows only too well. ‘Things usually go alright with the scientific propositions, but when it comes to the social propositions you often encounter the culture of politeness. It is not done to criticise university policy, or to say something critical about the situation in your own country. They seek refuge in Aristotle or Confucius, and the promotor gets a glazed look and says, ok then.’

Preaching
Of course there are examples of original propositions that do live up to the requirements. Beatriz Torres Beristain managed to put her finger on a Dutch sore spot: ‘When a country has too many rules, something is missing in the spirit of its people.’ I really wanted to find something less critical, says the Mexican PhD candidate who defends her thesis on 15 April. I find it difficult to make an outspoken statement without immediately indicating that there is always another side. Originally I had a quotation from a Mexican poet, but my promotor said it had to be stronger.

According to Kees de Hoog, the Dutch find it easier to voice a critical opinion, and it has to do with the ‘preaching culture’ here. The Dutch are not averse to pointing an accusing finger or holding up a mirror to their own culture: ‘Frantic efforts to protect our privacy stand in stark contrast to the ease with which we conduct personal conversations on our cell phones in public’. If they are to become an amusement item, they all need to be less heavy and less boring. So PhD candidates, forget the instructions and concentrate on giving the audience a laugh. That way the Wb editors will also have more material for the back page.

Lieke de Kwant

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