Wetenschap - 26 september 2002

The Wageningen mentality for beginners

The Wageningen mentality for beginners

"I lived for a year in a student flat here," a friend of mine from Africa who was studying for a PhD once told me, "And in all that time not a single white flat mate ever said a word to me. Is that discrimination?" Not exactly, I answered. More likely it was an example of typical Wageningen modesty, which often leads to misunderstandings among outsiders and makes Wageningers (as they are called) sometimes appear hostile.

Wageningers can't stand making themselves seem more important than they really are. In the student flats this comes down to them letting foreigners get on with their own lives. It just never occurs to them that these same foreigners might appreciate a little contact.

Wageningers are the most modest intellectuals of the Netherlands, a fact backed up by a host of empirical data. Bullying does not exist among students in Wageningen. The Wageningen fraternity Ceres is the only Dutch student fraternity that has dared to abolish initiation rituals. And although Wageningen students are the hardest workers in the whole country, according to the statistics, after graduation they earn relatively less than their fellow graduates from other university towns.

The reason for this undervaluation within Dutch society is probably the meritocratic character of the Wageningen education. Wageningers try to distinguish themselves in their subject area through their achievements, not by making themselves appear superior to others. This makes Wageningen graduates hard workers and reliable colleagues, but not manager material. They tend to grind themselves down to the bone, not others, and in the big wide world of tough competition that's not the way to get noticed.

Basking in reflected glory is not a habit Wageningers are accustomed to. Students in Leiden, Rotterdam and Amsterdam are known for the unconcealed pride they take in their universities. Not the Wageningers. Even though they might not feel at home in another town, you'll never hear them boasting about their own university. This sometimes comes as a surprise to foreigners, used to the prestigious image Wageningen has outside its own country.

Another important characteristic of Wageningers is their flexibility. Graduates in forestry go on to design bicycles, you may come across Wageningen sociologists later who have become a museum director or a doping expert; everything and indeed anything is possible. Even if you don't like this modest breed it's always a good idea to stay friends with them. You never know when you might come across them again.

Willem Koert

Illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

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