Science in Christian Perspective



Some Observations On 
Higher Education
In The Netherlands


Bethel College, St. Paul, Minn.

From: JASA 11 (September 1959): 3-5.
The Dutch university is a paradise both for the students and the professors. Stressing the concept of freedom, the student body and faculty alike have many liberties that their American counterparts lack.

The role of student (a term reserved for those attending a university) has almost the status of a profession. The student has very high social status, so some are tempted to choose that calling as a life-long vocation. One man in or near his forties had been attending for many years, going from one faculty and institute to another in order to keep covering relatively new subject fields. He was financed by a wealthy relative who provided that he would be given a liberal financial allowance as long as he remained a student!

Tuition costs are low, amounting only to 200 guilders (about $53.) for the entire academic year. Jobs are waiting for all who complete their studies to the candidate's or higher levels, for educational qualifications are established for many positions without regard for the competence of the individual.

The student writes few term papers. In the Sociological Institute at the University of Groningen, the student must complete one paper of 25 pages for his "candidate's"' and one of 60 pages for his "doctorial" examinations. In addition, the few persons who advance to the completion of work for a full doctor's degree must write and publish a dissertation. The costs of this publication are high, and the other costs associated with the examination ("promotion") and accompanying receptions bring expenses up to about 1,500 guilders or more. (Government loans are available to help pay these expenses.) No doctoral candidate is flunked at this formal, oral examination; to flunk a candidate would be practically the equivalent of firing his sponsoring professer.

Students are free to attend or not attend lectures as they wish. Although theoretically expected to attend from 3 to 15 hours of lectures and seminars a week, depending upon their level of advancement, they actually attend far fewer. Before their examinations, they discontinue all class attendance for -three-or four weeks.

There are few examinations, and these are scheduled individually with the professor whenever the student thinks he is ready for them. During his first year at the University of Groningen the sociology student takes a written one covering general sociology, sociological theory and methods, and social-economic history. He then is eligible to continue the additional two years required for the oral "candidate's-examination" which is given at the end of his third year. After two additional years of studies and at least three months of "experience" he may take the "doctoral-examination," which, if successfully completed, gives him the title of doctorandits (drs.). Only the dissertation and formal oral examination then stand betwen him and his doctorate. The foreign observer gets the impression that passing Dutch examinations depends primarily upon learning the viewpoint of the professor who dominates a faculty or institute and who gives or delegates authority for giving the oral examinations.

Professors also share in the benefits of freedom. They are very independent, once they become professors after passing through the lower ranks of subserviency as lectors, assistants, or persons in other occupations who wrote books significant enough to get them an academic appointment. (Few are appointed before the age of 35, and some not until late in life.) Professors choose or initiate their own courses (within broad limits), determine course content, set the standards demanded of students, and even do most of their own scheduling. Within the five to seven faculties which comprise the university, most have their own institutes and their own facilities. Each institute operates almost completely independently of all the others.

Teaching hours for the professor typically range from about three to five per week. Long vacations in summer (mid-May through mid-September or longer), at Christmas, and at Easter break the monotony of the year. Salaries are three to four times as high as those of skilled laborers. No occupational group has higher social status.

Of course, additional duties are expected of the professor. He must give--.or, as the Dutch say, "take from the student"-examinations. He is expected to write his opinions in articles and books. (Careful empirical research is not needed where "insight" is the source of knowledge.) He serves (usually for a generous honorarium) as an expert on national and community problems. He may even engage in committee work for the university-if he volunteers for it!

Dutch committee work is different from that of most American institutions of higher learning. One experienced professor told me of his work as secretary of a major university committee. It met once or at most twice during the academic year. Whenever important matters of business came up, he and the chairman made a decision and then telephoned the other members to get their approval. Minor matters were handled exclusively by the two committee leaders.

The professor knows "everything." He must not be questioned critically, for he cannot make a mistake! Students do not embarrass professors with deep discussions in seminars and classes; they are there to learn what the fount of knowledge has for them. (Besides, they seldom have done enough reading and study to have a solid foundation for discussion.) The high prestige of the professor is interrelated with the authoritarian atmosphere that characterizes the typical lecture room.

Assignments can be given in several foreign languages. When students are confronted with difficulties in their reading or in the solution of statistical problems, they consult one another. Even if together they cannot solve mathematical or other problems, they seldom bring them to the professor. They must not let him know of their failure cause him to be troubled with picayunish details.

To understand the Dutch system of higher education it is essential to know its historical and cultural background and especially to recognize the channels through which students have reached the university.

Compulsory education begins at the age of seven. The child first attends a publicly financed "lower school" which is either Catholic, "Christian," or public. At the end of grade 6 the parents decide whether he shall go on toward higher education, enter a technical high school, continue to eighth grade and then drop out of school, or enter an apprenticeship program that combines part-time work with vocational training. The age of 12 or 13 is hence a crucial one filled with anxieties for both children and parents.

If the child takes the first alternative, he will attend either a lyceum, gymnasium, or a higher citizen's school. If he successfully passes the terminal examinations (a large proportion fail), he is qualified automatically for admission to a university. (There are no liberal arts colleges.)

The five to six or more years of minimum schooling on the secondary level for persons entering the professions or other vocations which demand a university education are very strenuous. There are no extracurricular activities. Students study until at least 10:00 p.m. five or six evenings of the week. They must learn at least three foreign languages (English, French, and German), and in the classical schools (gymnasia) they must also study Latin and Greek. Other courses of study on the secondary level include history, mathematics, science, and a host of other subjects, partly dependent upon the type of school system. Much stress is placed upon rote memory and little or none upon cultivation of social graces and skills.

From this highly regimented, authoritarianly administered program the graduate of the secondary school comes to one of the six state universities (1 Catholic, 1 Protestant, and 4 general, and all with about ninety percent or more of their subsidized incomes from public funds). No longer is he obliged to meet assignments at specified dates, learn lessons daily, take frequent examinations, attend class faithfully, and study every night. His liberation is often devastating; the first year or two of university life are often almost completely wasted (academically speaking) in "riotous living."

To be sure, the university sponsors no extracurricular activities to distract students from their studies. But social expectations compel nearly every student to join an independent student organization. Which one he joins depends primarily upon his religious orientation, not his father's economic or social status, although that sometimes is also a criterion. In addition to the basic overarching student associations, often with elaborate recreational, eating, and social facilities, students join dramatic clubs, music clubs, art clubs, rowing clubs, football clubs, and other types of special purpose organizations.

Students do not live in dormitories; none are provided by the universities. They live individually in small rooms rented in various parts of the city. Having a roommate is considered entirely out of the question ("Isn't that immoral?"), but several students may rent rooms in the same private residence and thus share fun, fellowship, and even occasional intellectual discoveries with one another.

University libraries are usually highly decentralized, each faculty and institute having a fraction of the books and periodicals. Cataloging is cumbersome and poor according to American standards. A substantial proportion of the large collections (350,000 volumes in Groningen) consists of ancient tomes that are seldom if ever peered into in the twentieth century. Attendance in the main library reading rooms is remarkably high on cold winter days-student rooms are often poorly heated; the library provides a place to get warm. (But the stacks are bitterly cold!) Otherwise the facilities are used much less than those of American institutions.

Although American influence and an increasingly equalitarian atmosphere in Dutch society generally is producing gradual change, most students do not work while attending university except during summers. Work is frowned upon by the professors as an infringement upon intellectual endeavors.

It is this very "paradise" of high status, voluntary class attendance, few examinations and assignments, low costs, and leisurely living for the students and high pay, high prestige, short working hours, much time for research and writing, few examinations, and almost no committee work for the professor that is described by Professor Perry Miller of Harvard University in Atlantic Monthly (March 1951) under the title, "What Drove Me Crazy in Europe"!

On the basis of his Fulbright lectureship in the Netherlands, Miller described the European system of higher education as fossilized, intellectually superficial, culturally shallow, highly compartmentalized, isolating the student from society around him, failing to encourage critical reading and thinking, failing to recognize and meet the crises of students, and misinterpreting America "where-all-the-people-are-so-superficial-and-materialistic." Other American participants in the Dutch educational system have come away with similar impressions, although most have not "gone crazy" because of the experience. In fact, many of them, seeing the advantages of the system without recognizing its disadvantages, have "gone crazy about" the system and wished that many of its admirable features could be incorporated into American higher education. Perhaps a golden mean between the Dutch and American systems of education would produce a nearly ideal program.

General education is not an objective of the Dutch university. That is (presumably) provided in the secondary schools, although their emphasis upon literary, philosophical, and language studies excludes other significant areas of human knowledge.

The European university is not a liberal arts college. Isolation of each faculty from the others and the relatively little over-lapping of various faculties by students makes for a compartmentalization that is not productive of critical thinking, broad educational knowledge, or recognition of the interrelationships between the various academic disciplines.

All the American graduate students and college professors with whom I "compared notes" believed the Dutch university education to be on a much lower intellectual level than that of the typical American institution of higher learning. Excessive freedom after extreme regimentation apparently is not conducive to higher intellectual achievement for most people.

While it provides a utopian paradisiacal environment for three or more years of a student's life and a secure ivory tower for the professor, the cultural survival of semi-medieval traits in the twentieth century makes Dutch higher education a prime illustration of cultural lag. Much "freedom" with little obligation becomes unprofitable both for the individual and society when democratic and humanitarian objectives are used to evaluate the ends and means that are involved.

Conant, James B., "Education in the Western World," The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 200, no. 5, pp. 73-77 November 1957.

Daling, John T., "A Look at the Dutch," The Reformed Journal, Part 1: vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 22-27 May 1957; Part II: vol. 7, no. 6, pp. 13-16, June 1957.

Kinne, Ernest W., "A Fulbrighter Views Dutch Education," Journal of Higher Education, 30:15-26, January 1959.

Miller, Perry, "What Drove Me Crazy in Europe," The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 187, no. 3 pp. 41-45, March 1951.