I decided to start writing a blog only recently. The first question was about choosing a topic: innovation, regional development, quality of higher education, corporate social responsibility, just to mention a few ideas that came up. Did these topics have something in common? This question inspired me to have a short period of introspection.
Value free science
In the sixties, I studied human geography at Radboud University in Nijmegen and it took not very long before I got involved in the students’ movement. In one of my first pamphlets I excited myself about value free science, which I renamed into valueless science. We propagated some kind of ‘advocacy science’ in service of oppressed people. When the oppressed, whoever they were did not show any interest in our engagement, fellow students started to read Marx or travelled into exotic places to free their minds. I felt that it was time to quit the ‘movement’.
Education again prejudice
Education was my new passion. Teaching is the way to a better society; you only have to wait long enough. After a short career as a secondary school teacher, I moved into university and wrote a PhD thesis about the contribution of primary education in fighting prejudice. In this post cold war period most children saw Americans as the good guys and Russians as the bad ones. We – the Dutch – of course were considered as the best.
In my eyes, scientific concepts and theories were powerful tools to free common sense thinking from prejudice. I tried to implement this view in geography education, which meant a radical change. For many years, geography education had been based upon knowledge of facts. I invented the ‘culture critical model’: Our environment can be conceptualized with four different approaches: physical-biological, economical, social and cultural. Each approach is one-sided and children have to learn to construct images of reality based upon tension between two or more approaches.
University education under attack
The conviction that education must be more than the acquisition of knoledge, opened a new battlefield, namely academic teaching itself. As a student, I had spent most of my time with remote learning. My wife and I listened to taped summaries of books all day and subsequently the professors honoured our proficiency. In my view, the lecture was the symbol of bad education. Later, the Board of our university appointed me as educational director of a new faculty in order to prove that things can be done better.
From problem-based to project learning
I was challenged and twelve hectic years followed. Everybody who is searching in Google with ‘large-scale educational innovation’, ‘low budget’ and ‘massive enrolment of students’ will only find one hit, namely: “Do not”. That was no option and after the implementation of problem-based learning, we developed a ‘hybrid’ model that combined problem-based, project-based and traditional education (Van den Bosch & Kieft, 2001). We managed to implement this system in the bachelor program of the seven educational programs in the Nijmegen School of Management. Thanks to this approach, students learned how to analyse and to solve policy problems with insights from several scientific disciplines.
Active students count
I do not promote one single type of education anymore. The quality of higher education depends from whether students learn to relate theory and practice. Educational programs might arrive at this aim in several ways. Sometimes even a lecture is helpful. As a member of peer evaluation teams, I frequently visit faculties and I can only observe that most faculties share this vision. However, they bother with its implementation.
In 2001, I was appointed as dean of the Faculty of management of the Dutch Open University. My colleagues and I had to improve the quality of research, in which we succeeded. Nevertheless, I started to worry about the direction into which scientific research is moving. Most research is lacking societal relevance. Publishing has become a career instrument for staff. Universities will be marginalized in the long run if they continue like that. I tried to implement ‘mode 2’ research, which proved to be a partial success.
Back to geography
A couple of years ago, I decided to take more time for research myself. The ‘learning region’ appeared to be a challenging theme, because of the involvement of geography, educational science and business administration, the three field of science that I got acquainted with during my career. The relations between institutions of higher education and companies have my first interest. Universities differ with respect to their willingness to play an active role in regional development. I try to find out whether this has to do with differences in their vision at science.
Critics of ‘engaged scholarship’ use to confuse engaged research with applied research. Two publications have convinced me that this view is wrong. In the first place Donald Stokes’ book “Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation” (1997). This book makes clear that research could be ‘engaged’ and ‘fundamental’ at the same time. The second book “Engagedscholarship; a guide for organizational and social research” is written by
Andrew van de Ven (2007). Each student and scholar ought to read this book. It demonstrates that societal engagement results in better research!
Nowadays, universities have a mouthful of valorisation of knowledge. This is a first step, albeit small. Many scientists believe that thinking about the application of their research is only starting after the research has been finished. Van de Ven rejects this view. In his words: “”Who is asking the wrong questions, must not be surprised when nobody cares for the answers.” Stakeholder commitment from the beginning of a research project is a prerequisite for successful valorisation. During this dialogue, the right questions are raised and sources of data that were closed before are opened.
When all parts fit together
After my short introspection, I knew what is engaging me. The clumsy rejection of value free science, the application of scientific knowledge to fight prejudice, the connection of theory and practice in education by realistic problems, the interest in the role of universities in regional development, the aversion of the perverse effects of the ‘publish or perish’ mechanism in universities and the approval of Van de Ven’s ‘engaged scholarship have the same root, namely the mission to commit science in service of a better society. I hope my blog will contribute to some extend.
Stokes, D. E. (1997). Pasteurs Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation: Brookings Institution Press.
Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Engaged scholarship; a guide for organizational and social research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Van den Bosch, H. M. J., & Kieft, M. (2001). The hybrid curriculum; the acquisition of academic competencies in the university curriculum. In W. Gijselaers (Ed.), Educational innovation in economics and business administration, part VII. (pp. 41-56). Dordrecht: Kluwer, Academic Press.
 Posted in Dutch the 5th of January 2013