Human rights through liberal arts

Nieuws | de redactie
12 april 2012 | A focus on excellence in the Dutch debate has fostered liberal arts colleges. This is good for human rights too, argues Dr. Barbara Oomen, new dean of Roosevelt Academy. To her, “excellent teaching is engaged teaching, with engaged teachers, engaged students and an engaged university”.

Dr. Barbara Oomen took office last week succeedingHans Adriaansens as dean of Roosevelt Academy.The renowned human rights expert now talked to ScienceGuide aboutthe future of Dutch liberal arts and her academy’s role in it.

With the next G20 of education coming up in the Netherlands,Oomen emphasizes her vision on excellent teaching.  Bestpractices will then be explored at the Harvard-Roosevelt summerseminar in June.

1.) How did you “find the courage” to succeed HansAdriaansens? Isn’t it quite a daring challenge to follow in thefootsteps of such a Liberal Arts pioneer?

I really never considered it as a challenge, but rather as anhonour. Over the years, I have become very enthusiastic about thevalue of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) education, just as I havedeveloped a great deal of admiration for Adriaansens’ pioneeringwork in this field. 

I do see Dutch LAS-education moving into a new direction.

Whereas Hans always compared the university colleges toGreenpeace boats trying to alter the course of higher education,you now see that this has happened. The strategic agenda for Dutchhigher education is all about liberal arts and excellence, a trendset by the colleges. At Utrecht University you now see the lawfaculty opting for an organization with four colleges, each withtheir own identity.  In that sense, LAS colleges have the windin their sails and can decide on their own course, instead ofbattling against trends in higher education.

2.) Roosevelt Academy is one of the pioneers in Liberal Artsof Dutch higher education. Why do you think is this concept soappealing to students and teachers? What makes you different fromtraditional universities?

Certain features are unique to all university colleges, andcertain features make University College Roosevelt Academy (RA)stick out from other university colleges. Unique features of theuniversity colleges include a broad liberal arts and sciencesbackground that truly allows students to explore many differentinterests in great depth. I am convinced that the fact that so manyof our alumni do so well in master programs ranging from physics tomedicine to music and law, has everything to do with the fact thatthey really opted for that master after thoroughly exploring manyoptions.

In addition, the program allows them to become well-roundedacademics, critical thinkers who pose life’s big questions and havegained the intellectuals tools to answer them. The small-scale withno more than 25 students in a classroom (at RA) and a strong senseof community amongst the 600 students who do their bachelor programin Middelburg is a unique feature as well. This is a treat forteachers as well: in a 30-session class they really get to discussthe topic of their interest at depth, and engage with students onthe big questions in their disciplines.

There are students who do a track in virtually every fieldoffered here, and thus take 6-8  we courses and do independentresearch. As a teacher this is great to see because this is howtocontribute to 3) The emphasis on excellence in the Dutch academicculture. Many students and staff experience it as a relief toactually be encouraged to enjoy learning and striving towardsgreater understanding.

While this applies to all university colleges that I know, theRA distinguishes itself in a number of ways:

Firstly, the dedicated faculty and staff: people actually moveto Middelburg to live and teach here, and are available on campusfor their students. To me, this explains our high rankings in termsof ‘accessibility of teachers’, and why students miss us so muchafter moving on to Oxford, Cambridge or other universities.

Secondly, the ability that students have to ‘shape their world’.Students not only get to put together their unique program, butalso contribute to a very lively community, in music, poetry,sports, debating and a host of other societies. I understand fromstudents that the responsibility that they get – and take on – hereis much stronger than in other places.

Thirdly, our connections with the city of Middelburg, and theprovince of Zeeland. We have a wide range of research projects,internships and social projects with a variety of partners inZeeland. An example would be a research project on Alzheimer, or onthe life of lobsters, or partnerships with the localanti-discrimination bureau. Our music and theater nights, andculture week, are well visited by the local populace. To me, it isnot without reason that America’s top colleges are always to befound in small towns: here, one can foster those connections thatallow for intellectual growth and civic engagement.

 Last but not least, our undergraduate research program:over the past years, many of our students have engaged in original,shoulder-to-shoulder research with their instructors. Our alumnisurvey shows that 10 % of our graduates end up in a PhD program. Ibelieve that this could well be because they – as one alumnus putit last week – ‘got struck by the research virus’ here.

3.) The Liberal Arts concept has been very successful in theNetherlands with 6 university colleges already set up and at leastone more starting up in Rotterdam in 2013. Is theresomething in the Dutch mentality, culture and higher educationdevelopment in the last 15 years that explains thistrend?
Why are other European countries slower at picking up thisidea?

You do find university colleges in other countries, from Swedento Slovakia. The Ecolas-network that we are part of brings thesecolleges together. This being said, it is clear that many Dutchstudents and academics are very enthusiastic about LAS; this mighthave to do with our international outlook. The majority of ourgraduates continue to a master program abroad (70 % at top-100universities) and a LAS-bachelor, in many ways, forms a greatspringboard for such a career.

4.) What is the role of Liberal Arts for human rights, yourarea of expertise?

Classically, liberal arts colleges strive towards strengtheningcritical democratic citizenship. Martha Nussbaum, in books like’Cultivating Humanity’ and ‘Not for Profit’ makes a strong argumentfor this part of liberal arts and sciences. Students with aLAS-background have learned to look critically at the world,analyze it from different disciplinary perspectives, build strongarguments and listen empathically to those of others. This alsomakes them into the type of global citizens who play a key role inthe realization of human rights.

We explicitly seek to strengthen this dimension of our programas well, next to merely offering excellent education. In the GoingGlocal program, for instance, our students teach about globalcitizenship at schools in Zeeland, and – after an intensive course- do a summer program in Namibia and Mexico. They include theirfindings into projects to be set up with ‘their’ schools (see In addition to that, weorganize lectures and an information market on education for globalcitizenship and human rights education for teachers in Zeeland.

5.) At the moment Roosevelt Academy accommodates talentedBachelor students. What are your ambitions to expand your programsto Master and PhD tracks? Do you also consider expanding witheducation offers abroad?

I would first want to consolidate what we do well here, beforelooking into the possibility of opening other colleges or settingup master programs. So much work can still be done in offeringexcellent bachelor education, and it is really a forgotten part ofthe academic formation (which is strange, considering that itconcerns three years). Of course, many of our professors supervisePhD research, and are generally involved in research (80 % of ourinstructors has a PhD).

6.) With the next ‘G20 of education‘ coming to the Netherlandsnext year, what do you think is Roosevelt Academy’s main message tothe world what excellent teaching looks like?

Excellent teaching is engaged teaching, with engaged teachers,engaged students and an engaged university.

7.) In June, you will organize the next Roosevelt-Harvard workshop on excellentteaching and learning. What are your expectations for this year’sseminar?

There is already great interest of teachers in higher education,and I expect it to be as inspiring a course as it was last year,with lots of room for recent insights on what makes for studentlearning, but also for the exchange of experiences betweendedicated teachers.

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