Portretfoto Jan Bransen
Portretfoto Jan Bransen

Column Jan Bransen: Winners and losers

I would have loved to have written a nice, happy, and positive column, and if I had restricted my attention to what we are working on at the TLC, that would undoubtedly have happened. That is the benefit of being privileged enough to work in an environment where cooperating and living and learning together is a complete given.

Sadly, that is not universally the case at our university. Far from that, even. Over half of our students deal with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and almost half experiences stress because they are pressured by their parents and society to perform at maximum capacity. The situation for university employees is sometimes not much better. Fleur Jongepier, a brilliant and inspiring philosopher, who I was allowed to supervise during her PhD, has left our university angrily and disappointed. She was no longer able to function in a toxic environment, where the sole focus is a narrowly defined highest goal, and in which too many ‘winners’ look the other way, participate, or even lead the way when it comes to striking down the defences of those who risk being dismissed as 'losers'. Fleur's leaving is a great loss for our university. 

There are of course always many unique causes for mental suffering, and of course there are, besides complete assholes, also accidental convergences of circumstances, and sometimes you're just simply unlucky. But I also notice a pattern, a self-evident competitive framework that we all, since we were children, have silently gotten used to. 

It seemed like a great idea, when the Catholic University Nijmegen was founded almost a hundred years ago, an emancipatory idea. The university would give the disadvantaged Catholic population a chance to uplift themselves, to reach a higher social status, to be able to win, to gain prestige and status on just grounds. Not ancestry, but talent should determine the social position you could achieve as a person. 

But it turned out that this great idea would only work if one aspect of society would literally stay upright: the social ladder, that shunned hierarchy of status and prestige, of higher and lower ranks. The survival of that ladder, a difference in hierarchy, was the necessary requirement for the emancipatory idea that education could make a difference. 

And indeed, nowadays education makes a difference – in a damaging, often painful, and relentless way. But it doesn't have to. Because there is nothing intrinsically competitive about education. Education is not a competition. And also not a ladder. Education is a social arrangement that stimulates development. Education happens in an unrestricted educational space, which the word ‘school’ refers to (ancient Greek: ‘σχόλη’), the freedom to be able to practice, to acquire skills in a context in which there is no risk that you will be judged for the consequences your practice might have. That freedom needs to be restored. 

I experience that freedom within the TLC, and that basically means within the entire university – at least within the network that we are creating with everyone that strongly cares for education. Because practicing, that is what it's all about. Failing without losing. Failing with the full knowledge that you will be allowed the time and space to get back on your feet – with a helping hand, or with a kick in the butt, if need be. But always in a horizontal plane, without competition, without hierarchy. It's possible. 

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