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Against Utopian Naiveté in Education

Published onJun 06, 2023
Against Utopian Naiveté in Education

Almost half a century ago, a young student of physics and mathematics in the Netherlands read Carl R. Rogers (1969), Freedom to Learn. For me, it was a most inspiring book. It did satisfy the purposes of a ‘core text’, a text that helps students learn “to challenge their own intellectual assumptions and preferences” (Van Lenning, 2017, p. 96). The humanistic psychologist Rogers offers a strong critique of education envisaged in terms of what is taught rather than in terms of what is learned, a critique of education that is directed towards that which is evaluated rather than driven by the interests of individual students. He envisages an educational utopia, all the way from elementary school to higher education. An educational utopia that prioritizes the individual student rather than the system. One that allows for interdisciplinary exploration and societal engagement. One that makes a climate of freedom and self-guidance the prime condition for meaningful education.

A few years later, I became a high school teacher. Freedom to learn turned out to be troubling, at least for me, undermining confidence and a sense of direction. If the emphasis of education is on self-guiding explorations by the students, what is my role as a teacher? In a classroom environment not always conducive to learning, sticking to the curriculum and textbooks saved me. From time to time, I remembered the utopian aspirations of Rogers, and some of those may have found their way into working with teenagers in summer camps. But to survive as a teacher, I felt I had to give up on the utopian idealism of Rogers. His utopia was not an empowering ideal, but rather a burden, evoking a sense of guilt rather than empowering me.

In our time, others criticize education in ways similar to Rogers. That college-level education is driven more by the system than by individual interests is a key element of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite from 2014. The stressful setting of elite American colleges undermines health and genuine relationships. The focus is on scores, tests, success, and preparing one for a future career. Though such criticisms have validity, I am convinced that over the last half century student-centered ambitions have changed education at all levels. Thanks to the utopia presented to us by Rogers and other idealists half a century ago? The current emphasis on the individual student may align, more than the idealist might like, with liberal, meritocratic ideas that shape public policy. Is current meritocratic individualism a moderate realization of ideals from Rogers, or does it reveal the problematic character of these ideals? Does meritocratic individualism bring us to green pastures with wide horizons or lead us into a labyrinth, a world of constraints that brings us to a place rather different from the utopian one we envisaged?

Insights into these issues are offered by Alkeline van Lenning, who titled her 2019 inaugural address Out of the Labyrinth. She speaks of the meritocratic labyrinth, within which lecturers are trapped, and students are lost. Meritocracy is the idea that the social hierarchy will be driven purely by intelligence or talent and by effort. That is a very laudable ideal, as it does away with the privileges of class, race and gender, and with the role of cultural and economic resources that consolidate social hierarchies over generations. The ideal requires opportunities for access to education, including higher education, for those with appropriate talent and drive. Van Lenning considers herself a beneficiary of meritocratic developments in society.

However, in her inaugural address, she discusses “some of the negative effects the currently prevailing ideology of meritocracy has had on academic teaching.” Meritocracy is “a Utopian fantasy” (Van Lenning, 2019, p. 7, 9). In the 1990s, Dutch coalition governments of social democrats and conservative liberals embraced meritocracy within a free market ideology, also in the public sphere. Why might a meritocratic ideal in practice become dystopian?

A major concern is that equal opportunities may not be genuinely equal. Not as extreme as George Orwell’s phrase in Animal Farm has it, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” but nonetheless. As defined above, meritocracy focuses on intelligence or talent, but neither of those is measurable by itself; we use proxies such as results on standardized tests. If, in line with meritocracy, there is selective admission, parents of high school students can invest in additional homework supervision and coach their children so that they may profit as much as possible from the meritocratic system, or at least more than those without such resources, and such a comparative advantage suffices. As Michael Dunlop Young, the sociologist who introduced the term ‘meritocracy,’ noted, with meritocracy comes humiliation for many. “The ones that succeed will justify their privileges on the grounds of their capacities and efforts. One form of perceived entitlement will simply have replaced the other. They will feel they deserve to be at the top. Those who do not succeed simply failed every opportunity they were given” (Van Lenning, 2019, p. 21). Those who are less successful are seen – and see themselves – as having to blame themselves for their lack of success. Meritocracy is not merely upward mobility, even though more and more students enter higher education. Nor is it automatically countering social stratification persisting across generations, as the way parents and children draw on resources may well consolidate social differences. The university colleges in the Netherlands, with selective admission and often additional tuition fees, may well be a manifestation of such a process, nominally open to all who are competent, while serving especially those who have ‘the right kind’ of background and have relevant support.

Under the leadership of Alkeline van Lenning, the ambition of the liberal arts and sciences program at Tilburg University has been to avoid this elitist trap. Selection is not primarily by grades in high school but as much by motivation. The students are not housed as a separate community, and the program has its place on the campus rather than in a separate complex of its own, thus seeking to avoid creating a bubble for an elite. Lecturers are drawn from the schools of the university, rather than a separate, elite corps. The quality of the program is not supposed to be measured merely by the final grades of students (which can be pushed upward by selective admission on the basis of grades), but by output, or rather – as I became aware when reading reports for national assessments of the University College –, by added value, the developments of students during their years at University College Tilburg.

Irrespective of how well we organize our educational programs, teach our courses and counsel all students, some students will be better prepared for their studies and for life than others. We cannot avoid the consequences of cultural and socio-economic diversity in backgrounds. Furthermore, the meritocratic ideal may be anthropologically unrealistic. “The aversion against paternalism and the wish to shake off unhealthy authoritarian relationships drove my generation to perceive students as self-directing adults with self-determination. They are told to make the most of themselves, but many have no idea as yet how to do that. They do not lack ambition, but often do lack a meaningful goal. They are lost in the meritocratic labyrinth” (Van Lenning, 2019, p. 29). We ask too much of the students, as there is no well-developed and stable ‘self’ that can take the lead. We expect too much of ‘the self’, not merely for young people but for humans in general. The imperative to follow one’s heart assumes that the heart is transparent to oneself and that the world is hospitable to the inclinations of one’s heart. Furthermore, in a meritocratic setting, the emphasis is on earning merit in a competitive world, but given the mathematical nature of averages, about half of the students will find themselves ‘below average.’ Demands on the individual are unrealistic and thereby they may evoke stress and anxiety.

Let us consider one specific example of the darker side of meritocratic ideals, addressed by Van Lenning. To give our students the best possible position in life, we envisage them as future leaders. In many places, ‘leadership’ may be among the final attainments of a liberal arts and sciences program. The risk is that “we are creating leaders who rather than feeling they are called to serve, believe they are called to rule over others and occupy a high-status position” (Van Lenning, 2017, p. 40). In this light, I remain ambivalent about the strategic plan for Tilburg University for 2018-2021, when we articulated the university’s educational ambition: “We offer excellent, innovative education aimed at preparing students to become the leaders of the future by focusing on knowledge, skills and character” (Tilburg University, 2018, p. 17). Just as we cannot all be above average, it is doubtful that our students all can become the leaders of the future, while it also is a problematic ambition for the variety of professionals we prepare for life.

Let me recall as an aside a conversation with Alkeline van Lenning. On Dutch television, there has been a series of in-depth interviews with professionals from various backgrounds, including politicians, judges, religious and military leaders, titled “Kijken in de ziel.” Alkeline told me that she was most impressed by the interviews Coen Verbraak conducted in 2017 with members of the military. At first sight, this may seem an odd preference for her as a left-leaning feminist. What she especially appreciated in their reflections was the emphasis on teamwork, on collective attainment, on solidarity. There is a tendency to emphasize leadership, but as a dominant emphasis, it is a recipe for disaster. An army consisting exclusively of generals, will not achieve much. When our students become professionals, they will have to work with others, in teams, rather than claim positions of leadership.

Drawing on some of the key elements in Van Lenning’s inaugural address and my recollection of Rogers’ Freedom to learn, I would like to bring forward the suggestion that Roger’s utopian emphasis on self-direction and the liberal ‘meritocratic labyrinth’ have problems in common, because they both assume a strong form of individualism. I do not argue that we should opt for some form of groupthink or communitarian ethics; human individuals are basic units for morality. But as individuals, we may only achieve our aims by working with others in solidarity and through teamwork. In academic governance, this requires appropriate restraint, a pragmatism that may seem to some insufficiently ambitious, insufficiently daring in seeking a disruption to innovate, to bring forth a revolutionary new social and educational landscape.

Van Lenning has displayed a valuable mix of ambition and realism in her leadership of University College Tilburg. With interesting modesty, illustrated at the end of her 2019 address by her remarks about David Attenborough’s nature documentaries, which she and her partner Pieter Pekelharing enjoy viewing: “Especially when he [Attenborough] is commenting on small creatures that found a way to exist in a harsh world. I always feel he is talking about us.” The “us” is not limited to the two of them. And her work has not merely contributed to survival in a harsh world – it also has been a contribution to a world that is somewhat less harsh for our students, for our staff, and for all other critters that need to live together. Thank you.


Deresiewicz, W. (2014.) Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Orwell, G. (1945). Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. London: Secker and Warburg.

Rogers, C.R. (1969). Freedom to Learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill. Dutch translation: (1973). Leren in vrijheid. Haarlem: De Toorts.

Tilburg University. (2018). Connecting to Advance Society: Strategy 2018-2021. Tilburg University.

Van Lenning, A. (2017). Core texts in academia’s future. In E. Cohen de Lara and H. Drop (Eds.), Back to the Core: Rethinking Core Texts in Liberal Arts & Sciences Education in Europe. Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press, 93-104.

Van Lenning, A. (2019). Out of the Labyrinth Inaugural address, Tilburg University.

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