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‘Debate on “zesjescultuur” detracts from the real issues’

Prime Minister Balkenende wants to put an end to the culture of mediocrity (zesjescultuur) that is prevailing in the Netherlands. Students are not making an effort to perform to the best of their ability. In short, mediocrity rules. René Boomkens, Professor of Cultural Philosophy at the University of Groningen, does not agree with Balkenende. In his view, the tone of the debate detracts from the real issues. He therefore sees similarities with the debate on Islam. ‘It is as if we are involved in a worldwide competition which we must not lose.’

According to Boomkens, Dutch students are actually performing very well. ‘Research has shown that, in terms of study results, the Netherlands is among the top three or four countries in the world. Top students are performing less well, however. But this is not so strange when you consider that our country has only sixteen million people. This means that the number of top students will not be high. It’s the expectations that are too high.’ Boomkens does admit that the tendency to excel is less than in America, for example. ‘The US has a real rat-race culture. But do we want that in the Netherlands? I doubt it.’

Debate on Islam

Boomkens sees similarities between the current debate on Islam and the tough talk on the VOC mentality and the ‘couch potato generation’. ‘ In both discussions, strong language is used. In the debate on Islam, a war is supposedly going on between the enlightened and a tribal, backward culture.’ In a similar way, with regard to the zesjescultuur, it is as if we are involved in a worldwide competition in which we must not lose. That is why so much emphasis is placed on the position of universities in all kinds of league tables. ‘There are similar tables for secondary and primary schools. Suddenly, we are measuring ourselves against all kinds of abstract standards that seem to be set at an international level.’

Not a contest

Boomkens disapproves of this development. Emphasizing our position in a league table detracts from the essence of the matter. ‘What does it actually mean to be number 90 in the list, or number 120? Why do we have to compete with other countries? A university can perfectly well fulfil a regional function. It’s not a bad thing to aim for quality, but it shouldn’t be a contest.’ Just like the debate on Islam, it’s no longer about the substance. ‘The discussion should be about, for example, the curriculum, the nature of education, the “studiehuis” approach (the emphasis on self-regulated learning in secondary education), new methods of learning, and whether the Bachelor-Master structure works. I hope the discussion will become more concrete and diverse.’ According to Boomkens, we should not be so panicky. ‘It only discourages people. It’s not the best way to keep them motivated.”


Boomkens thinks the use of strong language is caused by insecurity. ‘Politicians and university directors have become insecure about their own role and function. Thirty years ago, we had an inward-looking mentality. Today, globalization has made the world much bigger. All of a sudden, your own country or university seem much less significant. This leads to confusion. We still have to get used to the idea that we’re dependent, that we can’t decide everything ourselves, and that society is less makeable than we thought.’

Curriculum Vitae

René Boomkens studied Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam until 1982. In 1998, he obtained his PhD at the RUG with a thesis on urban culture. Since then, he has been Professor of Social and Cultural Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy, where his research interests include new media and globalization. Since December 2005, he has been a member of the Council for Culture, which advises the Dutch government on cultural policy. His most recent book was published in 2006: De Nieuwe Wanorde. Globalisering en het einde van de maakbare samenleving (Van Gennep, Amsterdam).

Note for the press

Prof. R.W. Boomkens.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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