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“Doing a million small things well” – Interview with Prof. Dr. Teun Dekker

2018-10-19 Prof. Dr. Teun Dekker, Vice Dean of the University College Maastricht and Europe’s first professor of liberal arts, will give the keynote speech at this year’s “Day of Teaching and Learning”.

Dear Professor Dekker, you became a vice-dean very early in your career. What is your secret? When asked people usually just say “there is no secret – you just have to work really hard”.

Let’s be more precise: The secret is indeed to work really hard – but only and exactly at the work that needs to be done. Education is a retail business. There are a million little things that need to be done. Excellence in education is to do a million small things well. 

What for example?

Making sure that the classrooms are nice. That the schedules are out on time. That the grades are available on time. That registrations and administration procedures are smooth. That the students get feedback on their work. Making sure of all these little things. This is the fascinating thing: Education – and certainly liberal education in a community – is thousand little interactions between many different people. And the quality of these interactions, of you talking to someone else in the hallway, of a student talking to a professor, of an email being sent from one student to another, of these little interactions together make the bigger whole. So if you just focus on making those interaction really nice and easy in a practical way the big things take care of themselves. I became vice-dean so quickly by always thinking about how we can make things work  well in practice on a small level. 

You are the first person in Europe to be professor of liberal arts. What is your understand of liberal education?

I think it is really about three things: It has to do with what, how and why. The “what” of liberal education is a combination of broad and deep. So what I think is important about liberal arts education is that you study broadly, but also deeply.

Isn’t this a contradiction?

No. I think if you really work hard you can do this. You can understand broad things better because you have depth. And you can think through depth better because you know broad things.

What for instance can be understood better when you know other things, too?

For example political philosophy. The great thing about philosophy in general is that it teaches you ways of thinking that you can apply in many different circumstances. If you can think about moral principles and fundamental principles of freedom and democracy or individual welfare, those also can help you think about law, economics or geography.

What about the “how” of liberal education?

Liberal arts education is to study in a very active, very student-centered and community-based way.

Is teaching in Liberal Education a more difficult task than in more conventional programs?

In a conventional study program you teach a curriculum and you just have to know a lot about your subject. But when you are working with liberal art students they come up with their own questions and their own examples. You have to be able to improvise and to guide students into their own path. Most of all, you have to be able to admit that you don’t know things and not to be too proud to say “Gee, I don’t know. But let’s figure it out.”

Do you have to be stricter, demand more discipline than in conventional programs, because there is less of a framework?

Yes, absolutely. There is a great risk. If you give students freedom and if you treat them as equals it is very easy for them to stay on the surface. Because staying on the surface is comfortable. Challenging your own beliefs is really hard. And students, no not only students, everyone, everyone prefers not to think too hard. Because thinking hurts. 

That is very true.

Isn’t it? Therefore an important question in any liberal arts program is how to get students to work. To be disciplined. And to not take the easy answers, the easy shortcuts or the vague generalization. But to really find the depth.
It is easier in conventional programs. You just have to say: “Do this. Then do this. Then this. Then this.” But in Liberal Arts you rather say: “I don’t know what you are going to do. But make sure you do it well.” But it is a different kind of discipline. I think when it is ideal students work hard not because they are scared of you or because you tell them to work hard, but because they want to work hard.

In your keynote-speech you will talk about the importance of commitment to values within liberal education. But wouldn’t it be enough just to teach skills and let the students find out the values by themselves?

One does not exclude the other. Because commitment is a process that students have to go through. You can’t teach students commitment. They will find their own commitment. Universities often talk about employability. And by employability they mean “being able to find a first job”. But as a society we need to ask more from our young people than just finding a first job. We also have to ask them to be good citizens in a democracy. And to be happy people. And Universitis have a role to play here as well.

Considering “commitment” in teaching is a new approach – correct?

No. The concept comes from a study that was done in the 1960’s. So it is rather old. The interesting thing is that it sort of got lost. And we need to rethink that. As the university got bigger and bigger and more people went to university our focus on commitment got less and less. And we almost forgot about it. This is what I want to argue for. And I think this is what your president, Prof. Spoun has done with the whole idea of Leuphana semester: the whole idea of what is going on at Leuphana is trying to recover at least some of that. 

Please, explain.

Well, this brings me to the “why” of liberal education. And this is where the commitment comes in. Most important to me is my commitment to teaching. Universities spend a lot of time thinking about research but not so much about teaching. And especially not about teaching undergraduates. German universities are fantastic for professors, but sometimes not so ideal for undergraduates. Leuphana is an exception to that. But as universities we have to realize that teaching our undergraduates well makes a huge difference to society. This is probably where we can add most value to society. 

Thank you very much for the interview!