Compared to my vocationally educated friends I often feel useless, as a professor


Our Minister of Education wants to get rid of the hierarchical designations ‘higher and lower educated’. He prefers not to think of the Dutch education system as a vertical staircase, but as a horizontal fan shape within which students are free to move around as they see fit. But what we should really worry about is how we can help people (particularly young people) to develop optimally.

Trained as a theoretical physicist – and blessed with an extraordinarily high IQ – Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf is able to put even the most incomprehensible of subjects into simple terms. But where theoretical physics sometimes goes off the rails is the way those theories relate to reality. 

He undoubtedly means well, but I don’t have a single vocationally educated friend who’s bothered by the higher versus lower educated classification. They don’t get their sense of self-value from their education, but from the lives they’ve created for themselves. My friend (and namesake) Willem trained as a mechanical engineer at the secondary vocational level. These days, he heads up a team of technicians who make sure all machines keep doing what they’re supposed to in a fish factory. With his family, he lives above a workshop where he repairs and restores all manner of things in his free time. 

My friend Wout trained as an installation engineer. He’s self-employed and travels the country performing inspections. He’s also doing very well for himself and is earning more than enough to get by. Ronnie is a self-employed carpenter. He owns a beautiful home, most of which he crafted himself. 

Around ten years after my vocationally educated friends, I bought my first home a few months before turning forty, after years of hard work. My friends were extremely important in all kinds of decisions relating to the purchase. They carried out renovations, installed the underfloor heating, and continue to be involved, for example by giving advice about energy consumption. I have to admit that I, a full professor, have often felt useless compared to them. 

So I can’t help but think: shouldn’t we turn all of those titles on their side and create a color fan? Instead of extremely, very highly, and highly learned people, we’d have a much wider and more inclusive spectrum of light colors. From ‘UV-learned’ to blue-, green-, yellow-, orange-, red-, and infrared-learned? But then I also think: that light is electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength. This way we’ll never be rid of those hierarchical designations! 

My main thought, however, is this. Maybe the main thing we concern ourselves with should be how we can best facilitate people (particularly young people) in developing and using their talents, to the benefit of themselves, their loved ones and society. How we refer to them, on the other hand, would mostly appear to be an issue for a select group of extremely, very highly, and highly learned people who are out of touch with reality, not for those they think they’re representing. 

Willem Mulder is a Professor of Precision Medicine at TU/e. The views expressed in this column are his own.

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