What the hell is water?

Photo currently displayed at the foyer of Cobbenhagen building

Easier said than done.

Tilburg University aspires to build its unique educational profile on three building blocks: knowledge, skills and character, The TiU shaped student.  But what makes an adequate training for good character? Well, at least, TiU has an official statement clarifying that “How exactly the educational profile is to be filled in is still a matter of discussion”. Deciding on activities, trainings and ways to get credits for a good character, I guess, it is easier said than done. That is because there is still a preliminary question on which is difficult to agree: What makes a good character in the first place?

The official statement about the so-called TiU-shaped professionals explains that character is “the right mentality to contribute to a better society”. Fair enough! But, to me, this vision sounds too vague to become a blueprint of an educational profile. If TiU wants to invest in good character, please, allow me to say that this ‘new’ vision about education, where knowledge is combined with the right mentality to improve society, does not sound so unique to me. Browse classics on education and you will come across a wide range of concerns and suggestions about character. Just flip through Emile and pick a passage:

We have made an active and thinking being. It remains for us, in order to complete the man, only to make a loving and feeling being — that is to say, to perfect reason by sentiment’.

Aren’t you surprised to run into Rousseau talking about a TiU-Shaped professional? But, let’s suppose that it is worth to put all our efforts into reinventing the wheel, we need still to deal with the HOW question. Actually, should we agree that good character is truly something worth to cultivate, are we sure that it is also something students can be expected to be taught at Universities?

One of the most known piece of work of David Foster Wallace (believe it, or not) it is a commencement speech he gave to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon Colleges. What this has to do with Tilburg University’s commitment to good character building? That will become clear in a second! Commencement speeches have something in common with general statements about the educational vision embraced by academic institutions: They are both supposed to restate the obvious! Wallace openly admitted that he was delivering a speech based on a trite maxim: ‘That’s the place where you learn to think!’. He also knew that such motto, by implying that you can be taught how to think, would sound at least ‘disturbing’ to the freethinkers in the audience! But what makes Wallace’s speech so catchy and popular it is the way in which he got out of this bog of clichés. He told this short story:

There are these two young fishes swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fishes swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Wallace explained that the bottom-line is: What matters most in life is, often, the most difficult thing to see. But, he immediately added that he was not there claiming to be a wise old fish. He was not there to explain what ‘water’ is, and what good things in life are. He was there just to remind students that water and good things are out there; students -as people in general- have to find their own way to come to terms with that, and no one can be there to teach and preach how.

My bottom-line is: It’s good to remind students that their education is grounded on three pillars: knowledge, skills and character. Why do not remind them that, for what concerns the last pillar, there are no old wise fishes standing at the lectern?



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