Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer
Being Dutch is inevitably accompanied by a couple of long-lasting stigmas and traits. According to outsiders, but often also according to ourselves, every Dutch person loves cheese, uses a bike to get from A to B, and probably the most notorious habit: “going Dutch” on the bill.
A tradition the outside world is less acquainted with, but that an abundance of Dutch people detests, is what we call zesjescultuur. The fact that the term entails the Dutch word for the number 6 (zes) already makes it a bit more convenient for you to guess the habit’s gist. It is simply the Dutch equivalent of the culture of mediocrity plaguing education. A culture of obtaining a grade that barely meets the threshold to pass a test or a course reigns in the Netherlands.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of prominent Dutch newspapers write about the highly vexed topic of education. Newspapers such as De Volkskrant, Trouw, and De Telegraaf identify challenges, unveil problems and provide recommendations for the future concerning the Dutch education system. What caught my attention is the Dutch newspapers’ tendency to (over)emphasize the prevalence of the zesjescultuur. Lately, it seems to be the only thing they can discuss.
In my opinion, the tradition of the zesjescultuur in the Netherlands is largely non-existent: a contemporary Dutch myth.
There seems to be not a culture of mediocrity, but the opposite: a culture of having to excel in school. This myth is reinforced by the perpetual stream of news that argues that education has to improve and that the majority of the Dutch students are towards education.
Together with the dawn of the efficiency pivoted thinking in Dutch education, particularly universities (companies that strive for profit, students are merely products and need to be fabricated as quickly as possible), the two amalgamated into an acceleration of the solidification of the culture to academically excel, including far-stretching consequences. Academic pressure takes its toll, mostly in the form of depression. Many students struggle psychologically; succumbing to the daunting pressure of having to perform. In South Korea, the leading cause of death amongst Koreans aged 15 to 24 is suicide thanks to extreme academic pressure.
Hopefully, the Netherlands (and elsewhere in the world) is able to circumvent such an extreme fate. The first signs are not hopeful. Recently conducted research in higher education in the Netherlands produced baffling figures: a quarter of the students copes with burnout symptoms, 1 out of 7 students face depression and suicidal thoughts which also frequently occur. Oftentimes, the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure on mental well-being are less overt, but not less harmful. The instilled urge to perform and excel academically kills both self-esteem and happiness, and stifles creativity.
Severe academic pressure negatively affects physical health as well, ample research suggests. Insomnia, increased cardiac risk and an increased blood pressure are all valid concerns. The fact that a lot of students turn to coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol does not help either. What’s more, due to the increased focus on performance, education has become substantially more expensive. Many students build up a considerable debt at a young age, especially now that the Dutch government stopped funding students.
The obligation of (excessive) striving and prospering throughout one’s academic career is indoctrinated from a young age on. Many Dutch elementary schools have joined the quest for eradicating the lethargic youngsters. Schools sell and promote themselves with award-worthy marketing, promising to turn your little boy or girl into the next Nobel prize winner. At an age of about five, kids get exposed to government official tests for the first time. A flood of others will follow in the years to come. Most fascinating is the implementation of student-based rankings. A huge in-class billboard shows in which category a pupil belongs. The bright students are identified as “stars” (or something else in a similar vein), those who still need to make considerable progress are called “rockets,” and the hopeless belong to the category consisting of “moons”. But do not panic! If you work hard, outdo your 8-year old peers, and perform well, you can climb the ladder and reach the class’ upper echelons.
Parents can contribute a lot to the solidification of academic pressure. Their role can be summarized with one simple, yet powerful, sentence: there are not a lot of gifted children, but there are a lot of parents with gifted children. Parents to (intentionally) overestimate the abilities of their kids. Parents obviously want the best for their offspring, but the academic pressure they impose on their children might backfire. Children undergo intense pressure in order to fulfill dreams that are sometimes not even their own.
Progress and the need to perform in school are undoubtedly important and justified. The youth needs to be motivated and stimulated in order to develop, not just for their own sake but also for that of the world. Education is invaluable and its fruits are sweet. At the same time, striving comes at a price and poses an inescapable trade-off. Should we always strive for the highest attainable or rather take it easy and aim for general well-being and happiness? A healthy balance should be found, especially when taking into consideration the rapidly enhancing intense nature of society and contemporary life. A step in the right direction might come in the form of pursuing the Humboldtian education ideal. The leitmotif of this school of thought is academic freedom, which is a two-fold concept. Universities should be independent from governmental influence and external economic constraints. But there should also be academic freedom from within, meaning that students themselves are pulling the strings of their educational journey.
Education might be the blueprint for successful living, but let’s refrain from an excess of zeal.