by Maria van Loosdrecht (class of 2013)
As I sat in the auditorium at the start of my first year, somewhere in the front, to the right, next to one of my intro-sisters, I listened carefully to the welcoming speech. During this talk the word “excellence” was used with reckless abandon. When I walked out of the auditorium I turned to my intro buddy. Of course we discussed the speech a bit. At first carefully: we didn’t know each other, nor how seriously to take this speech. Then we whispered to each other, asking, so, what did you think of the excellence part of the speech? When we realized we both felt that the excellent people the speech referred to weren’t us, we laughed.
Not because we thought it was ridiculous, but because we were assured that “excellence” was a buzzword, not applicable to us on the inside of the college, but only there as a marker for the outside world. We were cocooned at UCU, with a reading room, a dining hall, and a pretty campus. Part of this cocooning was the insistence that we are all excellent people, who don’t have to fear retribution or disinterest in class: we were all “excellent” and shared an open outlook on the world, at least in theory. This is not liberal arts-specific, but I believe this contributed to the feeling of having total academic freedom that I, at least, felt on the Utrecht campus.
Of course, I never realized I had this freedom, wherein all students were deemed excellent on a similar level, until I found in my (Dutch) master programs that although the programs were great and the teachers excellent, the lack of a unifying teaching philosophy meant that a lot of my time was spent familiarizing myself with the teachers, their various methods, and their expectations. This is, I think, because the professors didn’t have the expectation that all their students would do well: there was a (low-key) pressure to constantly prove that you were willing to work. At UC this was less so, since you already proved you were willing to be there.
In the master program, the students were deemed “regular” rather than “excellent.” That doesn’t mean that the students in my master program were any less smart or less engaged than the people I met at UC. I believe the repeated insistence that you are part of a group of “excellents” provides UC students with a safety net (even if it can be oppressive at times) to trust in their environment, their teachers, and themselves, and that this is pretty unique. Our teachers were high caliber people who really believed and supported one coherent teaching philosophy: they were teaching interested, highly qualified pupils. This is powerful, a little bit strange, and pretty rare in the (Dutch) education system.