'Attack on teachers’ neutrality not substantiated, and grossly exaggerated'

As an associate professor of criminal law, I’m connected to the department of Law and have no connection to the Bachelor’s programme of History, which Stolk criticises. Still, I want to respond to his opinion, because he seems to advocate a climate that in my opinion, does not fit within academia.

Stolk grossly exaggerates, speaks with disdain of his fellow students, proposes grotesque measures, and all this based on barely-substantiated findings.

Faux pas
I support the statement that scientists should not present their possible ideologies as facts. At the same time, I think that Stolk wrongly acts as though the quotes he mentions should be qualified as ideological statements. Moreover, within science (especially in sciences like history or law), it’s simply the case that scientifically justified interpretation and one’s opinion/convictions are often very close to each other, or could even be the same.

Stolk, by the way, is guilty of something that’s just as much seen as a faux pas within academia: presenting assumptions as truths. He didn’t finish watching a class in which a statement was uttered which he found disagreeable. That means he doesn’t know whether the teacher may have relativized the statement at a later time. Stolk denounces the teacher in question, putting words in his mouth without having heard the full story: that’s not how we treat each other in academia.

Unfounded assumptions
Stolk uses big words: he talks of the ‘demise of neutral and objective education at the UU’. Then, he realises that might be generalising a little too much, and sticks to applying this to the Bachelor of history. Later on, he doubles down and says ‘many teachers’ don’t realise they potentially have a great deal of influence on students. I’m not convinced: if I understand correctly, Stolk bases his judgment on one year of college (he’s a second-year student now, but the academic year has only just started). Still, he feels he can assess the neutrality and objectivity of the entire Bachelor of history (a three-year programme). That demands a much better substantiation, especially when we know Stolk walks out if a class doesn’t go as he wants it to.

His fellow students are also weighed in the balance and found too light by Stolk, based on unfounded assumptions: they aren’t critical enough to disagree with the teacher: “Too often they make the mistake of blindly taking over information without thinking critically.” It remains unclear what facts and circumstances Stolk bases this observation on. Can he make that call if he’s spent nearly half the year at home in front of a screen, thereby having limited close contact with his fellow students? Has he watched all the classes in which fellow students were able to ask critical questions?

The assumption that his fellow students aren’t critical enough is, then, wrongly presented as fact.

French revolution
A scientist who presents facts and then draws conclusions, assumes (and rightly so, I’d say) that the listener understands that these conclusions were drawn based on their scientific insights, and that conclusions are always the result of the weighing of various facts and circumstances, as well as that these conclusions can be the starting point of discussions (as long as the counterarguments are also based on facts, etc.). In widely-accepted interpretations of world history, it would be grotesque if the teacher were to mention that it’s ‘just an opinion’. That the French revolution was, all in all, a good development (and thus, that the ‘good’ party ‘won’), is an example of a widely-supported interpretation. It’s rather wicked to suggest that the teacher who tells that story assumes that everything about the revolutionaries was good (of course it wasn’t – take, for example, the executions by guillotine) or that Voltaire never did anything wrong. And I can’t really imagine that the teacher involved pretended as though Voltaire played an active role in the French revolution, considering he died in 1778 and the revolution reached its climax ten years after his death. But well, I didn’t attend the class, and Stolk quit halfway through, so what are we talking about?

Disproportional violence
I’ll take a look at my own discipline. I wonder how Stolk would respond if I were to list the facts surrounding the case of Michael P. (the murderer of Utrecht resident Anne Faber, ed.) next to the relevant jurisprudence from the European Convention of Human Rights, and then say: “it’s justified that the High Council decided to reduce P.’s sentence by a few months because the police used disproportional violence against him during his arrest.” If I were to say that this is a ‘good’ verdict, I’m not proclaiming any opinions; I’m presenting a closing argument according to the standards of the law. At the same time, I realise all too well that many people (including students) struggle with this verdict, because it goes against a certain feeling: how can it be that someone who’s committed such unspeakably terrible crimes gets a reduced sentence? Is ‘right’ the same as ‘righteous’? Those are questions we discuss during the programme, of course, but not ones we repeat every single time. If a student were to leave my lecture because I didn’t say this immediately, does that say something about me or about the student?

Authoritarian university
“A number of ideological proclamations and we already feel politically influenced,” Stolk writes. Who are ‘we’? He mainly talks about himself. I’m not certain what he’s afraid of: he himself (according to him) is critical enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and mainly seems to fear that his fellow students will be indoctrinated with the idea that more money should be sent to Africa, or that the French Revolution was a good political transformation at the time. Regardless of the fact that these are ideas that, as far as I know, are supported by widely-shared scientific insights that fit the body of thought of our democratic constitutional state (and that, therefore, cannot be dismissed with a pejorative ‘ideological proclamation’), it’s evident that these are ideas of which every student will eventually be able to decide for themselves what they think about this, because the teacher has integrated the arguments in a narrative filled with facts, circumstances, and people involved. In any case, these are in no way examples that show that teachers are deceiving their students with the goal of sending them home with opinions that run counter to widely-shared points of view. If Stolk feels like this is political influencing, I do wonder who, exactly, ‘isn’t critical enough’.

In the end, it seems as though Stolk is calling for an authoritarian university that prescribes students little ability to think for themselves, and in which it is to be impossible that scientific deliberation goes hand in hand with widely-shared insights that may also be in line with a teacher’s own convictions. Teachers who refuse to listen ‘should be dealt with harshly’. Tell me which way the wind blows, now? All in all, Stolk shows he has a view of academia that, I believe, is not widely shared. That’s allowed. However, he presents his as though this vision is the norm. Alas, the pot blames the kettle for being black.