Philosopher Henk Oosterling isn’t a celebrity in the academic world, but outside the gates of the ivory towers, his name is on everyone’s lips. Just another Saturday afternoon at the Albert Heijn on the Nieuwe Binnenweg. A middle-aged woman with hair dyed a fiery red is hurrying after her husband between the coffee aisle, the latest offers, and the checkouts. “You know”, and she quickens her pace, “that new Henk Oosterling book is really fantastic…”


Last year on Erasmus’ birthday, 28 October, Oosterling was presented with the Lof der Zotheid (In Praise of Folly) honorary pin in recognition of his service to the city. The publication of his book Waar geen wil is, is een weg. Doendenken tussen Europa en Japan garnered extensive media exposure.

For many years, Oosterling has been much in demand as a speaker for audiences of all persuasions, ranging from consultants and government ministries to housing associations and library directors. This year, he turns 65 and retirement is inevitable after 32 years as a university lecturer. Even though he has published extensively – ‘there are 30 books to my name’ – most of his accomplishments can be found outside of the university

Rotterdam Skillcity is his greatest achievement. Twelve years ago, this started with the idea of teaching skills and craftsmanship to children of migrants. With the departure of the port from the city, the rise of ICT and social media, and the issue of climate change – something Oosterling refers to as ‘ecological urgency’ –, different skills are needed for citizens of the 21st century. At Rotterdam Skillcity’s launch Oosterling advocated rapidly equipping pupils with the skills they’ll need as citizens of a new century. In August, he stepped down as director.

Communicate to participate

It all started at the De Bloemhof public primary school in Rotterdam Zuid. Starting in year one, pupils were given lessons in what was called ‘Physical Integrity’. The subject matter included judo, gardening, philosophising, technology, and cooking, in addition to their regular lessons. Or to put it in Oosterling’s words: “to participate in sport, you need to eat nourishing food. To eat nourishing food, you have to prepare it. To have food to prepare, you need to grow it. Participating in this cycle means you’ll have food to eat so you remain active. Most important is that you need to talk to each other about it. Communicate to participate. This way, children are given a comprehensive experience of the world around them and they understand they are a link in a chain, or a hub in a network.”

Henk Oosterling
Henk Oosterling in Shofukan in Charlois. Beeld door: Ronald van den Heerik

Key concepts in Oosterling’s educational philosophy are media awareness and ecological awareness. “Media awareness encompasses more than just what we do with computers – it also includes how computers affect us. Ecological awareness isn’t just about our relationship with nature. Nature can take care of itself and will be there long after we’re gone. Ecology is about our relationship with technology within nature, about the sustainable use of technology. We need to learn to adopt another mind-set towards our technology”, explains Oosterling. In the meantime, Skillcity has expanded to four primary schools, a pre-vocational secondary school, and a senior secondary vocational school. Oosterling’s vision is also used as a model in the Social Work programme at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. And at Erasmus University, he teaches the honours class in ‘Sustainability’ together with Jan Rotmans.

Would you call Skillcity a success?

“At our peak, 29% of pupils in one of the country’s most socioeconomically deprived neighbourhoods went on to senior general secondary /pre-university further education (the domestic percentage is around 45%, ed). This was unprecedented for this school. If you’re a pupil at a school in Zuid, your opportunities are already very limited. This made our intervention extremely vulnerable, but in spite of this, the programme was a boon for all the children who took part. We received a lot of media exposure: people came from abroad to look at our work, high-ranking ministry officials visited including a government minister and even the queen came – twice.”

Did Skillcity meet your expectations?

“We have a long way to go and we’re not finished yet. We’re now working at four primary schools and a pre-vocational secondary school. The intervention at the senior secondary vocational school has been completed and the school itself is now responsible for the process. We have a lot of interns from universities of applied sciences. As far as I’m concerned, we should introduce it in all levels of education, up to universities. That’s why I teach an honours class in sustainability with Jan (Rotmans, professor of Transition and Transition Management at EUR, ed.). Most of the students are aware of what sustainability is, but this is often the place where many of them are exposed to it for the first time in an educational setting. They are shocked to the core; they’ve never thought about it in this way before. If they only become aware of these problems at such a late stage, then it has a very limited effect. Conscious awareness of their habitat and understanding they are a hub in a network needs to be nurtured starting in their first year of school. And if they then attend a lecture in eco-philosophy, these students will have a much more integrated level of development. It’s not just a theory in their heads anymore, they will know what it means in practice too. These are our new directors and leaders. That’s why I’m pleased that we’re teaching eco-philosophy in the first year of Philosophy for double degree students (students who combine the Philosophy programme with another EUR programme, ed.).”

Henk Oosterling in Shofukan in Charlois. Beeld door: Ronald van den Heerik

How would you rate the university when
it comes to sustainability?

“Sustainability is an important priority for the university, but then in a physical sense. We have a lovely campus, and you can finally get decent food there. I’ve been here since the eighties and I’ve seen a lot of rubbish come and go. “But students need more integrated education to ensure they are not limited by monodisciplinary learning by the time they graduate. They have to learn to think beyond the walls. Tunnel vision and a blinkered attitude must be avoided at all costs.”

“Skillcity has developed a much broader concept of sustainability: ECO3. Its three elements are physical sustainability, which encompasses more than just the environment and the climate. It’s also about your body: what are you putting in it and where did it come from? Then there’s social sustainability that teaches another sense of what care means. Care in the sense of relational management. And then there’s mental sustainability: continue nurturing your consciousness. To put it another way, engage in lifelong learning and cultivate your interests. All three of these separate elements exist, but not in a state in which all three are unified to form a cohesive concept. That concept is what we call ECO3. Here’s an example: when we proposed Meat Free Mondays here, it was met with a lot of resistance. Very interesting: why was there so much resistance to the idea? It was about something more than eating fewer or more hamburgers. It was about a sustainable, circular economy and another kind of corporate ethics. A debate like this is more interesting when you can bring that up for discussion at Economics and RSM. But all faculties, including ours, are busy with the business of survival, not with building a new kind of society.

“Still, something tangible has been created, such as the sustainability hub. And this generation of students are much more perceptive and aware of media than my generation.”

How do you explain that despite all the
praise you’ve received in the world at
large, your Skillcity ideas have made little
headway at the university…
[here Oosterling interrupts me]

“I don’t have a lot of interest in management. Because it…let’s just say it’s not something that suits my personality [laughs]. I don’t care for long discussions or diplomatic manoeuvring. I’m capable of it and I did it quite intensively as director of Skillcity, but it has to be related to something where I can see the effects. This organisation is too big and cumbersome for that. I have colleagues who are much better at it.”

Did you want to become a full professor?

“Honestly? No. I enjoy supervising the process of obtaining a doctorate, but I can do that as an associate professor. Administration and management is not something I want. Getting published in top academic journals takes so long that in the meantime I’ve already moved on to something new. I have published extensively: more than 30 books and more than a hundred articles, but I always did it on my own terms rather than according to procedures imposed by others.

“Look, I have quite a forceful personality. I’m not an easygoing guy. I understand that a professorial bearing requires certain things. Twice I’ve missed out on an endowed chair professorship that was created specifically for me. I created an impossible situation for myself in the philosophers’ community and that meant there was always someone on a committee who would oppose my appointment if it suited his own agenda. That’s an unfortunate consequence of my way of working.”

Henk Oosterling
Henk Oosterling in Shofukan in Charlois. Beeld door: Ronald van den Heerik

But your approach was successful with

“I ended up there because of my own ideas. I’ve always operated in society and I feel there should be a closer, more organic relationship between the city and the university. “I do feel valued in my work though, and I’ve grown from someone who was often misunderstood in the beginning to someone who now has ideas that are both ingenious and feasible. It’s often just a question of time.”

Book: Where there’s no will, there’s a way

Henk Oosterling’s book Waar geen wil is, is een weg (Where there’s no will, there’s a way) combines scientific study in Western and Eastern enlightenment with a biographical storyline covering Oosterling’s working visits to Japan. He spent time there in the eighties to learn kendo, the Japanese martial art of sword fighting. He later became Dutch kendo champion and captain of the Dutch team.
“I spent 20 years compiling material on French philosophers and how they were strongly influenced by Japanese philosophy and Zen Buddhism. This was the subject of my dissertation and it’s also a subject I teach. At the same time, I was interested in intercultural philosophy and I was obsessed with Japan due to the martial arts. I decided to combine them both. This remarkable interaction between the inscrutable Japanese and the unreadable French philosophers has never been described. I wrote it in a more accessible style because my previous books had proved to be difficult reading for a lot of people. I wrote it taking the reader into consideration, but it’s still definitely a scientific publication. Am I mellowing? Probably [laughs]. It was also a journey of exploration for me.”