Before you know it, you are in the middle of an ‘executive team meeting’ and you are talking about ‘flywheel projects’, with ‘sounding board groups’ in ‘cockpit meetings’. It happened to me. After which you find yourself outside with a ‘task force’ and a ‘code of conduct’, after ‘intensive processes of scheduling, analysis and dialogue’. In the more than twenty years that I was in politics, I have seen policy research change. In particular, language, which is teeming with invented terms and strange words; a secret language which I can’t follow, but which is supposed to suggest some kind of depth. Users of this language are the new public managers, often external consultants who use ‘incentives’ and ‘output’. With their own models, which supposedly explain people and the world.
“Who is so perspicacious as not to be utterly beclouded by their arguments?” Speaking through the voice of Folly in his In Praise of Folly (1511), Erasmus castigates the old theologians of the time. Dogmatic thinkers who had assembled ‘a real plethora of new-fangled words and outlandish expressions’, which meant that they ‘gabble away in a manner that can’t be understood by people without an impediment themselves; or whose criterion of cleverness is to be incomprehensible to ordinary folk’. Historical comparisons are meaningless, and ‘what if’ does not exist in history. But if Erasmus was to present his In Praise of Folly today, he certainly wouldn’t forget the consultants. The fashionable language of consultancy would be an abomination for this humanist.
I have nothing against consultants; often they are extremely pleasant people. But they also have their own way of thinking that became dominant in the 1990s, a predilection for figures and a focus on ‘efficiency’ that can be recorded in models. ‘Spreadsheet management’, to use the terms of consultancy. An approach that reflected the politics of the time, when the government wanted to take a step back and give the market more room. In the years when I was a member of Parliament, I was amazed at how quickly this approach permeated all layers of the government, from the Ministries in The Hague to the smallest municipalities in the country. But also in education – and certainly at universities.
In the academic world, interesting discussions are taking place about the values of science, and our university is leading the way, with the debate about ‘Erasmian values’. These values are not a mission statement or management tool, not a form of marketing or way of ‘marketing’ Erasmus University. They concern the essence of the university, what we stand for and what distinguishes us from others. For Erasmus, a new way of thinking was only possible once he had relinquished the old use of language. In his time, these were mainly the words and models used by the dogmatic theologians. I look forward to discussing how we can free ourselves from the suffocating language of the consultants.
Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian values at the Erasmus School of Philosophy.