The Netherlands or China? Where is personal development really included in technical studies? Bob van Vliet draws inspiration from the list of subjects of Chinese students.
Bob van Vliet: “At TU Delft, I regularly see lectures that should be called An Introduction to Neoliberal Thought.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

The Netherlands or China? Where is personal development really included in technical studies? Bob van Vliet draws inspiration from the list of subjects of Chinese students.

Lees in het Nederlands

As the coordinator of a master’s programme, I am responsible for the admission of international students. Every year I plough through the applications to assess who may and may not come to TU Delft. I have just gone through a first set of files. Going through the applications of students from China is always a fascinating experience.

Their bachelor subject lists contain subjects such as Basic Theory of Marxism and Introduction to Mao Zedong’s Thoughts and Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The more modern courses also have a module about Xi Jinping Thought.

It is tempting to believe that this points to indoctrination and a lack of critical thinking. And I have to admit that I secretly see it as a plus if students only get poor marks in these modules. But here too at TU Delft, I regularly see lectures that should be called An Introduction to Neoliberal Thought.

If if you look beyond these caricatures of course titles, you will see that students there may have a far wider frame of reference than here.

Just for fun, I once listed all the non-technical modules of one student’s four year BSc. It goes without saying that most of his degree programme consisted of mathematics, physics and design, but there was also half a study point’s worth of subjects like Circumstance and Policy. A debate on current affairs? A really good idea if you want to train socially aware engineers. There was also First Aid and Self-Rescue which, as someone who has been resuscitated, I applaud. Symphonic Music Appreciation may be less useful, but no less valuable. And I see the social relevance of Cultivation of Ethics and Fundamentals of Law, News Media and Society, and Modern Chinese History as self-evident.

‘In my master, the electives should be ‘relevant’’

Okay, last year I also came across one module entitled Wear T-shirt and Listen to Classical Music. I don’t really know what I should think of this. Unfortunately, that student did not come to TU Delft in the end so I could never ask what this module was all about. I hazard a guess that it falls in the category Western Civilisation in the 20th Century, but then indirectly translated.

TU Delft alumna and former Delta columnist Noor van Driel noted that the wonderful words of our own university on social relevance, awareness and responsibility hardly appeared in her curriculum. If you put the list of modules of her bachelor’s next to that of a Chinese peer, you would indeed think that she was educated in a country where you have to stay within the boundaries and the other in a country which attaches importance to personal development, reflection and debate.

In ‘my’ master, the electives should be ‘relevant’ to mechanical engineering. If students ask me what this means, I often joke that we are pretty relaxed about their choices, ‘as long as it’s not Medieval Literature, Art History or the like’. Maybe I should reconsider.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl