Pleasure Studies? University as creative and thinking space

4 minutes to read
Odile Heynders

The appointment of Pieter Duisenberg as the new director of the VSNU (the Association of Dutch Universities) is critiqued by quite some academics, because of his policy to cut down ‘pretstudies’ (pleasure studies or soft studies is the best equivalent). The idea is that these Humanities (Literary Studies, Philosophy) and Social Sciences (Psychology, Leisure Studies) programmes do not lead to jobs. The future is in technical studies. But is job perspective the main argument for spending 4 years of your life at university?

It was Pieter Jacob Duisenberg, the coming director of the VSNU, who proposed last year – when he still was member of parliament for the VVD liberal-conservative party – to cut down on ‘pleasure studies’. Now that serious job possibilities at the UWV (the national Employee Insurance Agency) increase, we have to stimulate job participation, Duisenberg stated. His idea being that after having done a pleasure study it is not foreseeable that one has the appropriate qualifications for the current job market. Duisenberg claimed that a lack of information is the reason why these ‘bad studies’ are so popular: students do not get the right info beforehand. His suggestion is that recruiters are too positive about job perspectives in order to attract more students to their non-sensible programmes.[i]

It is alarming that a main representative of Dutch Universities – who, for that matter, has no teaching experience in academia himself - distributes this type of ideas, and uses an old-fashioned dichotomy of seriousness versus pleasure, which immediately refers to other oppositional pairs: hard versus soft, natural sciences versus human sciences, quantitative versus qualitative research, objective versus subjective statements, and so on. Obviously, the first part of the pair is considered far more relevant than the second, even if we know since Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) that the oppositions can be brought down to the distinction between two forms of epistemology (that is, forms of knowledge): erklären and verstehen.[ii]

The idea that a university programme should be profitable - that is: is all about getting a job - is becoming the ultimate goal. This is worrisome in the context of thinking what a university, what a society, and what a life is about. Having a job and making money is fantastic, and we do need people as tax payers in a civic society, but the focus on work alone does not fulfil all the capacities and opportunities we have as human beings. 

In an intriguing film, Examined Life (2008)[iii], in which eight contemporary philosophers are interviewed, filmmaker Astra Taylor points at how ethics and morality, revolution, cosmopolitanism, individual capabilities, sustainability, and disability are important issues that we as human beings have to consider. The interviewed philosophers, all of them appointed at famous American universities, do not talk about jobs or conditions for work, but about reflection on the world we are living in. Peter Singer makes an argument about consumerism and ethical principles, Slavoi Zizek talks about ecology and waste spread as consequences of nature, Judith Butler discusses what a body can do. Watching and discussing the movie in a Master university course forces students to reflect on where they stand in life.

My claim as a teacher of students for over more than 2 decades, is that the university allows them to think and form their own critical opinions.

My claim as a teacher of students for over more than 2 decades, is that the university allows them to think and form their own critical opinions. The university exactly is not a place where jobs, profitable outputs, and competition should decide what students do and choose to learn. The university is an open space to think, to meet others and have in-depth discussions, to cherish creative thought and the production of ideas, and to read books that take the hours that you will never have once you start working, but that anyhow determine your vision on the world.

If the university becomes the place to get in the right lane for all the years of working afterwards, then we will lose the ideal of buccaneer space: highly intellectual and demanding, but at the same time inspiring and personality-forming. Later in life, one will not have time for all the difficult, irrelevant and wonderful topics that one is confronted with when studying.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985), a fascinating European 20th-century author, wrote at the end of his life an absurd text about a character, Mr. Palomar, that observes the world. He goes to the beach to watch just one wave (Reading a wave), he visits the zoo to watch the giraffes (Palomar at the zoo), and finally he decides to act as if he were dead (Learning to be dead). I quote from his text:

'Being dead is less easy than it might seem. First of all, you must not confuse being dead with not being, a condition that occupies the vast expanse of time before birth, apparently symmetrical with the other, equally vast expanse that follows death. In fact, before birth we are part of the infinite possibilities that may or may not be fulfilled, whereas, once dead, we cannot fulfil ourselves either in the past … or in the future.' (Calvino 1999, p. 108).

Calvino’s Palomar does the opposite of utilizable thinking: he ponders on what was before and what will be after life. He imagines that he is dead already, even when he knows not to be. My argument is, that the time spent at university, is a time in a specific in-between space after adolescence but before the responsibilities of ‘real’ life. A space full of promises and engagement but not yet obligations, providing hours to read classics such as Calvino’s, and find pleasure in it. Reading, thinking, observing, writing will make life after university definitely more interesting and acceptable.

Even though the pleasure studies are not a fast-lane to the one, pre-ordered job, the skills and fundamental reflection they offer make students suitable for a broad spectrum of career paths. They are just less predictable. Study for pleasure? Yes, please do for at least 4 years of your life.



Italo Calvino (1999 [1983]), Mr Palomar. London: Vintage Books.



[i] Zie: BNR Nieuwsradio 22 March 2016: Volgens het Kamerlid is een gebrek aan informatie voor studenten een van de redenen dat slechte studies toch populair zijn. "Studenten krijgen niet altijd de juiste informatie. Uit onderzoek is gebleken dat de informatie soms te rooskleurig is, terwijl het niet alleen belangrijk moet zijn voor hogescholen en universiteiten om studenten te lokken, maar ook om ze perspectief te bieden na de opleiding." See:

[ii] See:

[iii] See: