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Jurgen Bey Talks Education

Half a year into his stint as head of the Sandberg Institute, Dutch designer Jurgen Bey has identified a particular task for the institute.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 17-02-2011

Bey sees a huge opportunity for schools filling in the gap that companies have opened by ending much of their research investment that is not tied to immediate profit. 

Gone are the days when laboratories were full of the best minds engaged in free and unfettered research.  Harsh competition in a global recession has made it impossible.

Bey’s solution is for schools to look for new forms of cooperation with companies.

“Education is the last area where complete freedom rules because most schools are still public,” says Bey. “My studio is a private world and I only work with people whom I’ve selected. The companies I work for are charged by the hour. As a teacher, however,  I work with all sorts of people who I’ve not personally selected and I do not necessarily agree with.  Still, I share all my thoughts with them  - for free. At the Sandberg Institute a student with talent has this gigantic apparatus at his disposal – for free.”

Bey compares the educational process to skydiving. “Gravity – the real world – exerts its power over you during the dive,” he says, “but in the meantime you can move any limb in any way you want. You have total freedom of movement until you pull the parachute cord.  Education is the same.”

Such freedom is rare. For most students, it will only ever be before they enter society and need to make a living that such intellectual and creative freedom really exists.  In the past Philips, a Dutch electronics company, for example, ran an important and well-recognized science laboratory called NatLab where scientists worked with total freedom. Shareholders focusing on short-term profits have made such things impossible.

What could potentially happen now instead is that educational institutes use their strength to look for cooperation with companies and take over that role once played by laboratories like NatLab.  “We could put students to work on the big questions and quandaries companies struggle with,” Bey says, “albeit without any of the conditions companies impose on their own staff.”

Bey isn’t looking for cooperation on an economic quid pro quo basis. “I would like to cooperate with the corporate sector, but not on the basis of normal economic rules where companies are looking for immediate financial returns on their investment,” he says.  “I’m thinking more along the lines of a sort of ‘membership’ of the educational world for companies.”

Bey isn’t sure yet how such a new community of schools and companies would look, but he is sure of the potential mutual benefits: “Companies that manage this relationship well, that stimulate students and offer them the best possible opportunities, will in the end benefit because they will attract the most talented students. Later on the knowledge of these ex-students will flow back to the schools again. That’s a better way of benefiting from each other’s strong points than plain financial sponsorship.”

Freedom to experiment should be the heart of education – freedom for every generation to shape its own future. But even though Bey wants to cooperate with the corporate sector, he acknowledges that it is imperative to ensure that economic rationalism never interferes. Economic rationalism is the core of the same neo-liberal wave that has dominated our world over the past few decades.  It also explains why so many public institutions have been privatized. Economic rationalism should be kept away from schools.

“It’s strange to ask for or expect a direct economic result from education,” Bey says.  “Otherwise we might as well turn our kindergartens into vocational schools churning out worker bees. Economic thinking is only a tool, not a goal in itself and not a solution for all our problems.

“Education,” Bey continues, “is not only about teaching skills. Education is a process with an unknown outcome. People with different talents can be brought together with surprising results.”

Like the unpredictable movements of a person diving out of the sky – educational institutions are an arena for young people to freely carve out their own futures, and ultimately their own histories.

Photo: Lizzy Kalisvaart, Premsela New Years Debate

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