Defining excellence

By Carien J. Touwen

In the first years of the excellence program at the HU we talked a lot about definitions, we tried to grip a reality that we sensed but seemed unable to describe. We chose five profile characteristics to visualize our image of the excellent professional. They proved workable, but the discussion continued, as it should.
From experiences, the images grew clearer, one feature however remained elusive: professional drive. In my institute we decided to just ignore it, all our honours students were passionate and driven, we argued. Otherwise why participate in something that will cost you extra time, challenges you to break away from your comfort zone and discover new paths. We didn’t intend to dismiss ‘drive’ as an important aspect of excellence. It was rather unquestionable to the early adapters, lecturers and students, who took it on, not only to be excellent themselves but also to explore unfamiliar ground.

The past two weeks at the honours conference in Rotterdam and the TEDx Education in Amsterdam that drive was omnipresent. The only one who implicitly covered it was Brené Brown in her TEDtalk which was screened in Amsterdam. She talks about vulnerability, shame, daring to fail. Not specifically about passion or drive or excellence. But if we look closely at how we organize our honours tracks, what we consider to be excellent and what our students do, it has everything to do with this drive. We also know, from experience, that many honours students struggle with the fear of failure, the risk of shame. And yet they accept the challenge, they dare to be vulnerable.

Where does that drive originate. What emotion is stronger than the fear of failure?
The only emotion that remained when Pandora managed to shut the box again: Hope.
Most of us think of Pandora’s Box mainly as a mythological narrative to explain the presence of evil in the world. Why it was Hope that remained is a question only few ask. The utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch did. In his renown work Das Prinzip Hoffnung he goes against the prevailing ideology of his time, the post-war Western society where ‘dreams and wishes’ seem overtaken by the realism of defined targets and limited options. He offers perspectives of a hopeful world.


It is precisely this hope that becomes visible when the space for excellence grows. The drive and passion of students and lecturers is hope materialized. Hoping we can really improve our education , believing we can value everybody’s qualities, wishing to contribute to a better society. It is significant that this social bildung has been a central part of U.S. honours programs, ever since they originated, interestingly around the same time as Bloch’s Prinzip.


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