Herring out of Brine: Tientjescultuur

Here at Stanford, my academic home for the next nine months, the school year is about to start. Stylish SUVs and silent Teslas drop their human cargo in plazas and lawns decorated with cardinal balloons. Immaculate dorms, labs, departments and libraries welcome students new and old, but they do so with a mix of Californian cheer and universal dread. For here, as in many prestigious US colleges, the serene architecture of privilege is home to a community under growing mental distress. As any American parent would tell you, a massive system has now come into being (its pale reflection is gradually materializing in Europe as well), whose sole purpose, it seems, is to deliver college material to campuses.


And now the products are here. Many of them ready for a new challenge, others paralyzed by the possibility of failure, which could mean receiving a grade below an A. With so much at stake and success so narrowly defined, small wonder that students’ mental health is increasingly at risk. Suicide ideation and attempts among US college students, for instance, have soared in recent decades, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths annually. At Stanford too two students took their own lives last year, followed by much soul searching. According to Lily Zheng, a student activist and columnist for The Stanford Daily, heavy study loads, micro-aggression and a lack of training to meet diverse emotional needs increase many students’ stress and feelings of alienation and depression. Yet no systemic solution has been forthcoming.


Taken more broadly, Zheng’s demand for revamping mental health resources goes beyond a call for academia to solve an inherited problem. After all, colleges in and beyond the US fiercely market themselves as key to a successful life and play an active role in justifying the psychological (and financial) price of pursuing higher education. As such, they are directly responsible for ensuring that students find a safe haven behind their narrowing gates: not only to pursue their passions but also for dealing with disappointment, indeed even failure. Otherwise colleges will remain an extension of the rat race many students think they’ve just won.


In certain ways campus culture here, as in many other elite US institutions, is a far cry from the zesjescultuur and complacency Dutch universities are often accused of. In other ways, however, the joys and sorrows of academic life are remarkably similar across the two countries, including the growing strain on students’ (and staff’s) mental health. In this monthly column I will explore both, also as an attempt to gather my own thoughts on a world I’ve been part of for twenty years and in four different systems. Comments are of course welcome.

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Feeling Dutch. I want to shake everyone’s hand: the receptionist, new colleagues, the highway patrolwoman, the tow-truck driver, his assistant, tow-truck driver no. 2, the accident specialist at the Triumph garage, the guy who just sold me a used Brompton.