Inaugural lecture James Kennedy

Distinguished University Professor of Community Engaged Learning

On 14 November, James Kennedy will give his inaugural lecture as Distinguished University Professor of Community Engaged Learning (CEL). Utrecht University is fully committed to community engagement in education and wants CEL to have a permanent place in the curriculum by 2025. Kennedy puts this in a historical perspective. He compares current times with the 1960s, when, just as now, there was a crisis of confidence, a call for social engagement, and a need for democratisation. What does this mean for the role the university has, what should graduates care about, and how should we share knowledge?  Should we be 'back to the sixties? ' 'It is important for students to come out of their bubble. Community Engaged Learning is going to help with that." 

Prof. dr. James Kennedy

According to Kennedy, many courses have a high theoretical content. "With CEL, students learn how theory and practice relate to each other ánd contribute to society right away. That is why they already work on social issues with scientists, social partners, citizens and teachers during their studies."

Democratisation as a social task  

 From his background as a historian, Kennedy sees parallels with the 1960s when it comes to educational innovation at universities. "As in the 1960s, we have entered a 'crisis of authority' in which further democratisation is seen as the answer. This was clearly the case in 1969, think for example of the occupation of the Maagdenhuis. The crisis of authority is now resurfacing in politics and society, although it is notable that 'democracy' as a social mission has only recently been rediscovered by Dutch universities (unlike those in the English-speaking world). CEL builds on that democratisation and socialisation of knowledge from the 1960s."   

Working together on social issues during your studies

Democratisation does not mean increasing participation or co-determination in a topic, organisation or even a country. Democratisation in this context is about co-creation of ideas and solutions. "A democratic orientation to engagement values multiple forms of expertise. It "seeks the public good with the public and not just for the public as a means of facilitating a more active and engaged democracy". "With" rather than "for" implies co-creation: specifically in [CEL], it means that students, teachers and community members function as co-teachers, co-learners and co-developers of knowledge. By the way, this is also the approach of Open Science."  

Collaboration of German Language and Culture students with the Stolpersteine Foundation  

 A great example of CEL is its cooperation with the Stolpersteine Foundation. The artist Gunter Demnig devised "Stolpersteine" (trip stones) to commemorate victims of National Socialism of World War II. These handmade copper plates are placed in the pavement in front of the last house of these victims. This year, German Language and Culture students at Utrecht University worked with the Stolpersteine Foundation for the first time. Among other things, they researched victims of National Socialism in the municipality of Utrecht, talked to residents of houses where victims lived and sometimes even spoke to family members. In another course, students developed teaching materials for secondary school students in Utrecht. This helps the foundation place the stones and spread the message behind their work. Students and also teachers learn a lot from such collaborations: they develop new skills, gain insight into other perspectives and it shows them the relevance of their field.

It is often the interaction of the relationship that seems to affect people the most in the long run.

Emphasis on quality of relationship  

According to Kennedy, Community Engaged Learning does not focus on offering services and knowledge. "The key components of CEL are: focusing on issues of high importance to society, jointly setting an agenda and engaging community partners, special attention to giving students initiative, creating longer-term educational experiences and investing in lasting relationships. Essential in CEL is the quality of the relationship. Results are certainly important, but it is often the interaction of the relationship that seems to affect people the most in the long run."  

 A report entitled Our Common Purpose. Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. "The overarching conclusion was perhaps surprising. They state: The task ahead of us "requires us to find our way back to loving the country and each other. They emphasise the word love. And that reminds us of the 1960s ('All you need is love'). But by looking critically, as they did and as we do now, at the purpose of the university, the purpose of education and the purpose of knowledge, we can give each other the attention and care we owe each other." 

You can read James Kennedy's inaugural lecture 'Back to the Sixties? Community Engaged Learning and the Future of the University.' for more information.

 Want to know more about CEL at UU? Check out