Column: Crafting knowledge together

By James Kennedy

The University has a long-standing tradition of civic engagement. That is practically inevitable, since we are obviously part of broader society. The 1960s and 1970s saw a growing emphasis on civic engagement. That became less of a trend in the 1980s, but we have been seeing another rise in civic engagement over the last decade or so. Public engagement is an attempt to do this in a more conscious and visible way.

James Kennedy, Roxane van Iperen en Geert Maas in gesprek op het podium tijdens het Betweter Festival
Photo: Ward Mevis

Despite that positive development, I think the essence of academic societal engagement tends to be overlooked. All too often, public engagement still tends to be about “broadcasting”, science for citizens and making them aware of what we do. But public engagement should be mainly something we engage in with citizens. That involves devoting time and attention to societal partners and making room for their insights.

Community Engaged Learning (CEL) might be a good way to help us achieve that. CEL emphasises the actual learning process. It assumes that everyone is a co-learner and co-teacher and that knowledge exchange has little value if we do not reflect on it together. This is proving to be quite a challenge as well: we tend to focus on the way students learn rather than the lecturer's or societal partner's role as learner. As CEL is all about learning together, it can help us build more reciprocal relationships between academia and society.   

Community Engaged Learning and Public Engagement are long-term projects. We need to be firmly rooted in society in order to collectively develop knowledge. While this democratisation of knowledge will inevitably pose a major challenge for the University, it is the essence of civic engagement. Thankfully, several parties – like the Open Science Programme – are currently working towards that goal. But we are still at the very start of the process.  

Prof.dr. James Kennedy (left in the picture) is professor of Modern Dutch History at the Faculty of Humanities and distinguished professor with a special assignment relating to community engaged learning at Utrecht University. 


This article also appears in the third edition of the magazine Close-Up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

Go to Close-up #3