[Column] Metaphors

Words are important and influence our thinking. Metaphors even more so. Columnist Birgit van Driel goes in search of a new metaphor for academia.

Birgit van Driel: When a technical degree programme suits you, it is not difficult. (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

What happened in 2013 as well as in 2021? The Chairs of two important academic organisations (Karl Dittrich of the VSNU in 2013 and Marcel Levi of the Dutch Research Council in 2021) compared academia to top-level sport. Does that mean that nothing has changed in the last eight years? I don’t think so. The difference is that, while there were reservations (in Dutch) in 2013, the response in 2021 can better be described as collective outrage (in Dutch).
And while collective outrage seems to be our favourite pastime these days, it illustrates a changed perspective. I believe we already view academia differently, but haven’t yet found the right words for it. And I dare state that we can accelerate the transition to the future of academia with a better metaphor.

What is a fitting metaphor? It is clearly not the individual top athlete. Perhaps it is a team sport? Or is there in every team someone who wants to be Messi? And what about amateur sports? Does ‘amateur’-academia even exist? The ivory towers in which academics have long found themselves has, understandably, acquired a negative connotation as a metaphor. And standing on the shoulders of giants creates a somewhat unrealistic image of the academics that have gone before us.

Or is there in every team someone who wants to be Messi?

In the Young Academy’s ‘Aan de top’ (at the top, in Dutch) podcast, I heard about the summit of a mountain that is supported by the rest of the mountain (fed by meltwater from the summit). But, as it also stated, there is not enough space for everyone at the summit and when reading the Dutch novel Zuurstofschuld, I realised that reaching the highest summits is also quite an inhumane exercise. This is not the only mountain metaphor that I came across. A ‘plateau with peaks’ is also stated in an Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI) advice, but this image doesn’t resonate with me.

To draw inspiration perhaps we should turn to older images such as Archimedes lying in a bath, or Newton pensively staring at an apple tree. Though strictly speaking these are not metaphors, both images evoke a degree of calm that these days is often lacking in the academic world.

I don’t have the answer, but let me make a few suggestions. Could it be a playground, a sandpit, or a schoolyard? An orchestra (in Dutch) or other musical ensemble? A trip, adventure or journey of discovery, with a map or a Lonely Planet in your hand (previous research) and a guide (professor) to lead the way, in which you are continuously looking for new areas to discover? A team of superheroes such as the Avengers or X-men who team up, each with their own super power, to save the world? Or was TU Delft already on the right path with the garden metaphor described in its Strategic Framework and should we just draw attention to this metaphor more widely? I don’t know so this is a call to all of you: Do you have an idea for a suitable and inspirational metaphor? Let me know and this may just become a two-part column.


Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES. 

Columnist Birgit van Driel

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