Where has debating in Delft gone?

Debating is dead, wrote Delta columnist Dap Hartmann in his last contribution. Is this really the case among Delft students? Do they hold discussions elsewhere? The VSSD argues for a set place on campus for debating.

In samenwerking met de TU Delft Debating Club en de VSSD hield Delta onlangs een debat over stress. (Foto: Annemijn Smid)

Read the original article in Dutch here

It is a sad state of affairs, the debating culture at TU Delft, concluded columnist Dap Hartmann in his last contribution, Adieu (Dutch only). Apart from a handful of angry letters, his 118 mostly critical columns hardly trigger any response while his intention is to rock the boat so that things improve. “Unfortunately I have never seen any public debating,” he wrote. Are students reluctant to express themselves in public these days? And if this is the case, where do they express their opinions?

Marie Sam Rutten of Oras, one of the Student Council parties, recognises that it can be hard to know students’ opinions. “Students mostly start thinking about and reading up on political issues and subjects that interest them during elections. They tend not to do this the rest of the time.” But Rutten says that they do discuss issues, but they usually do so when the subject arises and with the people that are around them at the time – friends, flatmates or people in their WhatsApp groups. Rutten is aware of discussions held in WhatsApp groups on the Sleepwet (literally ‘dragnet’ act, a recent referendum on privacy and security) “and on other subjects over which they can exert influence.”

Rutten believes that there are two reasons that students tend not to express themselves publicly. “One reason is that students are very aware that whatever they say in public can always be found at a later date. Another reason is that students often think that they don’t know enough about a subject to share their opinions in public. They may not have the time to go into the subject in depth. They deal with so many issues and tend not to delve into those that are not immediately relevant. They therefore don’t feel the need to enter into debate about these.”

Nuance is important especially if it is about a sensitive theme

Axel Meeuwissen of the Lijst Bèta Student Council party, believes that students express their opinions on the internet, usually anonymously. “The problem is that on the internet you say things you wouldn’t say in real life. The danger of social media is that you are in a filter bubble. On Facebook, for example, you hardly come into contact with people who are different to yourself. Your opinion is therefore reinforced. This doesn’t only apply to students, of course.”

Another issue in online debating is that the nuance gets lost, warns Meeuwissen. “This is why I don’t like discussions on Facebook or other social media channels. I would rather attend a public debate, especially if it is about a sensitive theme where nuance is important. I would encourage debating to take place in the ‘real world’.”

A set place for debating

This sounds like music to the ears of VSSD student union chair Jorino van Rhijn. He argues for one set place on the campus for debating. “People organise their own events left, right and centre. But what we need is one centralised spot. The VSSD could play a role in facilitating this. And then not at 16:00 when there are lectures.”

Van Rhijn believes that although TU Delft tries to shape students’ social engagement in subjects such as ethics, it is not enough. “Students could get more out of events such as the TU Delft Debating Club and the VSSD. We have contact with politicians and other people who are engaged nationally in the world of education. We could be more involved in the public debate.”

The question is, he says, what people associate with the word ‘debating’. “Talking about stress for example is very different to having ‘a debate’ about stress.” The word ‘debate’ is scary for students, says Chair of the TU Delft Debating Club, Niels Buijssen. “It’s as if you’re put into the spotlight. If you don’t have a strong stance on a subject, it can scare you off.”

As a student assistant in the subject debating in the Technische Bestuurskunde Bachelor, Buijssen sees that the students certainly share their thoughts on various questions such as on student quotas. “But you first have to push them to think about it.” He thinks that students are over-stimulated by social media which pushes debating to the sidelines.

Nevertheless, debating is alive and kicking among Delft students, asserts Van Rhijn. “There were national elections last year and the Debating Club, the VSSD, the Studium Generale, the JOVD Delft and surroundings held an elections debate in the Aula. Six hundred people turned up. It was great success. The question is why we can’t do this every month.”

Van Rhijn believes that ‘taking part in a debate’ needs to be clearly defined. “It could mean that students queue up to say something, or it could mean that people want to learn something from a speaker. Perhaps some students prefer to first hear the information and then talk about it over drinks.”

Buijssen recognises and observes, just as Oras’ Rutten does, that students do not think that they know enough about something to form a good opinion. “That’s why they turn up at election debates, because they already know quite a lot about it, but turn up to other debates on specific subjects such as over ‘stress’, in smaller numbers.”

How do you discuss politically sensitive subjects with other students? Let us know via the email address below.


Correction June 25th:

Axel Meeuwissens comment: “The problem is that you say things on the internet that others don’t say.” has been replaced by the more correct translation: “The problem is that on the internet you say things you wouldn’t say in real life”  


News editor Connie van Uffelen

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