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Colleagues from the Netherlands Visit The Good Project

In October 2016, The Good Project, one of Howard Gardner’s major research initiatives (co-founded in the middle 1990s with colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon), welcomed five colleagues from the Netherlands affiliated with The Professional Honor Foundation (PHF), a Dutch organization that explores professional identity and behavior across many sectors. PHF is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, members of The Good Project and PHF teams convened in Cambridge to share updates, connections, and reflections.

During the visit, The Good Project’s researchers had the opportunity to learn more about the work of these scholars and activists, including successes and ongoing challenges.

Co-founded by Thijs Jansen and Alexandrien van der Burgt, PHF formed following the publication of Professional Pain (2005), a book which detailed the frustrations of many Dutch professionals with pervasive forces of deprofessionalization, bureaucratization, and lack of autonomy. In 2009, a second book, Professional Pride, furthered these messages and emphasized “pride” as a central value for all professionals to embrace.

Over the past several years, PHF has drawn on The Good Project’s conception of “good work” for a series of focus groups with professionals in different sectors, among them judges, physicians, educational officials, and accountants. PHF and associated scholars have also released additional books supporting their vision of a “Good Work society.”

In our sessions together, we focused on three professional domains where PHF has been able to exert influence.

Medicine: In recent years, Dutch healthcare has inched ever closer to the system in the United States, with high costs and insurers/private companies holding increasing power. Those opposed to these trends have had some success in countering them (for example, the government’s plan to abolish the free market for patients to choose their doctors was scrapped); but medical practitioners in the Netherlands are subject to new levels of policy oversight that distance them from patients. In The Alternative for Healthcare (2015), Jansen and his associates argue that the quality of care and a relationship of trust between patient and practitioner are the foundations of the medical profession. Two-thirds of Dutch general practitioners have successfully campaigned for measures that would reduce red tape, limiting the influence of healthcare insurance companies and forced competition between GPs.

Accountancy: Following the 2008 financial collapse, public confidence in accounting in the Netherlands collapsed; surveys revealed that 85% of people had no confidence in auditors. A crisis of identity for the profession resulted, with many accountants questioning how to ensure integrity and quality in their work. Margreeth Kloppenburg has been at the forefront of work encouraging Dutch accountants to be more ethical, accountable, and aware. As a result of the report “In the Public Interest” about the purposes of the accounting profession, 53 new policy measures were passed by the Dutch government. These measures include the allowance for external governors in accounting firms, penalization for individual misconduct, and the adoption of a professional oath and mandatory ethics courses. Kloppenburg is currently working on a curriculum to help accounting students tackle difficult ethical dilemmas on the job; she has launched a website called The Accountables, where accounting students reflect on vexing professional issues and share ideas and insights. While reforms in the Dutch accounting system could act as a model of “good work” practices, puzzles remain. The best methods of inculcating these ideas have yet to be determined, and students complain they are being asked to over-reflect before they have even entered into the profession. By the end of 2017, PHF will publish a book on the professional honor of accountants, written by accountants and other interested parties, as a force of change for the greater good.

Teaching: Education in the Netherlands is increasingly hierarchical, with the government dictating policy down to districts, to administrators, and finally to individual teachers. In 2013 the co-authored book Het Alternatief  (English title: The Alternative), Jelmer Evers, a candidate for the Global Teacher Prize, details a reversal of this un-professional top-down power structure. According to the scheme that he has developed, education should focus more on open dialogue for teacher collaboration/association, a reduction in burdensome instructional periods, and creation of national teacher academies. These recommendations have received attention from the Dutch Minister of Education and Parliament. As part of a global professional movement, Evers the co-authored an international follow-up book called Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (2015). Based on this work, together with Education International, Evers is organizing a worldwide educator network called TENGlobal which seeks to increase teacher agency through greater trust, a sense of purpose and pride, and collaborative effort and support.

Overall, PHF has pushed matters of professional identity into the national consciousness of the Netherlands, presenting a counter-narrative to the marketization and systemic weakening of individual choice apparent across the professional landscape. As Gabriel van den Brink, professor emeritus at Tilburg University, put it, a new paradigm in professionalism will temper the prevalence of capitalist commercialism with more relational and creative arrangements.

Gardner and colleagues look forward to continuing to learn from these colleagues and their work.

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