It would be arrogant to compare myself to him"

Rolf van der Velden inspired by James Coleman


The American James Coleman is one of the greatest educational sociologists from the post-Second World War era, but also a man who didn’t think twice about sending politically incorrect opinions on education out into the world. Professor Rolf van der Velden, director of ROA (Maastricht Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market), grins: “The recently deceased Dutch educational sociologist Jaap Dronkers resembled him in that respect. He also did not shy away from airing unpopular opinions.”

The two educational sociologists had more in common: “They are empiricists. For them it was about hard facts obtained from solid research. In Coleman’s time, ideologies played a great role in science, and he was averse to that. He wanted data, a lot of data and good analyses based on solid theoretical models.”

Coleman, who died in 1995 at the age of 68, became famous in the nineteen-sixties because of the Coleman Report. He was the chairman of a committee commissioned by the American ministry to research how education could be improved. “An immense project, which resulted in a 700-page report. Coleman came to pioneering conclusions. Financing doesn’t make that much of a difference when it comes to the quality of a school. So some extra government money often doesn’t help. Much more important, it appeared, was the background and social economic status of the students. Talented young children from lower socioeconomic classes hardly got any chances. The differences between black schools, white schools and schools in underprivileged areas were and still are (not much has changed) huge. Less segregation, a mix of children with different backgrounds in class appeared to be the solution. ”

This conclusion led to the so-called busing system: black children were brought by bus to public schools in other neighbourhoods. It was never a success, says Van der Velden.  “You can’t force parents to choose a different school. Richer parents sent their children to private schools, which were excluded from the busing project. And state schools are not always the best.”

It was also Coleman who sought “solid theoretical models for sociology. In his book Foundations of Social Theory, he makes a connection between phenomena and processes on a macro level with those on a micro level: the Coleman boat. Take the segregation in neighbourhoods, which is the macro level. How does that affect a family or a classroom, what influence does it have on individual actions and what effect does it have on society at large?”

Van der Velden saw his great example once, during a lecture in Groningen. “I had just graduated there and started on a Ph.D. track. My supervisor, Wim Meijnen, was a giant of a man, his supervisor Gadourek always referred to Meijnen as the greatest sociologist in the Netherlands, but when Coleman came, he said: now the greatest sociologist of the Netherlands will meet the greatest in the world. I didn’t speak to him myself, but Coleman made a very sympathetic impression”

“I pursue my field as he did,” Van der Velden concludes. “I am also an empiricist, I love bucket loads of data. Like him, I love mathematics, I work at the intersection of fundamental and policy-relevant research. I think it is important to do things that are relevant to society. I don’t step in the limelight as much, as that is not my character.” Whether he resembles Coleman? Resolutely: “It would be arrogant and impertinent to compare myself to him. I admire him.”

It would be arrogant to compare myself to him
Rolf van der Velden and James Coleman
Author: Riki Janssen
Joey Roberts/Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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