‘A broader look on the past helps us to understand contemporary society’

Photos: Ivar Pel
Why we're having this dialogue
Last year, statues of "bad heroes" were torn down around the world as part of the Black Lives Matter protests. The act can be seen as part of a larger trend of putting the Eurocentric perspective of History into question. To what extent should we change the way we look at History? What will the consequences be for the way our education is currently designed, and how we conduct science?

Utrecht University has taken upon itself the task to critically analyse its curriculum. However, to ensure a broader perspective in class, it's essential to have a diverse student and staff community.

These are the themes discussed in the second dialogue in our series about diversity and inclusion at the University. We've invited two people who entered Dutch academia as expats, and who look at History from their own background and perspective.

Associate Professor Rolando Vazquez was born in Mexico. After spending some time in England and Sweden, he landed in Middelburg, at University College Roosevelt, which is part of Utrecht University. Annelien de Dijn, Professor of Modern Political History, is also an expat in the Netherlands: originally from Belgium, she lived in the United States for a few years, during and after her PhD track. After some time in Amsterdam, she took her current role in Utrecht.

De Dijn: “In the Netherlands, diversity is often confused with internationalisation. The Netherlands is doing well in terms of internationalisation: it’s one of the few countries in Europe where you're welcome as an outsider in my discipline. When I arrived here, I was pleasantly surprised by all the cultures I saw at the university. You don’t really see that in Belgium, Germany, or France. But if you look at the amount of scientists with a migrant background, that number is shockingly low.

“I often hear that students with a migrant background are said not to be interested in History. They supposedly prefer ‘useful disciplines’ like Medicine or Law. Still, I find that hard to believe. I would rather believe that if you can’t relate with the people teaching you, it’s harder to imagine yourself as professor or teacher. The same is true for female students. I had a professor walking around in my home, which really lowered the threshold”.

Vazquez: “The Netherlands is open to internationalisation, but not so much for diversity within the country's borders. That was an important conclusion of the diversity report (link in Dutch) that we created for the University of Amsterdam. That’s definitely related to role models, but it's related to content as well. Imagine a student with Surinamese roots taking a class about the 17th century – the so called Dutch Golden Age – and it only discusses the stories of the country’s great successes in trade and art. A student from Surinamese background will find that this is a partial version of a History that is deeply connected to his roots. It is a partial version that erases the voices and perspectives of those that have been enslaved".

De Dijn: “My students aren’t really diverse. In the English-taught Bachelor's programme, you see some international students, but most of them come from Germany or England. I think I had a more diverse group at Berkely, with many students from Asia.

All my students are equally dear to me, so I am happy with all of them. But based on ‘equity’, I'd like to have a different group, with more first-generation students. Whether they’re from white Dutch families or families with a migrant background, that doesn’t matter”.

Vazquez: “I think the University has a responsibility to ensure there’s a diverse group of students. I myself see in my classes how valuable it is when students talk to each other about their different backgrounds and knowledge. They encounter peers they wouldn’t meet in their own families or social circles. That way, we can bridge the gap and learn to be open to each other. If they understand each other, they learn not to distrust each other and, most importantly, appreciate others. That contributes to a better society. It’s up to the teacher to play a role in this regard, too. Teachers have to learn how to handle a diverse group of students, and how to encourage the conversation between diverse students.

“It’s also important to look at the content and broaden the canon of what we teach because that could help make the university more accessible. It’s not about changing History, but rather about going beyond a single perspective. We want to make it broader, show that it’s complicated, and also focus on the Historical perspectives of those that didn’t have power. Diversity can contribute to a better, more complex and nuanced view on History”.

De Dijn: “Our specialisation is Europe and we are indeed working on assessing our curriculum critically. We’re looking to include more perspectives of a story, and place European History within a global perspective. We’re not doing that to judge, but to better understand how today’s world works”.

Vazquez: “To give one example: you can’t talk about the development of industrialisation if you don’t also look at the essential role that the colonial world had in that history. To understand the success of industrialisation, you have to know where in the world Europe got its materials from, and at what cost”.

De Dijn: “Exactly. Sometimes you hear the criticism that such an approach is too judgmental. Slavery is something of past generations, they say. We’re not complaining about Julius Caesar’s slaughtering of the Batavians either. But there’s an important difference. Caesar’s time no longer has influence on contemporary society, while our politics of slavery is still visible in society. So, the idea is not to make people feel bad about the past, but to explain why contemporary society is the way it is”.

Vazquez: “That also has consequences for the way we conduct science. I see a movement that I like to call 'pluralizing knowledge'. We’re no longer committed to reproducing the limited, fixed canons, that form a methodological eurocentrism. Knowledge is plural and consists of more stories and perspectives than the so-called universal values from the 19th century. In sociology, we look at today’s issues, and where they come from. Take, for instance, climate change. What is the cause of it? How should we approach it from a global perspective? Themes like that are still analysed from a Eurocentric perspective”.

Who is Annelien de Dijn

Her book Freedom, an Unruly History, published last year, might just become a reference work. In it, she analyses the concept of freedom in the Western world, from the Roman age until the present day. It has been received with a lot of positive feedback. 

Annelien De Dijn (43) was raised in Leuven, Belgium. Both her parents worked in higher education: her father was a professor at a university and her mother was a teacher at a university of applied sciences. It was almost self-evident that she, too, would go to university.

She did her Master’s at Columbia University in New York and obtained her PhD in Leuven on the topic of History of 19th-century liberalism of the French aristocracy. After her studies, she did a PostDoc at the University of California, Berkeley.

De Dijn was hired by the University of Amsterdam in 2005. After a fellowship at the Nias research institute and the American Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies, among other places, she came to Utrecht in 2018 to take the role of Professor of Modern Political History. Since 2019, she’s been a member of the University Council representing the WOinActie party.

De Dijn: “In my research for the book Freedom, an Unruly History, I focus on the Western definition of the concept of freedom. The target audience is European and American. In my book, I criticise the way we regard that concept. I'd say the way we think about freedom today is outdated because people keep holding on to the liberal conservative definition of the reformation. People keep believing glorious stories about individual freedom and in the small state as the ultimate standard for freedom, but it’s time we see things differently”.

Vazquez: “I think it’s important that our students learn that there are other concepts of freedom than just the Western perspective. The same goes for concepts like justice or joy. For example, we have a lot to learn from African humanistic philosophy Ubuntu and how it played a key role for post-apartheid justice in South Africa. Ubuntu focuses on reconciliation instead of punishment. We'd also benefit from learning more about 'indigenous' philosophies where freedom is strongly linked to our relationship with the Earth, instead of the right to exploit and destroy the earth.

“Science is a Western concept that’s been exported globally. In Mexico, the first university was established in the sixteenth century, built from a colonial perspective. Our knowledge, our canon is western-oriented. I think we have to expand knowledge with ideas from other continents and sources. In Latin America, there are social movements that protest the mines. They also contribute with relevant knowledge”.

De Dijn: : “I must admit that I do value the current scientific methods. Science stands for funded research. If you treat other knowledge as equal to that, there’s a chance that science will devalue itself as a source of knowledge. We shouldn’t want that to happen.

“I do think it’s important to ensure a great diversity of scientists. In the past, there was a thing called ‘scientific racism’. Scientists conducted research to prove there were superior and inferior races. That was partly because all those scientists came from the same societal group of privileged white men, and seriously thought this was true. German Jewish researcher Franz Boas was the first one to address this, by proving that the differences between races were mainly cultural. For this reason, he's considered the founder of modern Anthropology. The fact that he was Jewish was relevant because that ethnic group was also seen as inferior back then.

“My statement here is that if a group of scientists consists of the same kind of people, the research is less innovative. The same holds true for the fact that science was dominated by men for a long time, and women didn’t have much of a voice in it”.

Vazquez: "The prestigious journal Nature has published research that shows that science benefits immensely from diversity. If you want more innovation in a lab, you need to work with a diverse group of scientists. People with different cultural backgrounds and life trajectories offer different perspectives and therefore bring about different developments in science".

De Dijn: “That push for diversity, by the way, should also be about gender diversity. I've noticed that, in the Netherlands, on the surface, gender discrimination isn't much of an issue. In Belgium, I’m catcalled often and people make sexist jokes, which rarely ever happens in the Netherlands. But, if you look at the underlying structure, there’s at least the same or even more discrimination against women in the Netherlands than elsewhere. Look at the composition of the board or professors. There are very few women there, and even fewer women with a migrant background. In the Netherlands, the thresholds for getting a certain position are high if you’re from a certain group. They have to try harder. Not to mention that, in the Netherlands, women earn less money for the same work”.

Vazquez: “At the time of the diversity study at the University of Amsterdam, there were only five female professors with a minority background in the Netherlands. When we speak of lack of inclusion, we are asking these questions: why we only find people with a privileged background at the top of our universities? You can’t just look at a single aspect, you have to look at the whole picture. That’s what we call intersectionality. It’s about gender, race and socioeconomic background, and how they intersect. Some people have more obstacles to overcome”.

De Dijn: “Look, I’m not saying the university should consist of only female professors with a migrant background. People with a migrant background are a minority. But the university could represent society better. The difference we see now is overwhelming. Changing that imbalance is not just a matter of social justice: better representation is also good for the quality of science".

Vazquez: “The problem with racism is that many people take it as an insult and not as a social condition in which we are all implicated. In the Netherlands, racism is not only about criminal behaviour, it is about social structures that benefit some people while limiting others. It’s about ingrained structures whose causes often lie in the past. To achieve an open society, we have to handle this issue together and everybody has to recognize its part in it. Getting defensive about it, or polarising, isn’t the way”.

De Dijn: “Still, I’m optimistic. Sharp discussions like those we see on social media aren’t nice, but we’ve really taken some steps forward compared to ten years ago. We’re in a phase of debate now, people are talking about it. Ten years ago, a theme like Black Pete (Zwarte Piet, the companion of Saint Nicholas in Dutch folklore, ed) was non-negotiable. Now, even Prime Minister Mark Rutte has changed his mind”.

Vazquez: “I agree. For a long time, it was taboo in the Netherlands to talk about issues like race and how it shapes our societies. Now, people are more open to it. We talk to museums about their approach to the colonial past, for instance. Subjects concerning the legacies of colonialism are being researched more and more and open to public conversations. When we start talking about things, it starts making sense, it starts making broader social conversations possible. Many people are starting to realize how important it is to understand our past to engage with others and get to know who we are”.

Who is Rolando Vazquez

Every summer, Rolando Vazquez organises a Decolonial Summer School in Middelburg. “In this summer course, we unite students, scientists, artists, and activists to look beyond Eurocentric ideas. When I came to University College Roosevelt (UCR) in 2007, the debate around 'decoloniality' was almost non-existent in the Netherlands. Middelburg in particular is a city with a past deeply connected to slavery”.

Vazquez grew up in Mexico, in a family where going to college was normal. His sister, for instance, is a professor in the United States. He studied International Relations in Mexico and then chose to do his PhD at the University of Warwick, in the UK. Before coming to Middelburg, Vazquez worked in the UK and Sweden. Currently, he is also working at the University College Utrecht as Head of one of the clusters.

Decoloniality is becoming his specialisation more and more. Last year, Vazquez published the essay Vistas of Modernity, in which he tries to rise above the rule of Western epistemology and aesthetics, with its ingrained eurocentrism and anthropocentrism.

Vazquez was also a member of the diversity committee at the University of Amsterdam, which was led by UU Emeritus Professor Gloria Wekker. The committee made an elaborate analysis of diversity at the University of Amsterdam and how it could be improved upon.

Read the first dialogue in the series, featuring first-generation students turned scientists Gönül Dilaver and Ruud Schotting: 'You have to dare to embrace the discomfort'

Photos: Ivar Pel