What Foreign Students in the Netherlands should know about Dutch professors and Dutch students. (2011)

I have been asked to tell you what it is like to study in the Netherlands, the things you should take into account, the opportunities, the challenges, the do’s and don’t,  the possible sources of unwanted deceptions and how to avoid them.

I am a sociologist, but I work in a department where I meet every day with cultural anthropologists, ethnologists. I learned a lot from them. They go to distant parts of the world, they study people living under very different social and cultural conditions. And they tell me that, yes, sometimes the people whose societies they study are so different, so strange, so exotic, that staying with them over a longer stretch of time may be a disorienting, disconcerting, alienating, sometimes even scary experience. Here you are, eating those frightening things, and everything you do seems to be wrong in one way or another and the people around you do not forgive you for being clumsy, they do not consider you an interesting stranger, they believe that you are just a kind of idiot, who does not master the simple practices that every child considers too common to pay attention to. Let me reassure you: this is not the experience you will undergo in the Netherlands.

My anthropological friends tell me that this kind of research is easy: ‘this is the  job we were trained to do’, they say. Things get complicated when you study people that appear to be at first sight just like you. A Dutch sociologist studying the French, an American anthropologist studying the Dutch, a Japanese ethnologist studying the Spanish may come to the conclusion: those guys are just like us. You can sit down with them and discuss what Jaylo does to the Lambada in her hit-song On the Floor: is it a sample, is it a hommage, is it a case of punishable plagiarism? Everybody knows exactly what they are talking about. They like their Starbucks frappucino, they love Lady Gaga, they hate Pepsi, they are just like us. But appearances may deceive you.

This summer I spent my free weeks, like so many Dutch people do, in Southern France, the Languedoc Rousillon region. In France I always have this feeling: French people are just like us, the Dutch. Fifty years ago they may have been a bit exotic, but today young French people and young Dutch people share musical preferences, dressing styles, political opinions and even culinary fashions: you can have your sushi in Amsterdam or in Perpignan. My wife is French, my family in law is French, I understand the family jokes, and let me tell you, those folks are not different from us. In my wife’s family it is not common to drink red wine, but everybody loves coca cola and the only person who wants to have breakfast with a grand crème and a croissant is the Dutch son in law. And is it any wonder? The high speed train carries you in less than four hours from Amsterdam into the heart of Paris. We have become closer to each other, because of the trains and planes, email, smartphones, twitter and facebook.

When I was in the beautiful city of Béziers, I downloaded every morning the Dutch newspaper on my iPhone and one morning interesting news from my home country appeared on the screen. There had been an incident with trouts, the beautifull river fish, la truite, die Forelle, Schubert wrote a song about those happy little animals. Some Dutch people had been giving a party during which there was a kind of contest in clubbing the living fish to death, before eating them. This was considered to be a case of serious and punishable animal torture and the police  conducted a criminal investigation. This is what I read in Béziers, where the Feria was taking place. The Spanish may have abolished bull fighting in Catalunya or in Barcelona, but in Southern France the Corrida is still the high point of the festive year. The newspapers of Béziers were filled with articles about the smart tactics and athletic performances of matadors that I have never heard of, world famous heroes in Madrid and Mexico… and Southern France. Everybody was chanting and partying and having fun and the center of all the happiness was the local arena, built in the nineteenth century for the purpose of showing operas, where some six bulls were slaughtered day after day in a way that Hemingway adored, but that I, being very Dutch, consider a form of prolonged animal torture. I spoke about this with the inhabitants of Béziers and nobody really quite understood what I was talking about. My point here is not to decry bull fights. What struck me was the fact that there is this cleavage between the French and the Dutch that becomes evident only when you begin to discuss the treatment of animals. The Dutch parliament is the only parliament in the world where there is one small political party that is defending animal rights, de dierenpartij. For me this is something to be a little bit proud of, but even my French family members cannot stop laughing when I tell them about our animal party. All of a sudden I realize that although we seem to be similar in many respects, there are also important differences and they run deep.

This is my first piece of advice to you: do not fall into the trap of believing that your Dutch professors, your Dutch fellow students, the Dutch people of the administration of UvA, your Dutch friends, are just like you. They may appear to be very similar in the beginning, but they are in many ways also very exotic, but that comes to light only later and maybe you will find out when it is too late. It is more difficult to notice the subtle differences than the evident similarities, but in some ways the differences may be more fundamental and in time may become a source of problems.

Let me give you the example of authoritarianism, the way higher ranking people and lower ranking people, like professors and students, interact. One of the most striking things in the Netherlands is that as a student you may at first receive the impression that the professors are not at all authoritarian in their attitudes, compared to French, Belgian or German professors. They are relaxed and egalitarian, like Danish or Swedish or Norwegian professors. They will easily reveal their first name to you and invite you to address them in that way, (Dutzen, tutoyer, you can call me Al). Sometimes after class they walk with the students to a nearby bar and they will continue to discuss the literature over a glass of Heineken beer. You may get the feeling that the professor is your friend and if you confront them with a personal problem, they may even be willing to give you some helpful personal advice.

But here is the difference: Dutch students understand exactly what it all means. In fact it does not mean much. Let’s imagine that your professor has given you a B+ for an important paper and you really need this A, or at least an A-minus, so after class you follow her to her office and you explain that your assignment really deserves this very important A-minus. All of a sudden the conviviality is gone. With an angry face the professor tells you that her grades are not negociable, that she is very precise and thoughtful when it comes to grading and that this is a university and not a market place where you can bargain in order to receive a better price. You’d better get used to it or else leave the university. Sorry? What has happened to your friend in the bar? She is gone, disappeared. It’s a vanishing trick. She was never your friend in the first place.

It has become my personal rule to never go to a bar with foreign students, because some of them get the wrong impression. They believe that I am their friend, when I am having drinks with them and asking them to call me Bart. The Scandinavian students know exactly what is going on, they make no mistake, but even the Belgian or German students may harbour the wrong impression. I do not say that you should not have drinks with your professor, on the contrary, it is an excellent way of networking, of weaving informal webs in the Dutch University. But do not take their informality as an indication of a kind of personal relationship. You may be in for a traumatizing disappointment.

In Dutch academic life the everyday interaction is extremely relaxed, detached, informal, casual. This is why you may receive the mistaken impression that Dutch students are lazy. Or at least they convey the impression that they never study, that they are just hanging out with their friends and listening to music all day long. But that is not true, as becomes apparent when the grades are distributed. They have been working very hard, but they kept it a secret, they did not want their fellow students to know how many hours they devoted to hard work. Do not copy what appeared to be their behavior, because they were misleading you. What is going on here, why did they do that?

In Dutch society it is considered a sign of very bad taste if you try to be better than the other guy, to stand above the crowd. In a class with twenty-five students the Germans or the Americans or the Israeli’s or the students from the Philippines are always trying to outdo each other in the group discussions, trying to appear the smartest student in the class, but the Dutch students often don’t even enter that contest. They make a show of being only mildly interested in the material, they look a bit bored at their laptops, they are not eager to engage in the group discussions. But they do pay attention. They just dislike people who in their eyes are trying to show off. That is a sign of bad taste. So they convey the impression that they do not devote much time to studying the books, writing the papers, doing the research. In general, it is my impression that Dutch students work hard, but they feel that it should not show. For foreign students this may be very misleading. You may believe that not much is expected from you as a student, because you are in the Netherlands and the students from the home country appear to be relaxed and easy going. But wait till the end of the semester when those silent Dutch and Swedish girls walk away with the A plusses that can only have been acquired by working very, very hard.

This is an element of Dutch culture with deep religious and political roots: don’t show off, don’t pretend to be better than thy neighbour. There is a deep seated memory of the common cultural heritage of Calvinism here. The psalmist tells you that he who tries to rise above his neighbour shall be humiliated, wer sichselbst erhöht, der soll erniedrigt werden, to quote from a beautiful Bach cantata. It is the fundamental sense of egalitarianism in classical protestantism that gives rise to this habitus: in the eye of God all men are equal and to pretend that you are a bit better than your fellow-man is a kind of blasphemy.

Although many Dutch people that you meet will tell you that they are not church-going christians, the protestant elements of thought can still be detected in Dutch attitudes, ways of thinking, feeling and acting. It is no accident that we are meeting today in a building that used to be a church and that tomorrow I will address another group of foreign students, again in a beautiful church.

But there is another reason for this radical egalitarianism and that is something that the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville described in his famous book about the American people, published in the first half of the nineteenth century, De la démocratie en Amérique. What he wrote about the American spirit can still be used to better understand the Dutch mentality. He says that Americans are democratic to the bone and that a sense of egalitarianism permeates American society. In a democratic society, he says, you are frowned upon when you try to distinguish yourself from the rest, when you try to reach a certain level of excellence. In a democratic society excellence in the sciences and in the arts is rarely rewarded, because it runs counter to the implicit political and cultural norm that we all are equal, that nobody is better than the next person. There is some truth to this observation, even in the Netherlands of this day and age. Things are beginning to change a bit, but still it is difficult for a Dutch student who tries to be excellent, tries to be just a little bit better than the other students. She will have to put up with a lot of criticism: she will be considered arrogant, the professor’s pet, she is superior, vain, immodest, a smart-ass, a show-off.

The combination of Calvinistic elements and cultural-political democratic elements make for a strong atmosphere of egalitarianism. Even the teachers sometimes take pride in stressing that they are not superior to the students. A very famous professor, a household name in the international scientific community, may tell you that he considers himself a student, and even not a very bright student, he is just a few years older than the other students, that’s the only difference there is, and yes, he can learn so much from his younger fellow students. This is a case of false modesty, verging on hypocrisy. He does not mean a word of it, he is very well aware of and proud of his strong international reputation, but this is the Dutch way to express it. It will take you some time to get used to it.

One of the ways in which this comes to light is when the professors have to grade the students. If they were really that humble about their own achievements, they might give their students easily an A. But that is not the case. Dutch professors tend to award B’s and even C’s when they are quite happy with the work of the student. For them a B-plus is a high grade. Asked why he never gave a student an A-plus a Dutch professor answered in the Calvinistic style: the A+ should be reserved for God. Calvinists are known to be frugal, even stingy at times, they are not exhuberant, outgoing, expressive. When a Dutch professor awards you an A-plus, you should consider that an enormous honour.

This sense of egalitarianism also leads to something else that foreign students often are very surprised about. The professors here are known to be extremely critical and sometimes even rude in the way they comment on the student’s performances. Let me give you an example. A student has to give a presentation in the classroom. The student has devoted a lot of attention to the presentation, the power points are well chosen, but the student is very nervous, the show is not flawless, there are a few errors, but generally everything seems to work out fine. When the student has uttered his last phrases and sits down with a sigh of relief, it is possible that the professor will immediately take the floor and crush the whole performance in scathing language. He may say things like: the beauty of the power points could not hide the fact that you really did not quite know what you are talking about. He may say: the great thing about this presentation is that all the other students now know exactly how they should not do this. The student sits in the corner of the room and is wondering whether he should become a waiter in a restaurant. After class, they have drinks in the nearby bar and the professor says to the student: ‘I hope you did not mind what I said, I guess I went down a bit heavy, but then again, I really liked what you did, and I loved your power points, and I could see how well you had prepared it, and it was a pity that you were a bit nervous, but I think a B+ is well deserved here, but I had to stress the errors in order to keep the standards high for the other students, who are not as clever as you are. But don’t take it personal, I like the way you do things, you are a very promising student.’ After this roller coaster ride the student may be completely dizzy. But it is true: the professor was not dissatisfied with the presentation and the student should not take it personal, it was not meant to be a personal attack at all. Dutch students know this, foreign student may be bewildered.

We, the Dutch, can be pretty rude, we like to criticize, we love the polemical tone of voice and we are rarely inclined to give a compliment. In aristocratic societies the noble art of flattery, of constructing intricate compliments, is hold in esteem, but we consider that hollow and insincere. In democratic societies the parliamentary polemics are the point of orientation in discourse: here the artistry is in humiliating and crushing your political enemy in front of all the other members of parliament and to have drinks afterwards. When a student says to the professor that he did not like the way his assignment was cut to pieces in front of the other students, the professor may say: don’t get into the kitchen if you cannot stand the heat, implying that academia is a place where you have to be prepared for that kind of suffocating temperature.

Rudeness is also an element in the informal interactions between the students amongst one another. In the classroom the Dutch students may sometimes be so very critical of  each other’s papers, that the professor has to intervene. When you ask a Dutch fellow-student to give some advice on a paper you wrote, be prepared to be butchered. Your friendly Dutch roommate may take a seemingly sadistic pleasure in criticizing almost every sentence. Don’t take it personal, it is her way of showing appreciation and if you do only a quarter of what she told you to do, your paper may become better or at least less vulnerable for the criticisms of the professor who will grade it.

Professors in the Netherland always encourage you to do this, to read each others papers, to talk about the stuff in an informal setting. Their dream is that when you guys are together in a bar or a restaurant, you are incessantly engaged in a lively discussion about the great and important ideas the professor has been so kind to share with you. And yes, it is a very good idea to organize a kind of informal student networks in which you discuss your assignments and papers and theses amongst each other. But there is a pitch black aspect to this.

When students work together on papers it may happen that some sentences or even paragraphes of student A are identical to or nearly identical to sentences or paragraphs in the paper of student B. After all, they did this together, just the way the professor wanted them to do it. So it comes as no surprise that a chapter in one paper may be virtually identical to the chapter in another paper. Right? No, wrong, wrong, very, very wrong! When the teacher discovers this – and they use anti-plagiarism software that makes it a one hundred percent certainty that it will be discovered – the penalties are extremely severe. One of the most lenient measures is that you are kicked out of the class, the most severe measure is that you are kicked out of the university. Copying parts of another students paper, copying a few paragraphs from wikipedia, pasting in some sentences from an unknown paper or article that you found floating around on the internet is considered plagiarism, it is considered criminal behaviour and it is punished accordingly. Dutch students know this and they are extremely careful in this regard. Some foreign students are sometimes very surprised when they discover how their friendly professor turns into a brutal policeman as soon as the suspicion of plagiarism is in the air. I will not go into the reasons why we are extremely severe when it come to plagiarism, tomorrow you will hear more about it, but I completely agree with this policy. But sometimes it should be better communicated to the students from the start on.

So far I may have scared you a bit. But after some time, when you have found out about the limits and the dangers, you may really begin to like this kind of informal, casual, rude, honest culture. You are privileged to have a world famous professor who not only teaches his class during two hours, but who also continues to discuss the subtler aspects of his theories after class with you from behind a glass of jenever. He may not be your best friend  but who cares, he seems to live for his discipline, his greatest pleasure is to instruct you, even behind the scenes, you should relish it, profit from it. In a way this whole atmosphere of non-authoritarian interaction can be extremely stimulating, especially in a university setting. You do not have to worry whether you show enough formal respect, whether you are dressed the way you should be, nobody cares, all the attention is devoted to the stuff, the academic material, the theories, the methodology, the research, the break-throughs, the state of the art in the discipline, the new frontiers. The formalities are not important, what matters is the content, everything is content, nothing but content. That is great, that is, I feel, as it should be at a real university.

And then, one day, you may discover something stunning. Your professor may turn out to be more similar to you than you think. Not because she takes her students to the bar, not because you speak on a first name base, but because she begins to show a sincere interest in the ideas that you develop in your Ph. D-thesis. And you know that this is not a fake display of interest, because you know by now that this professor does not weigh her words when she does not like what you do. But now, the scathing criticism is gone, she is fascinated with your Ph.D-work. You begin to exchange thoughts as if you were two equals, two scientists trying to discover something about that wonderful, strange, strubbornly elusive universe out there. And then you discover that those rude, aggressive, closed Dutch people do after all have the capacity to be interested and sincerely friendly and loving. They did everything they could to hide it, they did not want you to find out. But after a long period of time, they had to give in. And then it comes to light, thanks to you: yes, after all, there is no denying it: we, the Dutch, are human.

‘What foreign students in the Netherlands should know about Dutch professors and Dutch students.’ Lecture for the foreign MA-students, De Rode Hoed, Amsterdam. August 23, 2011.


Discovering the Dutch. On the Dutch National Character (2011)

Welcome in the Netherlands. My name is Bart van Heerikhuizen and I teach sociology at the University of Amsterdam. I have been invited to tell you a few things about Dutch society.

Well, let’s start with this beautiful church. The church is called De Duif – the pigeon, or better still: the Dove. This is not a university building that formerly used to be a church, it is a real, functioning church, that we are allowed today for academic purposes. Next Sunday there will be an ecumenical service here, which means that Catholics and Protestants of different denominations can celebrate their shared Christian beliefs together. You can safely say that this place is a haven of religious tolerance and harmony and in that sense incarnates some of the most admirable elements in Dutch history. But this church is also used for concerts, shows, cd-recordings, fairs, receptions including the official welcome of the university and that is also an age-old Dutch tradition. Churches are places of worship, but that does not mean that you should not use them for other purposes as well. But this was originally a Roman Catholic parish church, built in 1857, on the exact same spot where once a smaller conventicle stood. The official name of the church is Sint Willibrord binnen de Veste, Saint Willibrord within the walls, but originally it was known as the Dove of Peace, later shortened to just the Dove, de Duif. So we are gathered together here with all these different nationalities in a building that is called the dove of peace. Isn’t that a good start?

For several years now I have had the privilege to play a role in this festive day, the official welcome for the new students from abroad. The International Student Network of the University of Amsterdam has organized it in many different locations, but they all share one peculiar element. I have delivered my official welcome speech in the protestant Western church, in the Lutheran church, which is also the auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, in the Mennonite church, and in De Rode Hoed. Maybe some Dutch students here believe that De Rode Hoed is not a church at all, but yes guys, de Rode Hoed used to be a conventicle as well. The oldest building of the university of Amsterdam, where everything started, is called de Agnietenkapel, originally a Roman Catholic chapel, dedicated to Saint Agnes and used by the sisters of the order of the holy Saint Agnes.

The University of Amsterdam is not a Christian university, like our Amsterdam couterpart, the Free University, but religious symbolism is all over the place and although the majority of the Dutch students in Amsterdam consider themselves non-denomenational, nobody thinks it is strange that I teach sociology in the Lutheran Church, that I adress students in the Western church, or that PhD’s are defended in the beautiful mediaeval chapel of Saint Agnes. This is one of the elements in Dutch society that may surprise you. You will meet amongst your fellow students and your teachers quite some agnostics and even outspoken atheists, but when you come to know them better there is often something very serious and moralistic in their attitude towards life that may strike you as profoundly religious. If you came to the Netherlands with all those stories in your head about window prostitution and free marihuana, you might have received the wrong impression. In many ways this is still a Christian society, although many of these Christians, go more often to church to attend a concert or a lecture than to worship.

Let me give you an example of the peculiarity of the Christian faith in the Netherlands. Amsterdam has an international reputation of being one of the attractive capitals for gay men and women, comparable to cities like Berlin or San Francisco. Every summer you can watch the gay parade on the canals of Amsterdam and that is really a spectacular event where hundreds of thousands of people travel to Amsterdam to cheer the gay men and women passing by on boats, outrageously dressed, provocatively dancing on beats that hurt at least my ears. Now you might think that the Christian churches in the Netherlands are a bit reluctant in embracing this trend. But that is not at all true. With the exception of a few extremely orthodox denominations with a small following, one might say that the protestant churches in the Netherlands are by and large supportive of gay rights and gay marriage, including the right of gay couples to adopt children. When a study was published indicating that the number of gays that are battered and beaten in the Netherlands appears to be on the rise, the Christian churches quickly vented their indignation. One Dutch sociologist has even suggested that this is one of the ways in which the Christian churches are able to draw a clear dividing line between themselves and the Muslems who live in the Netherlands. But also in progressive muslem circles the attitudes towards homosexuality seem to change. Even the immigrants quickly pick up the Dutch predeliction for tolerance, although for many people in the Netherlands they do not do it quickly enough.

Holland offers you a fascinating and sometimes bewildering mix of conservatism and very liberal attitudes. You may notice this even in the speech of Harm Versloot, later today, who represents the Amsterdam police here. He will tell you that yes, it is true, you are entitled to smoke marihuana in the Netherlands in the privacy of your own room. I know that the fact that a policeman in uniform says those things with a straight face is guaranteed to produce some raised eyebrows amongst some foreign students. But then he will add that the Dutch laws regarding drugs are in many ways pretty severe and if you don’t take them seriously, you may end up in jail. So beware, make no mistake, it’s a complicated game we play here. This is also true for society at large. The political party that is in the right wing corner of the political spectrum, the party for freedom, is also one of the staunchest supporters of gay rights and by the way also of animal rights, something you might not expect from the radical right. The political party at the extreme left wing corner of the political spectrum, de socialistische partij, is often charged with being surprisingly conservative, for example when they oppose changes in the organisation of the welfare state or when they oppose Europeanisation or globalisation. It is often said that the socialist party is in many respects a more conservative party than the Christian democrats who used to be the guardians of the great conservative tradition in the political arena.

For us, the Dutch, these dialectical interactions between conservative views and very liberal opinions are completely self-evident, we just don’t understand how anyone could think about those things in any other way, but for foreigners this seems baffling. When I try to explain to French students, who are used to the rhetoric of Jean Marie le Pen, that our right wingers are the most outspoken ennemies of any kind of antisemitism and unfailing supporters of the politics of Israel, they seem to have lost the way.

In your first months in the Netherlands, it is really difficult to make sense of this society. But I have a few sincere pieces of advice for you if you want to better understand in what kind of social universe you just have landed today. I am really serious about this and you write down the titles of the book and the two movies that I am going to mention.

First of all, I invite you to read some of the books that have been written about the Dutch. There are many books you can choose from, for example in the American Book Center on the Spui in Amsterdam, where you can find shelves filled with books about the Dutch, often written by Dutch journalists who take pride in describing their own tribe in the least flattering light imaginable. A good example is a book, called the Undutchables, very popular amongst expats, but I don’t like it. There is one book that I really like, Discovering the Dutch, On Culture and Society in the Netherlands. It is a collection of articles by serious specialists and it was edited by two authors, Emmeline Besamusca and Jaap Verheul. Keep that first name in mind. Besamusca. Go to the bookshop and ask for the book by Besamusca on Dutch culture and society. It offers you lots and lots of information about political life, economic relationships and the dilemma’s facing the Dutch welfare state. It contains historical chapters on the golden age, the tradition of tolerance, the great painters, Hugo de Groot, Descartes, Holland during the second world war. There is an interesting chapter on the three waves of feminism in Dutch society, in which you can read that we are at this very moment just in the middle of the third wave. In this book there is a very beautiful chapter by David Bos about religious diversification and secularisation, treating the topics with which I started my lecture. But there is also a great chapter on the problems of immigration and multiculturalism, that hold the Netherlands in their iron grip. There is even a chapter about you guys and that is called: the Netherlands seen through foreign eyes. Buy the book, read the book, it will be very helpful. Besamusca, discovering the dutch. Published in 2010 by Amsterdam University Press.

That is all very academic and serious, but maybe such a sholarly book does not suffice if you want to really feel what makes them tick, those strange Dutch people. In order to get a feel for these folks, there are two documentary movies that I encourage you to watch and I advise you to watch them the very same day, first the movie from 1963 and then the movie made in 2006. You can order them, buy them, rent them, but they are not presently in the cinema. The first one is half a century old, the second one is recent. The first one is made by the documentary movie maker that I believe to be the greatest Dutch documentary film director of the twentieth century, Bert Haanstra. The second one is made by a contemporary director, who is a self-reported admirer of Bert Haanstra, but who has developed a very different style, all of his own, Michiel van Erp. Van Erp is more tongue in cheek than Haanstra, more postmodern, and always a bit mischievous. The older movie, made in 1963, has been hailed in a prestigious election as the best documentary movie in the Netherlands since 1945. It is called in Dutch Alleman, but you can also buy or rent the English version and that one is called The Human Dutch and in another edition Everyman. That is the mirror of the Dutch around 1963. If you want to watch the contemporary Dutch, you should turn to Michiel van Erp and his movie Pretpark Nederland, theme park Holland, the amusement park that the Netherlands, according to Van Erp, has become. The movie was produced in 2006. sells a version with English subtitles, but there is also an entirely English spoken version called A fun fair behind the dikes. It is mainly about the tourism industry in the Netherlands, but it gives you an extremely astute peek into the soul of this strange tribe living five meters under sea level.

Enjoy the thought provoking social, cultural and political climate in Holland, and especially in Amsterdam. There is a distinct possibility that when you are eighty years old and you look back on your life, you may arrive at the conclusion that the months you spent in Amsterdam were the decisive period in your entire life, the period when everything began to fall into place, when you became the person that you really are. And this may be the very first day of that crucial episode in your life. Be reflexively conscious of it, and, to quote Jerry Springer, ‘take care of yourself and of each other’. Amen.

‘Discovering the Dutch’. Introductory Speach for the foreign students in Amsterdam, at the Official Welcome, organized by the International Student Network, in the church De Duif, Amsterdam, January, 27, 2011

The Dutch Yesterday and Today

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished professors, dear foreign students, Welcome in the Netherlands, this small country on the shores of the North Sea, a country where things that appeared to be stable for many centuries now all of a sudden seem out of ballance. Many of the statements that you may have read about the place where you are going to spend a period of your life are not valid any more, they are at least disputed, many of the old, time-tested certainties today appear to be anything but certain. National characteristics that the Dutch have always, in their own seemingly humble way been proud of – for example a certain tendency towards tolerance in religious matters – seem to melt away, or so the journalists and political commentators tell us. This is good news for those of you who have come here to study a social science: this small spot on the earth that for a long period of time has been a rather uninteresting, not to say boring, place, has transformed in a relatively short period of time into a kind of laboratory for those who are interested in the opportunities, the dangers, the problems, the challenges of high-modernity.

As a sociologist I did some research into the touchy subject of what some seventy years ago used to be called: the problem of national character. In the twenties and thirties of the last century sociologists, historians, anthropologists en social geographers were all very interested in the question of what is characteristic of the Germans, the French, the Brittish, the Italians or the Dutch. In Dutch social science the subject was hotly debated and one of the interesting things that struck me when I was reading these texts in the dust covered volumes of old scholarly journals, was that the traits they ascribed to the Dutch were extraordinarily stable. Whether you read an article by the famous Amsterdam professor of history Johan Huizinga or a book by the Amsterdam ethnographer Steinmetz, whether you looked into an French tourist guide of the thirties or an American anthropological research into the customs of the Dutch, you always find the same lists of peculiarities that struck the authors as typically Dutch. Some scientists founded their descriptions on detailed studies of what foreigners, visiting the Low Countries, had reported to their countrymen in letters or personal diaries about the natives that they had come across on their travels through these regions. There were also researchers who used questionaires with structured psychological questions in order to discover what psychological traits the inhabitants of this part of the earth had in common. But whoever wrote about it and whatever method was used, the lists they came up with were strikingly similar. And that list seems to have remained relatively stable from the nineteenth century until the end of the eithties in the twentieth century. That is such a remarkable fact: the absence of disagreement, everybody agreed with everybody on what typifies the Dutch.

Let me give you just one example, a list of Dutch characteristics that I found in an article by one of the founding fathers of ethnology and sociology in the Netherlands, Sebald Rudolf Steinmetz, who was one of the famous professors, teaching at this university in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Steinmetz published a book about the Netherlands. Five of the eighty-three pages of this book, that was written in the German language and for a German audience were devoted to the question of this presumed National Character. Steinmetz headed his list of Dutch character traits with the love of freedom. He went on to mention individualism, an avertion to personality cults and other forms of ‘Pathos’, a critical attitude, a penchant for irony, a lack of emotionalism, negligible traces of vanity and very little vindictiveness, sensuality or sensitivity. According to Steinmetz the Dutch seldom showed any signs of joy and were rarely cheerful. They were not too enthusiastic about new inventions. Art in the Netherlands was never monumental. People were not extravagant; on the contrary, they were economical and thrifty. They were not adventurous. In 1871 the historian Robert Fruin wrote an article entitled ‘The Character of the Dutch People’ in which you will find just the same description: the Dutch are phlegmatic, he says, the word that describes them best is the untranslateble Dutch term bedaard: calm, collected. Very few people were filled with any kind of real passion for the opposite sex. The Dutch kitchen was – to put it mildly – not overly sophisticated. The Dutch were not cruel to animals, nor were they cruel to each other. They took life very seriously and when this seemed to exact too high a toll, they tended to drink away their problems. (Some visitors, especially in the nineteenth century report that alcoholism seems to be a national desease.) They had plenty of energy, but they excelled more in their perseverance than in their enterprising spirit. (…) They did not tend to change their minds easily, nor did they react quickly and they were not inspiring orators. But they were faithful, persevering, reserved, reticent, industrious, peaceful and scrupulous. The only field where the Dutch were more emotional was religion: here very heated feelings were sometimes rampant, and there was evidence of great love for religious leaders.

Huizinga in his friendly polemical way wrote that in the Dutch language the word schoon means clean and beautiful at the same time. Every foreigner travelling through the Netherlands marvels at the clean streets, the clean houses, the clean clothes that the people wear. And every reader of Huizinga in the fourties or the fifties nodded when reading those lines. Yes, you can say many unpleasant things about the Dutch, but nowhere else will you walk on cleaner streets.

These traits can be found in nearly every other text on the same subject. There is a surprising amount of consensus of opinion among authors aggregating the elements of Dutch national character. Sometimes, of course, this is attributable to their copying parts of each other’s lists. But a wide range of sources and methods led the authors to draw strikingly identical conclusions.

Some of these authors presented interesting explanations for these traits. Some of them assumed that a large part of the national character was inherited and transmitted in a biological way. Some of these explanations verge even on a disquieting kind of racism. But historians traditionally had a great aversion to linking national character to heridity. Jan Romein, one of the most illustrious historians working at this university, believed that in order to track down our national character, we have to examine the history of the Dutch people. The fact that Dutch society is a predominantly protestant society, has been considered by many authors a very important factor. Another interesting point is the fact that in our country a court society, remotely comparable to the court of Versailles, did not develop; the dominant class was not the nobility, the descendants of warriers, specialists of military means, of weapens,  but the frugal tradesmen in their simple black clothes, the specialists of economic means, of money. Johan Huizinga thought that all the aspects of the Dutch character were derived from their essential bourgeois nature. This bourgeois nature was related to the history of the Republic of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Even at its peak, Dutch life was fundamentally unheroic, according to Huizinga, who wrote the famous sentences: ‘Whether we like it or not, we Dutch are all bourgeois, from the notary public to the poet and from the baron to the common labourer. Our national culture is bourgeois in every sense of the word. The bourgeois conception of what life is all about has been adopted by all the segments or classes of our nation, whether rural of urban, the rich and the poor… Our very spirit has sprouted forth from bourgeois seeds, not a military spirit, but a commercial one. The bourgeois quality of society accounts for the negligible rebelliousness of the lower classes, and in general the tranquility of the nation’s life, which only ripples slightly under the wind of great spiritual turmoils.’

I hope that you will keep in mind these lists of Dutch characteristics in the coming months of your stay in Amsterdam. Some of them can still be found in the tourist guides that some of you may have read before embarking upon this journey. In these books the old stereotypes are repeated as if nothing had changed. That is not so very strange when you realize that even in the seventies and the eighties these lists were still very recognizable: yes, we did have political one-issue parties that warned against the invasion of foreigners into our beautiful country, but they were not an important factor in political life; yes, when in 1988 the Dutch soccer team won an important European competition, the Dutch seemed to lose their phlegmatic attitude, they painted their faces in orange and immersed themselves in what some people called nationalistic hysteria. But that was the exception to the rule, these outbursts are not incompatible with a general tendency towards remaining cool and collected, even when in a jubilant mood. But how many exceptions does a social scientist need in order to doubt the rule, how many falsifications does a sociologist need before he gives up a cherished idea, after how many anomalies is the governing paradigm in serious danger?

Dear students, let me invite you to do a little empirical work here. Just go on a walk through Amsterdam to control these statements with your own eyes. Set aside your preconceived opinions and just write down what you see.

All authors agree that the Dutch do not show passion, that they are not extravagant, have an aversion to pathos and are very prudish in sexual matters. It is a pitty that the gay parade took place six months ago. This has become a yearly national festivity on the Dutch canals during which hundreds of thousands of people, supposedly in majority heterosexual, are cheering the gay men and women who are passing by on big and small boats, voluptuously dancing and singing. More interesting then this gay parade, that you can also watch in Berlin or Paris or San Francisco are the spectators: hundreds of thousands of fathers, mothers and small children are waving and singing and, although the mayor of Amsterdam has asked the participants to be not too provocative, one can safely say that the spectators are clapping loudest for the most extravagant and extremely dressed actors. What about the characteristics that were considered so typical of Dutch national character: the Dutch are reticent, reserved, unemotional, sober, bourgeois, awkward, bedaard, not emotional, never passionate, rarely cheerful.

Or maybe you should make some observations of your own on the evening of the last day of the year, New Years Day, when you can experience what happens when the fireworks are privatized or on the evening before Queens Day, the 30th of april, when everybody in the street of Amsterdam seems to be drunk. Or look at the thrifty Dutch when they are buying presents for Saint Nicholas Day or for Christmas, exceeding year after year after year the amount of money that they collectively spent the year before. At the same time they are exceeding the financial limits of their credit cards. For centuries the Dutch were said to differ from the French or the Americans in their protestant aversion of financial debts, but also in this respect they have changed their ways.

For some observations you even do not have to leave your student apartment. When you watch the Dutch television programs, zapping between one o clock and four o clock in the night between RTL4, RTL5, Talpa or Veronica, you may change your ideas about traditional Dutch prudishness.

In books written around the time when I was born the Dutch are also described as god-fearing, law abiding citizens, sometimes even a bit too obedient to authority, notwithstanding their individualism. Calvinism does not encourage a rebellious attitude towards the powers that are set above us. I would like to invite you to our coffee shops, one of the institutions that made Amsterdam famous all over the world. Or do your research in the red light district to study at close range how succesful the Dutch are today in their effort to scrupulously hide from the public eye any hint of human sexuality. Even the fact that I uttered those sentences, the fact that I encouraged you just now, to do some empirical research in the Amsterdam underworld of sex and soft drugs, could be interpreted as a dramatic change in our cultural atmosphere, a change in climate.

One of the most interesting subjects is what happened to the traditional Dutch virtue of  tolerance, religious openness, our time-tested hospitality towards people who are prosecuted elsewhere and who are offered a safe haven here. In many sociological studies important segments of the Dutch population still show no signs of extreme chauvinism or nationalistic hatred, as is often suggested in the newspapers. But there is an uneasy feeling that this is beginning to change. Immigrants in Dutch society report a kind of xenophobia that was never characteristic of this society.

The changes I wanted to ask your attention for are changes in the cultural realm, changes in the way people in this part of the world form their perception of society, of one another, of themselves. It appears that we, in the Netherlands, are now experiencing a fundamental change in the meteorological climate, temperatures are rising, Hansje Brinker can sell his silver skates on ebay. This  change might in the long run even pose a threat for the physical existence of these low countries, these nether lands. But at the same time we are witnessing a change in the cultural atmosphere, a lowering of the temperature in the cultural climate. That change has gone so fast, that we are still rather desperately trying to determine what hit us. Maybe you can help us here. Sometimes the gaze of the outsider reveals things that the insiders cannot discern. In order to explain this intriguing change in the cultural climate we need another Al Gore and… well… that just may be… you.

‘The Dutch Yesterday and Today’, Toespraak voor de in Amsterdam aan hun studie beginnende buitenlandse studenten op 1 februari 2007, Aula van de UvA.


What is typically Dutch? (1982)

Dit is een pdf-bestand van een artikel in The Netherlands Journal of Sociology, 18, 1982

What is typically Dutch

What studying in the Netherlands means for foreign students… seen from the sunlit vantage point of the Westerkerk (2012)

Welcome in the Netherlands.  It makes me feel so happy and so proud to be standing here in front of you. It has always been a dream for me, and I guess, for many people in the Netherlands, to be invited to address an audience, here, in this very special place. This is one of the most important buildings in the Netherlands, it is a nodal place, not only in Dutch religious life, but also in Dutch culture, Dutch politics, Dutch art. This church is called Westerkerk, de Westerkerk, the Western Church of Amsterdam. Quite a simple name, nothing but a geographical indication. This is a functioning church, every Sunday morning there is a regular protestant service here. This is a Dutch reformed, presbyterian church parish, but those are oecumenical services, which simply means that everybody is welcome.

Why is it such a special place. Well, for example, our reigning queen, Queen Beatrix, married in this beautiful church in 1966, when outside of the building anarchist protesters threw smoke bombs that made it to the front page of the New York Times. The royal family is of the protestand faith. In fact, the protestant religion is the official state religion in the Netherlands, although there are also important groups of catholics, jew and muslems, not to forget the majority of the Dutch who are self reported non-denominational. Rembrandt van Rijn, one of our national heroes, the famous 17th century painter, was buried in this church in 1669 in a rental grave, although the exact place has never been determined. Ten years after his death his remains were destroyed to make place for somebody else who had recently died, which shows that people in the 17th century did not yet realize his huge importance. But there is a plaque in the church, here on the right hand side, to remember him and his son Titus, who was also buried here. The church opened its doors on whitsunday 1631, it was commissioned by the Amsterdam town council, constructed by the famous 17th century architect Hendrick de Keyser who did not live long enough to see his masterpiece finished, which makes him in more than one way a relative of Gaudi. This is not a Roman Catholic Church that later was forcibly turned into a protestant church, like so many other old churches in Amsterdam, no, this church was designed to be a protestant church, it is built in the proud style of the Dutch renaissance, characterized by brick and stone.

When the members of the protestant church compare their brand of christianity with the roman catholic faith from which they distanced themselves, they often use metaphors including light. They say that the catholic church was rooted in the dark and gloomy middle ages, but that heroic church reformers like Luther and Calvin brought light and clarity in the darkness, a new dawn for christianity, the rising of a new sun. This is symbolically expressed in the light that you see in the paintings of Saenredam and of Vermeer: this open, bluish, yellowish, clear, tranparent light. In this way protestantism can be seen as a kind of religious enlightenment, foreshadowing les lumières. The founding father of modern sociology, Max Weber, has made the case that German, English, American and especially Dutch protestantisme can be seen as an early kind of enlightenment, centuries before Voltaire, Hume and Kant, an early experiment in rational thinking and intellectual individualism. It is sociologically understandable, he says, why the great scientists of the 17th century, people like Newton and Huygens, the founding fathers of the modern sciences, were children of the protestant age, living in the protestant regions of the world. This whole idea of enlightenment is symbolically expressed by the architect of this church in the way he designed the building. In fact, this architectural masterpiece is first of all famous for its light: the 36 windows, no stained glass like in a catholic church, but only translucent uncoloured glass, and the white walls produce this very clear and open atmosphere that the architect intended to reign in this place of contemplation. The light of God, the light of Reason.

The church is also world famous because its next door neighboor is the house where Anne Frank, during the second world war, was in hiding in the Annex, ‘het Achterhuis’. You can still visit her house, it is a museum now. There is a small and beautiful statuette of Anne Frank just in front of the church. She was hiding in that house and she could not leave it and walk the sunlit streets of Amsterdam. But in her dark small room, so she tells us in several places in her diary, she listened to the sounds of the carillion, the collection of tuned bells, playing their melodies all through the day and the night, a promise of brighter days, that did come, but not for Anne Frank.

And now that I speak about people who had to live in fear, it may be fitting to also mention that next to this church, along the waterside, you will find a monument to commemorate the gay people that have been the subject of persecutions. The word gay conjures up images of sunny happiness and lightness, but this monument refers to the darker aspects of discrimination and stupid violence.

So this is the place where the ISN, where the Amsterdam University and the University of Applied Sciences welcomes you, dear newcomers. For several years now I have had the privilege to play a role in this festive day, the official welcome for the new students from abroad. The International Student Network of the University of Amsterdam has organized it in many different locations, but they all share one very peculiar element. I have delivered my official welcome speech in the catholic church De Duif, in the Oude Lutherse kerk, the Lutheran church, which is also the auditorium of the University of Amsterdam, in the Mennonite church, and in De Rode Hoed which used to be a conventicle as well. Each and every one of them a religious building! The oldest building of the university of Amsterdam, where the whole academic enterprise started, called Agnietenkapel, was originally a Roman Catholic chapel used by the sisters of the order of Saint Agnes.

The University of Amsterdam and the Hogeschool van Amsterdam are not christian university, like our Amsterdam couterpart, the Free University, but religious symbolism is all over the place and although the majority of the Dutch students in Amsterdam consider themselves nondenomenational, nobody thinks that it is strange that I teach sociology in the Lutheran Church and the Mennonite Church or that I adress students today in the Western church, or that PhD students are defending their thesis in the mediaeval chapel of Saint Agnes. This is one of the elements in Dutch society that may surprise some of you. In France it would be unthinkable to receive the new students of the Sorbonne in Paris in a religious building, let’s say in the Notre Dame church or the Sacré Coeur church. France has this tradition of an opposition between the church and the stately institutions, the stress on laicité. In Dutch culture this tradition does also exist, but here the opposition is less marked. You will meet amongst your fellow students and your teachers quite some agnostics and even a few very outspoken atheists, but when you come to know them better there is often something very serious and moralistic in their attitude towards life that may strike you as profoundly religious. If you came to the Netherlands with those stories in your head about window prostitution and cheap marihuana and a kind of mild anarchy all over the place, you have received the wrong impression. In many ways this is still a christian society, although many of those christians go more often to a church in order to attend a concert than to attend a service.

But the Dutch brand of christianity has its special peculiarities. Let me return for a minute to the example of the tolerance for homosexuality. Amsterdam has a well deserved international reputation of being one of the attractive capitals for gay men and women, comparable to cities like Berlin or San Francisco. Every summer you can watch here the gay parade in the canals of Amsterdam and that is really a spectacular event where hundreds of thousands of people travel to Amsterdam to cheer the gay men and women passing by on boats, outrageously dressed, provocatively dancing on hits by Diana Ross, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga, who by the way recently visited Amsterdam anonimously. Now you might think that the christian churches in the Netherlands are a bit reluctant to embrace this tendency. But that is not at all the case. With the exception of a few extremely orthodox denominations with a tiny following, one might say that the protestant churches in the Netherlands are by and large supportive of gay rights and gay marriage. When the number of incidents in which gays are attacked by aggressive homophobics seemed to be on the rise, the christian churches immediately vented their indignation.

Holland offers you a fascinating and sometimes bewildering mix of conservatism and a very liberal attitude. Today you will be able to observe this. In a few minutes time you will listen to the speech of a stern policeman who will tell you about many things that are forbidden in the Netherlands and who will threaten you with the penalties and punishmenst if you engage in those activities. Dutch laws on drugs for example are tougher than you may think and if you don’t respect the law you are likely to end up paying a fine or worse. The Amsterdam police wants you to know that on your first day here. But some foreign students don’t quite know what happens when this serious police-officer will tell you that yes, it is alright to smoke some marihuana in the privacy of your own room. I know that the fact that a policeman in uniform says those things with a straight face is guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows amongst the foreign students. Authoritarian stern measures plus a relaxed attitude, it’s quite a complicated game that we play here in the Netherlands. This is also true for society at large. The political party that is at the right wing end of the political spectrum, the party for freedom, is also one of the staunchest supporters of gay rights and also by the way of animal rights, something you might not expect from the radical right. The political party at the extreme left wing corner of the political spectrum, de socialistische partij, is often charged with being surprisingly conservative, for example when they oppose processes of globalisation or when they show a negative attitude toward the political and economic powers of the European Union. It takes some time to begin to understand how liberal and left-wing preferences are intertwined with a deep, typically Dutch undercurrent of gradualism and conservatism.

This unexpected and uneasy mix of progressivism and conservatism can also be noted at the university and sometimes foreign students have a hard time understanding this. On the one hand the professors are in general very relaxed, un-authoritarian, informal, casual. It is common to see a professor after class in a bar, surrounded by his students, continuing his lecture from behind a glass of beer. Professor are dressed informally and most of the time they arrive on bicycle. But then again, those same professors can be very stern when it comes to grading. They are known to be very reluctant in assigning high grades, very often they start from the premise that a B-plus is as high as it gets. And don’t try to discuss those grades with them, because they will tell you that this is a university and not a market place. And when their anti-plagiarism software informs them that you have copied a few sentences from Wikipedia without indicating your sources, they turn into severe policemen, who will not only kick you out of their class, but also try to have you expelled from the university altogether. Don’t forget this: the mildest forms of plagiarisme are considered here a capital crime and punished accordingly..

For us, the Dutch, these dialectical exchanges between conservative views and liberal opinions are completely self-evident, we do not understand how anyone could think about those things in any other way, but for foreigners this is often baffling and it takes some time to realy understand the way it works.

I wish you lots of luck in the coming months. Work hard, take your academic opportunities seriously and inhale the thought provoking social, cultural and political air in Holland, and especially in Amsterdam. There is a distinct possibility that, when you are eighty years old, and you look back on your life, you may arrive at the conclusion that those months, spent in Amsterdam were, after all, the decisive watershed in your entire life, the period when everything began to take shape, when you became the person that you really are, that you really want to be. And this may be the very first day of that episode in your life. Experience it, be conscious of it, enjoy it.

‘What studying in the Netherlands means for foreign students… seen from the sunlit vantage point of the Amsterdam Westerkerk.’ ISN-speach for the foreign students, Westerkerk, Amsterdam, August, 21, 2012