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