The Usefulness of History


On behalf of the CDO team, a warm welcome to this blog! First and foremost we hope that this space will be home to your contributions: interviews, columns, poems, visual art, any way you feel would best communicate your ideas about diversity at UvA. As I have the privilege of being one of the first contributors to this space, I hope that I will be able to inspire you to share your own perspectives, experiences, questions and ideas when it comes to diversity at UvA.

As a former bachelor student of cultural anthropology, and current research master in archaeology, heritage and memory studies, I enjoy making connections between lives that have come before us, and the circumstances each of us navigates today.

How people deal with difference has always particularly fascinated me. How we think about and organise diversity, another word for difference, is evident in just about every aspect of our lives once we choose to acknowledge that we’re participants, willing or not, in complex global webs.

Since diversity is not a problem in and of itself, it has always struck me as unnecessary that discussing difference has led to so much tension and outright hostility at this university which, like Amsterdam itself, strongly identifies as open-minded. When speaking to people at UvA about diversity, a concern which I often encounter is that action against discrimination may be very important – but that it is important elsewhere. If discrimination and coloniality ever were part of Dutch culture, surely these belong to a distant past with minimal relevance to the UvA today. If there is one thing I have learned from these encounters, it’s that UvA is deeply rooted in the unique and remarkable identity of Amsterdam as a city – and this identity has everything to do with its history.

The Illustre School – the gate of the Agnieten chapel, also known as Athenaeum Illustre. Source: Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Consider Gerardus Vossius and Caspar Barlaeus, two historical figures UvA presents on its website as key figures in the historical development of our university. I have found that Vossius’ and Barlaeus’ 1632 inaugural lectures at the newly founded Illustre School van Amsterdam (predecessor of the Universiteit van Amsterdam) are remarkably illustrative of the struggle to create spaces where diversity of knowledges and people is celebrated.

The title of Vossius’ lecture, ’The Usefulness of History’, speaks to me of course! The lecture itself addressed what he considered to be a detrimental lack of attention to the value of history for philosophy and morality,  at a time when theology formed the core of European universities. While navigating backlash from the Protestant public, humanist Vossius advocated that it would be to the benefit of humanity to incorporate comprehensive and more inclusive histories into scholarship, and was highly critical of the tendency to turn exclusively to innovation and newness to solve problems. This does not mean innovation has no place in solving philosophical and moral problems caused by exclusion, but rather, innovation would be much more effective if it were to take into account history, and if it does so in a way that includes as many relevant perspectives as possible in its evaluations. (See pages 192-196)

A step in the right direction! However, as is typical of humanism as a philosophy this inclusiveness was limited to ‘relevant’, i.e. white, masculine, European perspectives. By making an anthropocentric distinction between humans and other living beings, and excluding most people from the definition of ‘humanity’, humanism as a philosophy has enabled and justified the oppression, enslavement, genocides and ecocides which enriched Amsterdam during what is referred to as the ‘Golden Age’. More on this in later blogs!

Next we have Barlaeus, also a Renaissance humanist, whose lecture addressed Amsterdams ‘burgher’ (citizen) merchants – a highly exclusive category in and of itself whose commercial and political influence shaped heart of Amsterdam. He encouraged them to spend time on academia so they might learn how to ‘best’ gather wealth and fame. He recognised the connections between philosophy, economics and ethics. He was apparently more skilled at flattery than Vossius, and as a result enjoyed high standing with wealthy merchants of Amsterdam. Vossius had to defend his niche subject matter while merchants’ interests (broad inclusivity was not one of them) secured the ongoing popularity and influence of Barlaeus in Amsterdam. The influence of capitalist funding at UvA continues to this day, as the humanities at UvA face the brunt of budget cuts as a result of the the national government imposing commercial interests on education.

I wrote, this time, about Vossius and Barlaeus, but over the coming years I look forward to sharing the stories of people who are not granted institutional visibility and appreciation – people whose work forms the foundation on which we as a CDO team will be building. The CRES (Centre for Race and Ethnic Studies) which was shut down after racist backlash in the 1990’s comes to mind, as do the participants in the 2015 Maagdenhuis appropriation, notably University of Colour who initiated the push for the Diversity Committee and subsequent establishment of the CDO position.

Of course, this is only my perspective! I can’t overstate how much I look forward to learning from the stories, knowledge and experiences you, as UvA community feel will contribute to making our university a more inclusive place.

– Tarim

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