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Historian sees end to Dutch international role in guiding civic values

Dutch-American Kennedy assumes professorate at VU

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

AMSTERDAM - The Netherlands in recent years has lost its world-guidance role with regards to norms and values. The country needs to return to promoting what is called ‘civic virtue’. This call by contemporary history expert Dr. James C. Kennedy was part of an oration marking his acceptance of the professorate of Newest History at the Vrije Univer-siteit in Amsterdam.

Kennedy’s speech examined the subject ‘From scouting to welfare state: The Netherlands Guide Country’ (Van Scouting tot verzorgingsstaat: Nederland gidsland). In it, he held that events such as the 1990s massacre in Srebenica - where Dutch troops lacking UN support were reduced to be bystanders - and the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn have contributed to the country losing its self-appointed position as a ‘guide for the world’.

Ever since the Second World War, the Netherlands has held the world accountable for improvements which the Dutch had started at home already. This call with punchy slogans for pro-active management, to start on a personal level, included preservation of water, clean water, the environment, smaller armed forces, political self-expression and care for the elderly.

The historian gave an overview of the ‘civic virtue’ as developed since 1945 in Dutch society. To illustrate his point, Kennedy gave such examples as the development in scouting, the environmental movement, the way the Dutch deal with authorities, foreign aid and the ‘cradle to the grave’ welfare state. Despite all the slogans and (semi)official involvement, the Dutch themselves do not like to talk about virtues and civic virtue, noted Kennedy.

Wider role for universities

Comparing the situation to that in the U.S., Kennedy points out that Americans see civic virtues as a crucial part of a well-functioning democracy. The historian called for more open discussions about the subject, making every citizen in a democracy part of the process on how to form or reform society. In that same vein universities in the Netherlands should recognize their public task in society and no longer turn out specialists, but prepare students for a much wider role in society, thanks to a ‘liberal arts’ education.

Dutch-American Kennedy, his mother was born in the Netherlands, holds a Ph.D from the University of Iowa and was Assistant Professor and a Research Fellow at the A.C. Van Raalte Institute for Historical Studies at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, before settling in Amsterdam.

He has published a number of books, of which two in Dutch: ‘Nieuw Babylon in aanbouw. Nederland in de jaren zestig’ (New Babylon under construction. The Netherlands in the Sixties) and ‘Een weloverwogen dood. De opkomst van euthanasie in Nederland’ (A Deliberate Death. The Rise of Euthanasia in the Netherlands) which he wrote in 2002. He also translated ‘History of the Low Countries’ by J.C.H. Blom and Emiel Lamberts, a single-volume history of Belgium and the Netherlands.