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UC Berkeley's Dutch Studies Program

UC Berkeley's Dutch Studies Program

By Jeroen Dewulf - 02/15/11
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The famous UC Berkeley campus, beautifully located in the San Francisco Bay Area, was designed in Flanders. It was in the Flemish city of Antwerp that the French architect Émile Bénard presented his master campus plan “Roma” as part of an international competition sponsored by the American philanthropist Phoebe Hearst in 1898. Thanks to generous donations by the Hearst family and several other wealthy families that moved from San Francisco to the East Bay following the 1906 earthquake, the University of California Berkeley could become one of America’s leading institutions of higher education. Today, according to the Shanghai Ranking, UC Berkeley is the world’s second best university.

The connection between UC Berkeley and Flanders still thrives thanks to the Dutch Studies program. Founded in 1966 as part of the Department of German, a donation by the Dutch government led to the foundation of the Princess – today Queen – Beatrix Chair in 1971. This prestigious chair enabled the development of the nation’s broadest Dutch Studies program, the only one in the United States that offers both a Dutch minor and major. UC Berkeley also has one of the biggest Dutch book collections in the United States. The further expansion of this collection is made possible thanks to a generous donation by the Dutch-Flemish cultural organization Orde vanden Prince.

The Chair’s first incumbent was the Dutch-American scholar Johan Snapper, who successfully expanded Berkeley’s Dutch Studies program in 1982 with the Pieter Paul Rubens Chair, donated by the Flemish government. While the Queen Beatrix Chair is a fixed position at the University of California, the P.P. Rubens Chair is rotating: every year, a professor from one of Flanders’ five universities is invited as a visiting scholar to enrich the Dutch Studies program with a course related to Flemish history, culture, art, or literature.

It was in Berkeley that Rubens Professor Walter Prevenier (Ghent University) first presented his groundbreaking research on the Burgundian Netherlands to an international audience, that Geert Buelens (Antwerp University) led the basis for his research project on the literary expression of the First World War in a European context, that Jeffrey Tyssens (Brussels University) achieved the tour de force to explain the Brussels Labyrinth to American students, and that Patrick Pasture (Leuven University) detected fascinating religious connections between the Low Countries and the United States. In 2011, UC Berkeley will welcome Professor Luc Renders (Hasselt University) who is planning a course on the former Belgian Congo.

Although the title of Queen Beatrix Professor seems to indicate otherwise, the current incumbent is also Flemish. Jeroen Dewulf, who graduated in Germanic Philology from Ghent University, became the new program director in 2007. Since the Netherlands and Belgium form an official language union, a so-called Taalunie, the chair is currently co-financed by both the Dutch and the Belgian government. Dewulf builds a team with his Dutch colleague Inez Hollander, who is a charge of the language program, and Thomas Shannon, an expert in Germanic linguistics. The Dutch Studies Program also reaches out to colleagues in other departments on the Berkeley campus such as Elizabeth Honig in Art History, Sylvia Tiwon in Southeast Asian Studies, Stephen Small in African-American Studies, and Jan de Vries in the Department of History.

Thanks to the support of the Nederlandse Taalunie, the Nederlands Letterenfonds, the Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren, and the Davidsfonds, Berkeley’s Dutch Studies Program has been able to invite some of the leading intellectuals from the Low Countries as guest-speakers, including Harry Mulisch, Hugo Claus, Cees Nooteboom, Lieve Joris, Kader Abdolah, Boris Dittrich, Tine Ruysschaert, and Paul Verhaeghen.

Enrollment in Dutch Studies has increased considerably in the past three years. With 132 enrolled students in 2008, 188 students in 2009, and 230 students in 2010, Berkeley is one of the fastest growing Dutch Studies programs in the world. The reason for this success resides in the allegorical character of the program. Teaching Dutch Studies in the United States is something completely different from teaching it in the Low Countries. In order to book success, the program looks for allegorical connections to American culture and society in order to promote a program according to American standards. Topics such as slavery, homosexuality, immigration, post-colonialism, religion, and the Holocaust, which traditionally receive little attention in Dutch/Flemish academic curricula but are highly important in American scholarship, are therefore studied in detail in Berkeley’s Dutch Studies program.
Berkeley ambitiously presents its program under the slogan “Dutch Studies are World Studies,” linking the historical importance of the Low Countries to the entire Benelux area, highlighting the role of Brussels as the capital of the European Union, promoting Amsterdam as an international landmark of progressiveness, and reaching out to all those places on the world map that have historical connections to the Low Countries: from New York to Willemstad, from Kinshasa to Cape Town, and from Nagasaki to Jakarta.

Every year, the Dutch Studies Program organizes a Travel Study Course to the Low Countries that begins in Amsterdam and ends in Leuven. In six weeks time, students learn about the cultural and political history of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Wallonia, Brussels, and Flanders. Remarkably, students have but one complaint to make at the end of the journey: The fact that local people constantly ask them why they study Dutch. It seems that cultural self-awareness in the Low Countries is in need of a boost. Perhaps the news that over 200 of America’s brightest students learn their language and their culture in Berkeley might help them realize that few places on earth are as intellectually challenging as the Low Countries.

UC Berkeley’s Dutch Studies Website: