Who: Vincent Kuitenbrouwer (1978)
What: University Lecturer in History of International Relations
First job: Student assistant at the History degree programme
Favourite spot at the UvA: The inner courtyard at the entrance to the Oost-Indisch Huis
Essentials: Historical experience and a sense of relatedness and direct contact with the material you are researching.
Vincent Kuitenbrouwer (1978) is an assistant professor in the History of International Relations track. When you've been fond of exciting stories about how the world works from a very early age, studying history is a logical decision. The fact that history also means learning to take a critical approach to facts, however, was an eye-opener for Vincent. He specialised in Dutch colonial history and wrote his thesis on perceptions of South Africa circa 1900. His current research focuses primarily on media history and how, in the past, radio was deployed to influence and manipulate an audience. He is also hard at work exploring historiography on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
What is it about history that you find so interesting?
‘Well, with history, you not only learn facts, you also learn to examine those facts from a critical perspective and to formulate your own interpretation. While I didn't really expect it at the start of my programme, it was specifically this critical thinking that fascinated me and that has proved quite valuable. Ultimately, history isn't about knowing things: you can never know everything that has happened in the past. More than that, new things keep happening all the time, so 'knowing everything' is an impossible task. The main thing is to ask critical questions and to individually inform those questions by finding correct and relevant information. By effectively reflecting on that information, you can use it to construct an interesting story. Students should study history because of the fantastic stories it has to tell, but most of all, because it offers an opportunity to develop the capacity for critical thinking. We place an increasing emphasis on this during the degree programme, as it's a skill that's highly valued in the outside world, even if your work has nothing to do with history. It can bring you any number of places: many employers value the ability to work independently and apply critical thinking.
There's more to history than knowing: it's mostly about critical thinking.
What area of history is the main focus of your work?
‘I feel that colonial history is really important, as it teaches us how different parts of the world came into contact with one another. This yielded a certain tension between conflicts, exploitation and exclusion on one hand and interpersonal connections on the other. That tension is fascinating to me and I think that media-related research can give us a clear picture of it. It's the segment of society where this type of discourse takes place, even if it remains oblique. Since earning my doctorate, I've been focusing on radio as the medium through which the Netherlands attempted to reach the rest of the world. This research deals with colonialism and decolonisation, but also with nation branding, development cooperation and the influencing of news streams. I'm seeing that many people are questioning what the alliances forged in the past actually mean in today's world. Colonial history plays an important role in many discussions concerning identity. Somehow, I think people felt that particular chapter of history was closed at the start of the 21st century, and now it's flaring up again. In fact, we should strive to continuously reinterpret history, or specific portions of it.’
You’ll develop critical thinking skills here.
To study history is to examine the past through a magnifying glass. Is there any other way to experience it?
‘Yes, history is also about feeling. While that might seem hard to do when the subject no longer exists, when something happened long ago, there are many places in the Netherlands and abroad where you can go to connect with the past. Take Amsterdam: there are so many places in the city where you can come face-to-face with history. If you pay attention while strolling through the streets and alleyways, you'll see little monuments everywhere here. In the courtyard of the Oost-Indisch Huis, for example, there's a memorial to an aircraft that crashed in 1949. The plane was carrying American journalists who had been in Indonesia to write a report about the war. All their work was lost in the crash as well. There's a belief among policymakers in The Hague that if those reports had been published, world opinion would have come down squarely on the Dutch side during the war of decolonisation. It's a place I find personally meaningful because it brings me so close to my research.’
Here, no one is trying to fit you into a mould and there is plenty of space to do your own thing.
What is your view, including the historian's perspective, of the UvA?
‘The UvA is inextricably linked to the city of Amsterdam. The university benefits from that urban setting, and you can see its effects on the people walking around as well. The places and the buildings you visit as a student or member of staff have the ability to shape you. For scholars working in the humanities, and particularly for people who study history or conduct historical research, the Amsterdam city centre is a good place to be. It's wonderful to realise that you're walking through the very same streets where history occurred. You become steeped in it. Besides that, Amsterdam is not only a centrally located city visited by many people, but also a culturally open city in which a wide range of influences coexist side by side. Here, it's possible to travel without moving. Another thing I like is the extensive freedom of choice at this university. No one is trying to fit you into a mould and there is plenty of space to do your own thing. Preserving that quality is crucial. For example, as a student here I took part in the Grand Tour: a trip that humanities students can sign up for where they learn about the history of their destination. Things like that typify the degree programmes at the UvA and are what make the university so appealing.’