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How does ‘wokeness’ influence education at the UvA?

Irene Schoenmacker,
20 december 2021 - 11:41
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The UvA is often accused of being a ‘left-wing stronghold’ and a guardian of woke thought. To what extent is this image true? How does UvA faculty feel about it? Folia spoke with several scientists about the woke movement. ‘I find it hard to swallow that painful issues can no longer be openly discussed.’

A small storm of protest rolled over the University of Amsterdam in early October, when a special 'toolkit' was launched to 'decolonize' the university. ‘This time in woke, woker, wokest at the UvA,’ the right-wing medium GeenStijl wrote about it.


It is one of the most recent examples where the UvA has been accused of being a sanctuary for the woke movement, a term that has also been heard more and more frequently in academic circles in our country in recent years. Meanwhile, in opinion articles and on social media, scholars and activists are engaged in a fierce debate about whether woke is something to be praised or feared.

What is woke?

The exact definition of woke is unclear. Critics fear that because of woke thinking, certain words or terms may no longer be used. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, woke stands for an increased awareness of social problems such as racism and inequality. In general it can be said that people who are ‘woke’ stand for things like more diversity and inclusion and are alert to things that can be experienced as offensive.

But how woke is the UvA? Do academics notice anything about increased sensitivity, and how do they deal with it? Are staff members bothered by it? Or does wokeness lead to a more just university? Folia spoke with six scientists from different disciplines and faculties.


Biologist Cor Zonneveld, affiliated with Amsterdam University College (AUC), was more or less forced to delve into woke culture last year after some incidents during lectures, he says. As a biologist, he was not originally familiar with the term woke, until he experienced a few incidents at AUC that he felt could be classified as woke. ‘I gave a guest lecture on gender and how I look at it as a biologist. I started off by saying that the difference between men and women basically consists of the fact that the woman has egg cells, and the man has sperm cells. Then I keep getting interrupted by students: “There are also women who don't have eggs. And what about women in menopause?”’

Cor Zonneveld

How is this different from ordinary debate at the university, where critical thinking should be welcome? Zonneveld hesitates. ‘The starting point of the criticism is that the lecturer is wrong. It’s not a debate, it’s a correction. That's a strange sensation, especially for first-year students. It particularly bothers me that the interest in a discussion is not there. So it's not, gosh, you say female mammals have egg cells, what about women in menopause? No, it's about proving me wrong.’


It’s not that he’s blind to it, media scholar Charles Forceville says. He, too, sees the increased sensitivity in society and at the university. An example. For years he has had students read the old text ‘A rose for Emily’ by William Faulkner, which contains the words nigger and negro. In recent years he has given a warning beforehand that these words are used in the text. ‘There is often an immediate tension in the air. Sometimes students come up to me after the lecture and say that they are shocked that I use these words. I then explain that it is not my own voice speaking, but that I am quoting Faulkner and that he uses them because a word like negro had a neutral meaning in those days – Martin Luther King also utters it repeatedly in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Besides, the word nigger is functional: the character who utters it in the story is a bad guy, and you know that immediately as a reader because he uses that word.’


Such situations cause him to make ‘small concessions’ since then: he has agreed with the students that from now on he will use ‘n-word 1’ and ‘n-word 2’ instead of the actual words. ‘I thought: this is the beginning of the lecture series. I don’t want to have hassles with my group right now; I have sixteen more weeks to go.’ Forceville has been covering Faulkner's story in his lecture for ten years. Only in the last few years has it generated discussion. ‘Times have changed, maybe I need to change too, but I find it hard to digest that seemingly painful issues can no longer be discussed openly.’

‘It’s not, gosh, you say female mammals have egg cells, what about women in menopause? No, it's about proving me wrong’

That which may (not) be said

This is also the fear of the president of the university, Geert ten Dam. In her opening speech of this academic year, she points out that students have become increasingly vulnerable in recent years. Her fear is that this will eventually lead to students no longer wanting to be confronted with ‘dissenting opinions and unwelcome perspectives’.


We will lose the soul of the academy, Ten Dam argues. ‘We cannot allow certain themes or perspectives to become more difficult to discuss. If our students want to tackle urgent global problems, they will have to be able to approach them from several angles. That's why they need to get acquainted with dissenters and with different points of view.’

Foto: Belinda Devid
Francio Guadeloupe

Social and cultural anthropologist Francio Guadeloupe heartily agrees. He has done a lot of research on racism and regularly speaks out about it in the media. He demonstrates, while scrolling through PowerPoint presentations, how the theme of racism also comes up in his lectures. ‘ We would consider evolutionists like Herbert Spencer nowadays. In that same lecture, I also deal with Anthony Firmin, an anthropologist who argued against these very views. It is the job of the lecturer to show the wide range of views and give context in the process.’


This does not mean that everything can be said, Guadeloupe believes. ‘The university is not a public space, like the street, where ideally there is unbridled freedom of expression. It is an institution, and certain rules apply there. Not everything can be said, but everything can be questioned. By that I mean that you cannot give a lecture in which you applaud right-wing extremism or condone sexism, but you can examine the history of gender discrimination in the lectures.’


This is also the opinion of Professor of Globalization and Department Chair of Media Studies Jeroen de Kloet. ‘Culture and civilization also consist of not saying certain things and knowing when to shut up. You’re not allowed to say that the Holocaust didn’t take place, or that black men are stupid. It's often white men, and moreover the elite, who think they can say anything. Even here at the university. The people who write pieces in the paper that woke is very bad, are often the colleagues with tenured positions. That reminds me of an elite that is afraid of change.’


Objectivity outdated?

Another point often referred to when talking about woke is the objectivity of science. University of Utrech professor Gloria Wekker called the idea of objectivity ‘long outdated’ in an earlier interview. This antagonized many scientists. Developmental psychologist Annemie Ploeger co-authored an article in Folia in which this trend is seen as worrisome.

Annemie Ploeger

This is not to say that the woke idea has no good sides, according to Ploeger. On the contrary: ‘It draws attention to the fact that there is still discrimination or exclusion. For example, no one at the university will say that he or she discriminates. And yet white heterosexual men often get the high positions again. People should be aware of their biases.’


At the same time, she notices that biological facts are increasingly being questioned by ‘a small group of students.’ ‘For example, that there are differences between men and women that are biologically determined. This ties in with the nature/nurture debate, which focuses on the question of whether characteristics of persons are learned or innate. In science we now know that it is not one or the other, but that nature and culture interact.’


Ploeger notices at open days that this is difficult material for some students to digest. ‘Especially students who come from the fields of sociology, political science or anthropology, where they were brought up with the idea that everything is culture. Then it is sometimes very difficult to have a discussion because they are very convinced of their own opinions. I notice that such students are not so open to scientific facts. Evolutionary psychology is indoctrination, I have sometimes heard literally. A professor of anthropology told me that “everything is culture and that he punished students who dared to claim otherwise”. I fell off my chair at the time. She notes that the topic of wokeness only affects a select group of students. I also teach psychobiology at the Science Park, where 95 percent of the students have not heard of woke. On Roeterseiland, these sounds are much more prevalent. It’s quite miraculous that we are at a university, and that there can be such worlds of difference at the same time.’

A student e-mailed Zonneveld ‘politely, but clearly’ that he should give a disclaimer that the story of Dracula was also about anorexia

More resilient

Both Forceville and Zonneveld believe that students have become more fragile. Topics such as rape or eating disorders should be treated with caution. For example, a student e-mailed Zonneveld ‘politely, but clearly’ that he should give a disclaimer that the story of Dracula was also about anorexia. ‘It might be annoying for certain students to read.’ Forceville: ‘In general, my experience in the ten years that I have been teaching at AUC is that matters that are unpleasant, hurtful or disturbing can be discussed less and less openly and freely.’


Shouldn’t students just become a little more resilient, rather than immediately taking to the barricades? University philosophy professor Yolande Jansen does not entirely agree. According to her, her lectures on decolonization could easily be placed in the category of woke, even though she believes the term is currently viewed in a rather negative light. Wrongly, she thinks: ‘woke means that you keep your eyes open for injustice. The woke students I know, from the University of Color for example, or students who are following the lecture on decolonization, are doing very important things: they dare to speak out critically about important, difficult themes such as inequality, exclusion and social justice.’


The best thing to do is to ask students to read a text, says Jansen. ‘I find the suggestion that students should just put up with anything troubling. I don’t think it’s fair that the white majority, who don’t have to deal with racial issues so often, are allowed to determine the boundaries of what can and cannot be tolerated. Students who are in marginal positions have often been exposed to things that are hurtful very, which is why such words hurt. I also think that people should be resilient, but the question of how resilient you should be is not fairly distributed now: some groups are supposed to be much more resilient than others.’

Jeroen de Kloet


She thinks Forceville’s idea to speak of n-word 1 and 2 from now on is a good solution. A few years ago, Jansen gave a lecture on European border policy herself. ‘After the lecture, I was criticized by a student for only having Western scholars in the curriculum and not someone with, say, a refugee background. I learned from that. I think wokeness, to the extent that it exists, is useful rather than harmful.’


Professor De Kloet agrees. On the contrary, it is good that there is more attention to other authors on the reading list than the usual ones, he says. ‘Sometimes you can replace, or add some authors to the reading list: after all, every year the curriculum changes. That’s why I think a movement as woke, though I’m not a fan of the word, is so important. As a lecturer you also become more sensitive to other subjects.’


Both Jansen and De Kloet do not believe that certain texts should therefore be completely banned. ‘A very bad solution,’ Jansen says. Jokingly, ‘To know the enemy you have to read him first. At the same time, I don’t think you should necessarily pull a student through something if he or she is not up to it. You can take that into account as a teacher by giving a disclaimer beforehand.’ De Kloet: ‘Radical curiosity is important. Not wanting to read Kant because he was a white man, or Heidegger because he was wrong in the war, I find that very problematic.’


Guadeloupe always gives the same little speech at the start of the college year. ‘I say to my students: in the coming lectures we are going to talk about the world and there will be things that you like and don’t like. But we’re going to deal with each other in a civilized way. If you don’t agree with something, you give me a counterargument. Not: I don't like or dislike this subject, because that is an emotion. Students can substantiate that emotion. But if they don’t, and the reasoning stops at they don’t like something very much, then they haven’t come to learn. I think it’s important that we teach students to say what they think and why.’

‘I have the idea that people who call themselves woke are not so neutral towards right-wing ideas’


How far does the commitment to diversity go? Some critics think it is rather one-sided: may the voice of the right-wing, white man also be heard at the UvA? Zonneveld: ‘I have the idea that people who call themselves woke are not so neutral towards right-wing ideas. People from a Christian background, where I originally come from, is also not so welcome in the inclusiveness spectrum. This inclusiveness is, as far as I’m concerned, a sham.’


Guadeloupe and Jansen do not recognize themselves in this. Jansen: ‘You can discuss everything, but then you can also be contradicted. She herself had a student who gave a presentation on Jordan Peterson, a right-wing Canadian philosopher. ‘There was vigorous discussion afterwards, but I didn’t feel that he felt unsafe.’ At the same time, the university is not a convivial talking shop, she warns. ‘There has to be a scientific basis for the discussion, with responsible argumentation. Inclusiveness is not a norm in itself, but one that is accompanied by the intention to improve knowledge and to be critical of self-evident truths, even in science.’

‘Surely we cannot afford to throw Plato’s “allegory of the cave” and Kant’s “categorical imperative” out with the garbage?’

Media scholar Forceville worries that it’s going ‘towards censorship’. ‘I, too, sincerely believe that as a white, heterosexual man you should be aware of your position. But I also hear the fierce discussions rage in the corridors of the AUC: should we still discuss Kant because he was against people of color? Or Plato, who kept slaves? It just so happens that we think differently about these topics now. But surely we cannot afford to throw Plato’s “allegory of the cave” and Kant’s “categorical imperative” out with the garbage?’ Biologist Zonneveld: ‘Sometimes I present facts and students say, yes, they are relative to who has the power. Or that it was researched by a white man and therefore biased. I have trouble with the fact that, according to this way of thinking, there is no longer any general validity to facts.’


Making discrimination and exclusion visible will be applauded by all. But doesn’t it also carry the danger of stereotyping people by reducing them to white men, for example? De Kloet: ‘I do find that problematic, although I do think that certain characteristics can also say something about the position of power. I am a white man, I am department chair and professor and I have a permanent contract. Only a quarter of professors are women, almost none of them are black. So when it comes to that mismatch, I think such reductions are certainly relevant. The line for me is really with the refusal to read or deal with something.’


Every year, Forceville hesitates whether to allow Faulkner to return to the list. ‘The easiest thing would be for me to throw it off: I know there’s going to be hassle every year. And yet I also think, I don’t want to go that far in my self-censorship. ‘A rose for Emily’ is a great story. As long as I continue to dare, I’ll keep the text. Just to keep the discussion going.’