History major appreciates interdependence of cultures, disciplines
September 30, 2009
With the help of Lewis & Clark’s student-led grant program, senior Betto van Waarden conducted research abroad this summer to support his thesis. The globetrotting history major, a native of Holland, explored themes of globalization and the exchange of ideas across cultures. A grant from the Student Academic Affairs Board (SAAB) allowed him to travel throughout the Netherlands, studying the transfer of knowledge between Europeans and Asians in the 18th century. In this interview, van Waarden discusses his work and the parallels he has drawn between history and our modern world.
Like so many students at Lewis & Clark, you’ve traveled extensively. Even deciding to move to Portland from your home in the Netherlands must have been a huge journey. Can you share a bit about your background and explain why you think global engagement is important?
I was born in Holland and moved to Germany when I was two years old. In my childhood, cultural and linguistic differences were natural to me, but I also learned early on that cultures and people are more similar than different. Back in Holland, I went to a bilingual Dutch-English high school. I biked 13 kilometers to get there every morning, rather than going to a gymnasia around the corner from my house. Through the bilingual program, I traveled to England, Germany, Norway, Botswana, and Canada. Canada was the biggest culture shock: not because of the society itself, but because I went to a small Christian school there—religion perhaps feeling more foreign to the modern Northern European than African lions and rhinos do. Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed the experience and learned valuable insights into the modern Christian way of life.
After a gap year in Brazil, the Fulbright Center in Amsterdam brought me to Lewis & Clark. I like the liberal arts idea of educating students in multiple disciplines, as I believe that these disciplines are interconnected. The same goes for global engagement, which is why the College’s focus on international experiences and projects is valuable. Especially in an increasingly fast-paced and globalized world, people must be flexible and learn to think critically and from different points of view. Both a broad education and global engagement are important to the exchange of viewpoints and expertise. Opportunities at the College—such as the 100 Projects for Peace experience that three fellow students and I shared in Brazil last summer—allow students to put the knowledge and skills they learn in college into practice and connect with the rest of the world.
The complex world of the 21st century, with its growing population and increasingly scarce resources, demands that people cooperate. The current economic crisis once again demonstrates the interconnectedness of our societies. We live in this world together, so we must work together. And Lewis & Clark is a great place to learn how to start doing so.
Your research stems from themes of globalization and the intercultural exchange of ideas. What do you think the contemporary relevance of your topic might be?
Especially on a liberal college campus such as Lewis & Clark, globalization often has a negative connotation. Many students relate it to an exponential increase and export of Western materialism to the rest of the world, resulting in an increasing homogenization of cultures. However, my research demonstrates that even in the days of oppressive colonial trade knowledge accompanied merchant goods around the world. With increasing welfare, better and more widespread education, and modern technologies, today’s globalization has the potential to contribute to the spread and development of knowledge worldwide.
My topic also provides an appreciation of the ease with which information travels nowadays: Western students are one mouse-click away from foreign knowledge that would have taken decades to gather in the 18th century.
What was the most important thing you learned this summer?
My research taught me that cultural exchange is far more complex and nuanced than the secondary literature often implies. For the international exchange of ideas to occur, the contexts on both the transmitting and receiving ends must favor exchange, and dedicated travelers must be able to cooperate with locals and promote the spread of their gained knowledge back home. My research further suggests that most exchange of knowledge between cultures occurs when they are on equal footing and treat each other with respect and trust.
Lewis & Clark College students have dedicated a portion of their student fees to support the work of their peers for nearly 30 years now. What do you think SAAB offers to the campus community and the community at large?
First of all, SAAB offers students the opportunity to do research that would otherwise be impossible. Through the research, these students go into the “real world” to complement their academic learning with practical experience, which often puts them and their ideas into contact with the wider community. The students learn from the community, and the community learns from the students.
I had not considered the possibility of doing thesis research over the summer until I read about the other interesting projects that students did via SAAB grants. And as relatively few grants go to history research, perhaps my research can inspire future history majors to do research through SAAB. Similarly, Dutch people were amazed at the opportunities that organizations like SAAB offer to students at an American college. My research introduced people in Holland to the idea of the possibilities of student-motivated research.
How did you decide to be a history major and what do you like about studying history at Lewis & Clark?
Starting with a series of comic books about Dutch national history, I always liked to read histories. This natural interest is coupled with a belief that knowing the past is vital for understanding the present. I do not argue that historians can predict the future based on past evidence, but I think that it is important to observe patterns over time. We can learn from the past and improve—even if it is just step-by-step.
My broad interest brought me to the liberal arts. I wanted to pursue many social disciplines and realized that the study of history encompasses these different disciplines. For instance, if I study and work with political or economic theories, I want to understand what they were based on, how they developed, and how they actually function in reality. I enjoy working with theories, and the study of history allows me to maintain contact with the real-life impacts of these theories.
Betto van Waarden is in East Africa with the Lewis & Clark overseas program for the Fall 2009 semester.