Understanding Society

Tilburg University is convinced that it can contribute to solving social issues by developing and transferring knowledge and bringing together people from various disciplines and organizations.

Liesbeth Hoeven, manager Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center

'Little stories are of great value'

Liesbeth Hoeven liked Tilburg University so much that she stayed on after she had finished her program in Religious Studies. She got her PhD in Culture Studies on remembrance culture surrounding the Second World War. She went on to become co-founder and manager of the Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center. ‘It is great to be able to combine management with citizen science, science that we actively involve citizen in.’

Liesbeth Hoeven

“Little stories about ordinary people fascinate me, more so even than great ideals. They are windows onto the world. They tell us about motives, urges, and meaning. What drives me is passing on what people feel strongly about and what gets them moving.”

“My PhD thesis Een boek om in te wonen. De verhaalcultuur na Auschwitz (2015) (A book to live in. Story telling culture after Auschwitz’) is about remembrance culture surrounding the Second World War. Right after the liberation in ’45, the dominant narrative was the big story of standing up against injustice. This resulted in a resistance myth, characterized by a black-and-white distinction between good and evil.

Later on, the ‘smaller’ stories emerged that told about the fate of the wide variety of victims. This in turn resulted in the big story surrounding ‘Auschwitz, never again.’ Now we are once again witnessing a turning point, a change toward smaller stories. People need some kind of message about what to do with the lessons that can be drawn from the war: If we want this to never happen again, then what is it that we do want? Stories can help us with this, even if they are told by people who did not live through the war themselves.”

“Little stories about the war are of great value. I am now myself engaged in keeping these alive at the Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center (see frame). We have done extensive research on the 22 Tilburg students who did not survive the war. All that was known about them was their names and the date on which they died. We wanted to salvage what information we could find on each of the students that were killed, and lift them out of anonymity by giving them a story and a face.”

“We conducted the research together with the Regionaal Archief Tilburg and twenty citizen volunteers. They went through the archives together with us to find factual information such as photos, certificates, letters, and articles. Besides this, we talked to 16 of the 22 families of the students who lost their lives. ‘Citizen science’ is a conscious choice. The Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center wants to keep the university’s values alive and to research the meaning of this in society itself. That is why we want to involve citizens in all our projects.”

“Our research on the 22 students that were killed in the war has resulted in a commemorative wall in the Cobbenhagen building and in a digital monument. The core of this digital commemorative site is the written portraits of the 22 students. Besides these, we also asked students currently studying here to write a letter to one of the 22 students. They reflected on things like: What would I have done in their situation? What if all luxuries were taken away from me and I lost my freedom?”

“The impact of this project is huge. It touches people’s hearts and gives them food for thought. It strikes me how grateful the participating students are for the freedom that we live in. Also, you can be faced with dilemmas in your own life as well. The war can teach us that we need to hold on to our values and convictions, that at times we need to go against the grain, even if this is difficult. We cannot remind ourselves of this often enough in education and in science.”

Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center

Founder of Tilburg University, Martinus Cobbenhagen, was a priest and an economist. He emphatically wanted to couple disciplinary knowledge with reflection on societal values. He meant a lot to his students during the Second World War. He wrote encouraging letters to students, sent them food packages, and called the German authorities to account. The Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center, founded in 2015, keeps alive the tradition established by the founder of the university – the guiding force in shaping its identity and its mission.