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  • The Return of the Canon:Transforming Dutch History Teaching
  • Mieke de Vos (bio)

In the academic year 2007–2008, high-school history teaching in the Netherlands underwent a major revision. All students taking final examinations in history were from then on required to study the traditional canon of European history and the place of the Netherlands in it, while those who had not yet taken final exams were to receive obligatory instruction in the so-called 'Dutch Canon', drawn up at the request of the Dutch Ministry of Education.1 This educational reform made no claim to be innovative or modernizing, and it is on the contrary a retrograde project, in so far as it anchors national history and culture in a national curriculum. Moreover the changes effectively annulled a number of recent attempts at modernizing Dutch history teaching. As such, they constitute a setback for all those who had hoped for more attention for non-Western history, social history, family history or the history of mentalities: those parts of the old curriculum are now once more subordinated to traditional instruction in political history.

In this article I trace these recent changes in the teaching of high-school history and the debate surrounding them. I argue that the changes have to a large extent been caused by wide-ranging general educational reforms. The 1990s witnessed a major restructuring in both content and didactic organization of history teaching, which led to a significant lowering in levels of proficiency. This development provoked reactions among teachers, but equally among parents and policymakers. Simultaneously, public debate about the integration of first and second-generation immigrants from Muslim countries, which dominated Dutch politics in the wake of the assassination of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and of the movie director Theo van Gogh in 2004, has led to a re-evaluation of the discipline of history as a potential source of social cohesion. It is against this background that not only the introduction of the Dutch Canon should be understood, but also the plans for a National Museum of History, which is to open its doors in 2011.

History teaching in the Netherlands starts at elementary school when the pupils are eight or nine. When they go on to high school, at twelve, history is part of the basic curriculum and in principle they cover the whole of human history, from prehistory to the present. In practice, this is impossible, and in all school types, various periods are omitted. After these basic curriculum years, history is an optional subject. In the VMBO schools, which provide a mix of practical vocational training and theoretical education, it is only [End Page 111] taught to students who take the so-called 'theoretical course'. In the more academic (HAVO and VWO) schools history is obligatory for students who take the 'Culture and Society' or 'Economy and Society' options ('profiles'). A small number of students take history as an additional final examination topic.

In this article I first discuss the changes in high-school history teaching for students in the senior classes; then turn to consider the Dutch Canon. As new curricula require new teaching materials, I also discuss two representative textbooks. In conclusion, I suggest some probable implications of these developments for the everyday practice of teachers and students: what is likely to happen in the classroom? I have been teaching history since 1993 at a school not far from Amsterdam; my personal experience and observations are reflected throughout this article.

In order to understand how a government action as innocuous as the introduction of a historical canon in Dutch high-school history teaching could prove a major change and provoke some fierce criticism, we must turn to the earlier curriculum, now abolished. Between 1998 and 2007, the higher classes of Dutch high schools were in the grip of a major educational experiment, the so-called 'Second Phase'. In this Second Phase everything was supposed to change: pupils were expected to learn to work independently, and to 'learn to learn', as the government slogan had it. The goal of knowledge acquisition receded into the background, on the assumption that in the digital age, factual knowledge quickly becomes...


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