Dutch history education: are we making progress?

Column by Santoecha Rangai, Discrimination Counselor at the Meldpunt Discriminatie Regio Amsterdam.

History and I are like a good marriage. We understand each other and we know what we can gain from each other. This was soon evident in high school. For many subjects I didn't do a thing. But in history, I did my homework in advance. This left me with nothing to do during class and the upper school teacher allowed me to rummage through a closet full of old history material. Something I did with passion.

In that closet were old books and movies about, for example, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. What some may not know is that several African-American individuals who fought against segregation in the 1960s have roots in the Caribbean. Just like me. So I was bummed that such stories were never told to us in school, because the curriculum back then consisted only of white subjects such as the 80 Years War or the Hunger Winter. I learned almost nothing about colonial history. For that matter, I did not like the way colonial history was portrayed either. It was portrayed as if colonizers had no choice but to keep enslaved people enslaved, and more attention was paid to the riches the transatlantic slave trade had brought to the Netherlands than to the suffering it had caused people. The latter seemed unimportant.

Because I wanted to know more about the past, I chose to take the history teacher training program. In this course, the same thing happened; again, everything was viewed through Eurocentric glasses. A little more attention was paid to colonial history, but again the material was not what I expected. I had the subject Indonesia and the West Indies. With Indonesia we discussed the police actions, in which the Netherlands tried to make Indonesia a colony again by force after independence. For the West Indies, we had to read a book by P.C Emmer. P.C Emmer, you know, that historian who thought the enslaved should not whine so much. After all, they had more leg room than KLM passengers today.

There I was in class as the only one with roots in the West Indies. History comes to you differently when your ancestors were the ones who were whipped. So again, I found it difficult to follow some subjects with interest. I often thought about quitting and studying cultural anthropology. With this I hoped to still get something about other cultures, without using Western culture as a yardstick. But my love for the past overcame my doubts and I continued my studies. After all, you need knowledge of history to understand the world today.

A while ago I attended a conference on inclusive education organized by the National Coordinator for Discrimination and Racism (NCDR), where I attended a breakout session on the subject of history. If I may confess honestly, this made me quite sad on the one hand. Almost all the points that bothered me in teacher training still existed. While we have been reforming history education for years. An example of these reforms is that the subject is now divided into 10 time periods to keep the subject matter manageable. As a student you now learn to divide the past as well as view it through Eurocentric glasses. So it is not very inclusive or innovative. On the other hand, a conference on inclusive education was held. 15 years ago there was no such thing. So people are more willing to make the curriculum more inclusive. There are also more initiatives now coming from outside education. Curriculum packages put together by organizations such as "The Netherlands gets better" and the Tropenmuseum are examples of this. At the Meldpunt Discriminatie Regio Amsterdam we notice that people of color do not feel seen or heard, which of course we find very unfortunate. History education could play a major role in this; it provides identity development for people of color.