Pastor Cornelis van Koetsveld, the founder of the first special school in the Netherlands, left a gold mine. After his ‘Haagse Idiotenschool’, founded in 1855, was closed in 1920, the complete archive went to The Hague municipality, where historical educator Annemieke van Drenth found “meters of useful archive”. “Very special,” Van Drenth says. “Usually, school records ended up in basements or were simply thrown away.”
Van Drenth encountered 356 files with children who were interns at the Idiot School in the second half of the nineteenth century. It describes what happened to them. “An eye opener. You can read it as the earliest form of diagnosis of special children in the Netherlands.”
In her book The discovery of the special childwhich came out last month, Van Drenth intertwines the story of the first school for special education with the attention that arises around the same time for children who were ‘different’ who could not keep up with other children in primary school and ‘idiots’ were mentioned.
Pastor and author Van Koetsveld was actively looking for these children for his school. He gathered around him a rather varied group: from children with severe and visible abnormalities to children who were ‘only’ severely neglected and with a little loving help and attention from the school staff learned to speak, read and write.
The children in the archives fell under the Mental Illness Act, you write.
Van Drenth: “Yes, they could only be admitted with the permission of the judge, who was advised by doctors. The children ate and slept at school. In addition, there were children who only went to school during the day, the form you still see most in special education. Parents generally want that too – before and now.
“The better-off parents had in-house staff to handle these children, but they usually made insufficient progress, especially with really difficult children. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that more knowledge was gained about the development of special children. Van Koetsveld can start his school in this breeding ground. He also had problems finding the right teachers at the time. ”
Was there already a shortage of teachers?
“Absolutely. The idiot school’s selection criteria were of a pedagogical-didactic nature. The staff was not allowed to beat or neglect the children. Van Koetsveld primarily wanted to find out what a child could do, how it could develop further. He thought that was very modern at the time. “that ‘idiotic children’ could really learn something by ‘stimulating the senses’. He needed good teachers for that, who were not easily accessible at the time either.”
Last month, Van Drenth said goodbye to Leiden University, where she worked at the Institute of Pedagogical Sciences. She has published on the history of children with physical and mental disabilities. Such as about Siem, ‘the first boy with autism’, who was ‘discovered’ in the 1930s by the nun Ida Frye at the Pedagogical Institute in Nijmegen. It is the first scientifically described diagnosis of autism. “There have always been special kids,” Van Drenth says. “But they only become visible when serious scientific research is carried out from the middle of the nineteenth century.”
Where were these children before?
“At home or in asylum. Sometimes just accepted, but sometimes tucked away, neglected. There was little knowledge about children who did not develop normally. From the middle of the nineteenth century, children with visible abnormalities were increasingly seen as a separate category. However, there was still little insight into children with less obvious developmental problems.
“It is only after the introduction of compulsory education in 1901 that it becomes more and more clear that there is a group of children standing outside. Special education has developed rapidly since then. Many of these schools were added between 1901 and 1930. “
Do you associate the ‘discovery’ of the special child with the advent of regular education?
“It turns out that special children can not participate in ordinary education. Van Koetsveld is ahead of his time and sees what others do not see before: These children also have the right to a place, the right to development. They need to ‘wake up from childish ignorance’ and they need help. That idea arose strongly in the middle of the nineteenth century: children are then increasingly seen as individuals in development stimulated by external stimuli. ”
Van Koetsveld wanted to give the ‘idiotic children’ a voice, you write. Under the motto ‘We plead for those who can not complain for themselves’. That sounds pretty progressive at the moment.
He thought: All children are given by God. He was sincerely concerned about children with disabilities. He took them into his school and really tried to see them in their individuality and get the best out of them. ”
His ‘first fruit’, a girl named Alida, is Van Koetsveld’s great pride, writes Van Drenth. Alida is thirteen when Van Koetsveld finds her ‘in a miserable hut on the floor, her disheveled hair hanging on the stove’. Alida can hardly speak, but once she is in idiotic school, she develops very quickly. Van Drenth: “With today’s knowledge, you see a severely neglected child who was at the mercy of herself. It was only when she was hospitalized that she received attention and pedagogical care that she could really develop.
“Van Koetsveld showed her off in his annual reports. Scientists and dignitaries came by to see her and other children. The success gave money to his school. Even then, money was a constant problem for special education. ”
For it does not immediately yield anything?
“Exactly. That reflex you can still see today. There must be clear and visible results. The idea behind this is that you are only worth something if you can achieve some form of social success. We mainly invest in everything that shines and shines and much less in things and people in the shadows, even if they are just a part of life. ”
Annemieke van Drenth: The discovery of the special child About Pastor Van Koetsveld’s idiotic school from the nineteenth century Amsterdam University Press, 240 pages, € 31.99
A version of this article was also published in the newspaper on July 11, 2022