The Battle of Waterloo, how King Brian Boru gave the Vikings a hard time at Clontarf, and how the Bishop of Münster was beaten at the gate of Stad. According to historian Maarten van Rossem, knowledge of history among young people, and national history in particular, is in bad shape.
Van Rossem made the statement in response to an episode of the TV show The smartest person, where he is a member of the jury. In one of the episodes, none of the candidates could tell in which Frisian city Saint Boniface was murdered. According to Van Rossem, the example is not unique, but indicates a pattern where people know less and less about history.
Hein Bekenkamp: “They often have no idea what the situation is”
In Groningen, Hein Bekenkamp is involved in Groningen’s Ontzet and the stories of the Yesse monastery at Essen. “I would like to be clear that I am not a historian, but I immerse myself in it endlessly. I feel very clearly that knowledge is decreasing. At Yesse, we regularly organize excursions. I feel more and more often, especially with children and young people, that before I can start the excursion, I have to tell a lot of information about that time. What was the world like then? How were the relations? They really don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on. And these are not incidents, but incidents that I come across more and more. I also see it in my own grandchildren.”
“Background knowledge that you can use in today’s problems”
Bekenkamp: “It is very important to give children this baggage. It is a piece of foundation that you can build on so that you can better analyze and put things into perspective. It is a piece of background knowledge that you can apply to contemporary problems. And just to be clear, you don’t hear me saying that kids have to memorize years. That the battle of Nieuwpoort took place in 1600 is, in my opinion, empty knowledge. Also because nobody knows exactly where Nieuwpoort is. But it’s about the big picture.”
History is a subject that combines economic, political, social, artistic and philosophical aspects. At havo and vwo, the subject is compulsory in the lower years. In the upper years, the subject is represented in two of the four graduation profiles. Around 65 percent of all HAVO students take the exam in the subject, compared to 50 percent for VWO. In vocational upper secondary education, history is part of the combined subject ‘people and society’, which is part of youth education. In the upper years, it is an elective subject, where 1 percent of the basic and intermediate vocational learning courses take an exam in the subject. For the theoretical learning track, this figure is around 35 percent.
Jacobien Knol: “Depends on the teacher’s interest”
Jacobien Knol is a teacher at Sint Michaëlschool in Stad. She is also the initiator of five thousand booklets about Groningen Relief, which were delivered to primary schools last year. Knol: “Knowledge about Groningen Relief, for example, has been covered up. A few years ago, the history course was absorbed by world orientation. But if you consider that subjects such as Dutch, English and citizenship are among the most important pillars, then you know where the story stands. And then you still depend on the teacher’s interest. If a teacher enjoys putting energy into the story, you’re in luck. But in most cases, the subject just slips by.”
“Involve children in history”
According to Knol, it is connected with how you organize education: “You can tell a very boring and dry story. But if you take a figurative walk and involve the children in the story, you make it much more attractive. Take, for example, the celebration of the Groningen Relief in 1972, a jubilee year. It was celebrated big. I remember that up to this day the city abounded with rumors that much was to happen. As children, we were taken into that story by our teachers: what’s going on, what about it. To inspiration is often lacking these days.”
Hein Bekenkamp: “It’s a shame that when you’re on holiday, you’re standing in a castle and don’t know the background to it”
Bekenkamp agrees: “We like to go on holiday these days. And it’s actually a pity that you as a family stand by a palace, castle or fortress where you have absolutely no idea what the story behind is. We used to go on camping holidays to Greece as a family. In the run up to that we had a family chat about the history of classical ancient Greece. Not to death, but that you have an idea of where to set foot when you are there on holiday. That you know what has happened in general.”
“You have to bring history to life”
According to Bekenkamp, it has to do with the teachers’ giftedness. “I can imagine that these days a teacher tells something from a booklet, some questions are asked, and then a topic is crossed off in class. We had fun again with the idea. But did the children learn anything from it? Of course not. You must bring the story to life. You have to include children in the story. They can be very beautiful stories, but also horrifying stories. And it triggers. Something like that sticks around. And the critics will now say, but it can all be looked up on the internet, right? Yes of course. But the two lines that tell about an event on the Internet will never stick. Knowledge stands or falls with teachers who can tell stories and who like to collect it.”
On the question of whether guest lecturers could not be a solution: “In themselves, yes, as long as they have the ability to tell a story well. A good example is perhaps the youth theater that we put on in Stad around Groningen’s Ontzet. In recent years, hundreds of children have been able to see this play. It is a form of learning something. I am sure that children who saw this will remember who the Bishop of Münster was years later. And the name Carl von Rabenhaupt will also sound familiar to them. And they really don’t need to know everything. But suppose these children become future politicians. So knowing how your city has evolved is very important, right? Which places are important? How did something come about? That you see the big picture.”
Yaneth Menger (City Party 100% for Groningen): “Motion has not yet been implemented”
The fact that history is important has also been realized in the city council of Groningen. In autumn 2021, on the initiative of various parties, a proposal was adopted to make room for history in the Groningen education. Yaneth Menger from the City Party 100% for Groningen was one of the petitioners at the time: “That proposal has not yet been implemented. People are working on it. Look, that’s the downside of a proposal made by a number of parties. The question then is when and how it will be implemented. If you put forward a council-wide proposal that all parties support, the chance is considerably greater that something will happen quickly.”
“In elementary school, the whole class hung on the teacher’s every word when he told a story”
Menger agrees with Bekenkamp and Knol: “History is part of your development. Without history, you miss out on certain analysis to understand things. It is part of your existence, where do you come from? And there is a nice saying: ‘history repeats itself’. If you don’t know the history of an event, then a foundation is missing. I have always enjoyed the profession. I had an enthusiastic superintendent, as it was called then, who read out books on Friday afternoons. I remember that he read from Jan Terlouw’s book ‘Winter of War’. The whole class hung on every word. World War II came to life. Where you learned that a war can bring out the worst in people and you are forced to make choices. These are life lessons that you will take with you for the rest of your life.”