Monday 06 July 2020

Do Dutch history books adequately represent colonialism, slavery and women?

The official 50 subjects taught to Dutch children

Men outnumber women in Dutch school history books 10 to 1 according to new research by the Historisch Nieuwsblad magazine.

The magazine compared seven secondary school history teaching programmes to examine whether they adequately represented women, world history and the ‘shadowy sides’ of the Dutch historical record such as slavery and colonialism.

Dutch history teaching has recently come under fire for a limited curriculum that some teachers, politicians and activists say does not adequately represent the dark sides of the country’s past or a non-Western context.

Racial bias

Last year the UN special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia E. Tendayi Achiume ‘questioned the perception that Dutch society is inherently inclusive and tolerant’, calling for the government to ‘ensure that representative stories of colonial and slavery take centre stage in educational efforts.’ She wrote that this was central to combat ‘unquestioned racial intolerance and bias’.

The Historisch Nieuwsblad study, commissioned in response to these comments, found that 9% of lesson material was dedicated to colonialism and 4% to slavery, ‘giving the role of the Netherlands a more prominent place than other lands’. It said the methods it studied stimulated students to think about contemporary issues such as racism and compensation for past wrongs, including in relation to the Holocaust.

Alongside its findings about the underrepresentation of women, the research showed that about a quarter of the material focused on the Netherlands and 36% on Western Europe, compared with, for example, 2% on Africa and South America.


It drew positive conclusions from its research, saying that ‘most history methods are well formulated and modern. The public debates about colonialism, slavery, women and world history that have become central in recent years are given space in the school books.’

The researchers added: ‘It is probably not possible to give more attention to these themes as schoolbook authors have to meet government guidelines about covering all periods from prehistoric times to now.’

The debate about how to respond to Dutch history is also a matter of current politics. Amsterdam has announced that it will be the Netherlands’ first city to apologise for its role in slavery later this year, although research it commissioned for this purpose has already sparked fierce debate in council meetings.

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