When I was ten years old, I moved to South America with my Dutch father and American mother. Though my father loved history, he had studied law in order to be ensured of a career. However, he never lost his affinity with the subject, and when I was moved out of reach of the Dutch education system, he decided that this constituted a great loss for me, for I would never learn about Dutch history.
So he bought me the book De Vaderlandse Geschiedenis in een Notedop, or Dutch National History in a Nutshell, and made me read it through the long, blisteringly hot Santiago summer. I still have the book (in my recollection, it had been thicker than the Bible and far less captivating, but it is, in fact, only 247 pages long). I still break out in hives when I think about the book. The only two figures I remember from it are Johan van Oldebarneveldt and Prince Maurits. I remember that one of them appealed to my imagination and the other one annoyed all of ten-year-old me. Instead of being impressed with my well-motivated reasons for not reading the book (“These people behaved like cowards and children!”), my father thought they were hilarious, gave me a twinkly-eyed smiled and instructed me to, by all means, read on.
Needless to say, I don’t remember a thing about Dutch history and developed a life-long aversion to the subject. Ugh, history. Who cares who did what in 1312? Or 1473? Let alone 992? Not me.
And now I have children in high school who are learning history, and I have to coach them through six lead-weight schoolyears of Romans, serfs, monks, reformers, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the First World War, the Cold War… And I will make a confession here; it was really interesting. That is to say, history is interesting, but the way it is taught in Netherlands, is less so – it has to do with the so-called 49 kenmerkende aspecten, or defining aspects, that the developers of the Dutch history curriculum have come up with in order to structure the subject. It takes all the joy out of learning; instead of losing yourself in the lurid soap series of who did what to whom, you’re busy learning 49 aspects which, like a big spider, occupy the center of a web of events that all lead back to this looming arachnid in the middle. Thus, history becomes 49 spider webs that sometimes overlap, but otherwise hinder you in seeing the big picture. So you’re back to trying to anticipate the desired answer instead of drawing and sharing your own insights and conclusions.
What really triggered my interest for history shortly before this was a book my mother gave me; Catherine the Great, by Robert K. Massie. Of course, when she gave it to me, I thought, “Mom, have you not been paying any attention at all, my whole life?”, but even before I had finished the first page, I was hooked. Because here was the action-reaction, cause-and-effect of history, interspersed with a knowledge and understanding of the people behind these events. In this book, you learn better than ever that history is not a process that flows through the ages like a river that is, at most, influenced by big rock or a drop in height. No, history is purely a man-made event. Aside from the fact that uncovering the past, if we don’t know the precise events, makes our recollection a subjective one, history is something that is shaped directly by the schemings, bad moods, jealousies, megalomania, love affairs, wise decisions, and dubious ideas of people from all walks of life.
And that’s what makes it entirely human and absolutely fascinating.
But that is not where this letter from the editor ends. Because imagine my shock when I was given the request to review a number of books for this issue of The XPat Journal, among which… Dutch History in a Nutshell. Oh, no. Was I to read this book again? But, as you can tell, the title is not quite the same and the book itself is completely different one from the one I received in the mail today. For that review, I refer you to page 70. Suffice it to say; I greatly enjoyed reading it.
Stephanie Dijkstra – Editor-in-Chief of The XPat Journal