The Paradox of History

20 September 2017


The documents of the EAC allow one to access a world different from our own. If there is one lesson to be learnt from history, it is that mankind is anything but static. During the last hundred years, our way of life has been changing over and over again, making the twentieth century increasingly seem like a distant world as the years pass. And yet, amidst all this rapid change so much has stayed the same. In essence, most people still pursue the same goals as hundred years earlier: good education, a happy family and a well-paying job. Only the context in which they undertake this quest continues to alter at an accelerating speed.

A piece in the archive which perfectly illustrates this paradox is the homeschooling documents from a Dutch family, residing in Libya during the 1960s. While staying abroad, the children received homeschooling from their mother, for which the materials were supplied from The Netherlands. Their books, homework and reports are currently is possession of the archive. This provides an interesting look in the educational and cultural context of this decade.

One thing which is striking is the continuity in the curriculum when one compares it with the current Dutch education. It was, and still is, focused on Dutch, English and mathematics, while some space is reserved for subjects like geography and history. These kids, like nowadays, went to the all too familiar painful road of developing a proper handwriting, learning the correct spelling and trying to calculate with fractions. Given their grades, it is safe to say they succeeded in all of these tasks. So, while these Dutch expat children were living fifty years ago in Libya, they received the same basics in their education as their contemporary counterparts in The Netherlands.

At the same time, these documents also make clear that so much has changed since then. An example of this are the methods for mathematics. The clever tricks they were taught to solve the most complex calculation have now become unnecessary, because of the increased availability and capacities of electronic calculators. Also the layout of these books, which consists of pages filled with large amounts of text, would now probably be considered too ‘dull’ and ‘unappealing’ for Dutch children.

The exception to this rule, is their geography book, which contains numerous illustrations, tables and maps. But in this case, it is the content of the book that shows how much the world has changed since then. A look in this book reveals that in 1964-1965, for example, there were only 2.7 billion people in the world, less than half of the current population. A map on the next page furthermore shows a significant part of Africa being colonised by the European powers, as well as a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. But perhaps most striking of all is the demographic section of this book. It namely contains an exercise in which children had to identify the different races in this world, and colour a world map in accordance which each race’s geographical location. While racism has certainly not disappeared since then, it would now be unthinkable to place such an exercise in a Dutch schoolbook.

Looking at these documents thus reveals how much the world has changed since these kids were studying in the 1960s. The political, demographic and technological shifts in the last fifty years have made much of their curriculum seem obsolete. However, they were still taught the same basic skills as kids nowadays. Dutch children still have to learn their languages and develop their mathematical skills, only with different methods and tools. So, in essence, while much has changed, much has changed the same. It is the materials in the archive which allows one to discover paradoxes in history like these. This way, looking at materials from the past can help one to make sense of the present.

Written by: Jasper (Intern at the EAC from May to October 2017)

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