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Bringing Down the Ivory Tower: The Future of the Barlaeus Gymnasium in a Multicultural Society.


There is a lively debate in The Netherlands about segregation within the education system. This debate focuses mainly on the huge high schools that exist in immigrant neighborhoods where the students are predominantly of a foreign background. These so-called ‘black’ high schools are seen by many to offer a more violent atmosphere and sub-standard education. Because this is seen as the main problem of segregation within the school system, the ‘whiteness’ of other high schools is never seen as problematic. However, it is our opinion that the segregated atmosphere in white elitist schools is also detrimental to the future of the multicultural society. This article will explore the issue. 

In the Dutch high school system there are three different levels of education. At the end of the primary school, the pupils take a test to determine which level of secondary educations suits them best. The Barlaeus, however, is a type of school called gymnasium that lies somewhat outside of this system. It offers the highest level of education complemented by the teaching of the language and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Furthermore, the Barlaeus is a categorical gymnasium, which means that they only offer this level of education. Its students will therefore never meet children that are very different in terms of intelligence or lifestyle inside the building of the school.

Gymnasia seek to form their pupils in a classical way. The ancient cultures of Greece and Rome are taken as the starting point of the western civilization and culture. By exploring these cultural roots it is assumed that the students are better able to understand the present western societies around them. The result of this curriculum is a strong focus on high culture and intellectual formation of the pupils.

Traditionally, gymnasia are a popular choice for the elite of the country to send their kids to. Sociologist Don Weenink found in his PhD research on Dutch gymnasia that the student population of the Dutch gymnasia has the same proportion of upper class kids as do the most exclusive private schools in England. It is not hard to imagine that these elitist schools are predominantly white because the elite of The Netherlands still is. 

The Barlaeus is a typical example of such a white elitist school. Many of the students live in or close to the upper class neighborhoods of Amsterdam. Also, many former students of the Barlaeus occupy prominent positions within the Dutch society, some notable examples being Frits Bolkestein, former Member of Dutch Parliament for the liberal party and former member of the European Commission and Els Borst, former Member of Dutch Parliament for the social liberal party. The image of the gymnasium as a school for elite children and a place that creates the new elite is therefore very true. In addition, the proportion of students with a non western cultural background is extremely low at about 3.4 percent of the total student population in 2004. This figure appears even lower when one takes into account the fact that 62 % of the children between 13 and 16 years in Amsterdam are of non-western descent. 

Obviously, the white pupils of the Barlaeus will not have many contacts with people from other cultures through their school. But how does this influence the students’ perspective on the multicultural society? And in what way is this new elite prepared for a culturally diverse society during their years at the Barlaeus? Is the school trying to attract more students from foreign background? The elite of a country have the responsibility of recognizing and working with the forces in its society. But is the Barlaeus preparing the “new elite” well for the reality of Dutch multiculturalism? If not, how can a school indifferent to diversity possibly provide a relevant education for the future leaders of Dutch society?

Multiculturality: What does the School Administration Say?

The Barlaeus has been depicted many times as an exclusive high school that is only interested in its own elitist world, separated from the environment outside. However Geert Kapteijns, vice-principal of the school, disagrees with this view. In his opinion there have been changes in the way the school deals with diversity over the last years. Though there may be a will to change things, the problem is that change comes slow in this school.  “There is no real leadership on this topic,” claims Kapteijns, and “the workload of the teachers is already extremely high because of the demanding curriculum.” 

How, then, does the school make its students aware of issues in the present multicultural society? Though Kapteijns tells us that it is common practice among the teachers to integrate multicultural issues in their lessons, for example by showing a movie about minorities in Germany during German language class, he recognizes that these issues are given low priority within the school. This is reflected in the fact that the school has no policy on how teachers should (or could) teach their students about issues of diversity. The top priority of the school seems to be in preparing the students for the final exams, not with the cultivation of socially engaged youngsters.

When it comes to diversifying the student population itself, Kapteijns claims that while there are still not many admissions of children with a foreign background, the numbers are rising every year. To stimulate this trend the school is actively reaching out to ‘black’ primary schools in order to attract more students of foreign background. Representatives of the Barlaeus go to such schools in the neighborhood together with successful pupils of a foreign background. This way they advertise for the Barlaeus in a way that is appealing to the children of these black primary schools.

Once these students are in school, however, favorable policies are more dubious. Because many of these children have a less than perfect knowledge of the Dutch language, there are extra language classes for them (together with, for example, dyslectic children). There is also the possibility for extra tutoring of these students. Here, it is striking that the only clear policies regarding multicultural students have to do with their “special needs,” not with their cultural differences. This points to a school culture in which diversity is not promoted; real diversity is traded in for membership in the more or less homogenous Barlaeus community. Kapteijns agrees that this homogenous identity should be changed, but that it is very hard to do so: neither the expertise nor the leadership exists to motivate change.

Multiculturality in Practice: The View of Teachers and Students

The teachers interviewed agree that the Barlaeus gymnasium lacks a central policy that promotes diversity among its students and in its curriculum. Moreover, they have little confidence that an official line of action will be taken in the future, leaving the issue for the teachers to handle in their own way, if at all. As Alfred Buitenkant, teacher of history at the Barlaeus, puts it, “there are more pressing issues that the school prioritizes.” In his opinion changes will certainly occur towards a more diverse curriculum and school but only in time and only as a result of the natural evolution of the situation, for example the influx of younger teachers who are more aware of the problems that exist in the multicultural society and a raised awareness among parents. Teachers like Buitenkant, then, seem to be trusting an “invisible hand” to guide the needed changes and to bring the reality of the society into the gymnasium.

Barlaeus-educated students are said to be part of the future elite of Netherlands. But what are the real effects when this prestigious school is closed to the rest of the society; when, to put it in Mirjam van der Worp’s words: “the Barlaeus is on the top of the world but not part of it?” The general feeling among the teachers is that the pupils are not aware of the realities outside the school, that they live in an “ivory tower” without getting in touch with what happens beyond the fences of the gymnasium. 

Mirjam van der Worp has been teaching Dutch literature and culture at the Barlaeus for two years. Coming from a job in which she worked on ethnical minority projects, she was surprised to find so few students of foreign background in this gymnasium and to discover the lack of interest the pupils took in other communities. Moreover, she found a team of teachers and heads of school where these issues did not attract much attention. 

In order to raise awareness of multicultural issues, van der Worp invited Ahmed Aboutaleb, an Amsterdam alderman of Moroccan descent, and Mustafa Stitou, a Dutch poet of Moroccan descent, to talk to her students as part of her literature classes. Though the primary content of these lectures was literature, issues of multicultural society were also discussed. It did not, however, spark a debate among other teachers of how to integrate multicultural understanding in their classes. 

The students’ own lives, both at the Barlaeus and home, make it difficult for them to develop relationships with students from ethnically-diverse backgrounds. As Kadir Yilmaz, a student of Turkish descent explains it: “to diversify the school means to mix up the neighborhoods, and you can’t do that”. While introducing changes in the curriculum should not be as difficult as mixing up entire neighborhoods, in practice it proves problematic to the school. “Giving us a sheet about ethnic minorities is not the right way to get to know them”, says Kadir. 

When asking the recently graduated students if multiculturality was an issue in their classes, they seem to recall that time in 3rd grade when, after the 9/11 events, they talked about Muslims. Other events such as the killing of Theo van Gogh might have triggered some discussions, but aside from that they did not have much recollection of being taught about the diversity of the society they live in. As a result the opinion of many Dutch students about ethnic minorities in The Netherlands is quite similar to those heard in the general public debate: They should learn the language; They should assimilate to the Dutch culture. This shows that the students only see one side of the story, unaware of the dynamics of the multicultural society. Moreover, there is hardly any student who is interested in working with these issues in the future.  

The few children of foreign background that make it to the Barlaeus do not stimulate any reflection on diversity. They adopt the Barlaeus identity that appears to be stronger than their ethnic identity. In a way, this is helpful for their integration and makes it easier for the children of different backgrounds to relate to each other. However, the problem occurs when this Barlaeus identity is synonymous with a Dutch identity. “Everybody here is seen as a Dutchman”, says Kadir. 

What might be the subjective perspective of a Turkish student is in fact confirmed by the nature of the school’s curriculum. Research done by Jaap Noorda shows that one of the main reasons of failure among the pupils of foreign descent, besides lack of parental support is the difficulty of dealing with cultural differences. Clashes between the Islamic tradition and the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition that predominates in the curriculum, as well as difficulties in studying Greek and Latin due to lack of proficiency in Dutch are some of the mentioned reasons. Van der Worp explains that some children of foreign descent have difficulties in doing class work mainly because of cultural differences. For example, some exams presume that the students share a common cultural knowledge that some students of foreign descent simply do not have. For Kadir, studying in Barlaeus meant getting a high level education, understanding the Dutch society and learning how to adapt to it. However, he admits having felt the dumb kid in school because of the inconsistencies between his background and the Dutch environment and education system.

Would the school not gain much more by using these cultural differences to promote diversity instead of uniformity? Unfortunately, as Alfred Buitenkant claims, The Barlaeus identity is very strong, and some teachers actually promote the formation of this homogenizing sentiment. 

The Role of Local Authorities

The Barlaeus, and schools like it, are autonomous when it comes to the implementation of diversity measures, both in student recruitment and in the curriculum. According to Karina Schaapman, expert on education matters and representative of the Labor Party in the Amsterdam city council, the authorities don’t have instruments to impose such reforms on schools. However, they can raise awareness both in school administrations and in the community. She highlights the important role of the parents in the process, who, because of lack of information, often make all too predictable educational choices for their children. In the case of lower classes and minorities, for instance, parents often send their children to the nearest school. Conversely, highly-educated parents send their children mostly to schools with the best image. Neither reality complements the other, and both reinforce educational segregation. To counter this, the local authorities are developing an educational information centre that will help make parents aware of all opportunities and alternatives, helping them “to know the real price of studying in a school”, as Schaapman puts it. 

While schools such as Barlaeus see it sufficient to give equal admission opportunities to all students, they have no real campaigns to expand the typical student base that choose to apply. In reality children and parents of foreign background simply don’t know about the existence of Barlaeus, or if they do find out, are skeptical about studying in a predominantly Dutch environment. In spite of the high-quality education it offers, it cannot be said that the Barlaeus is representative of the larger society, or even cares to make the effort to become more representative.

However, the opening of the 4th gymnasium last year is seen with optimism by the authorities. It was created to absorb the surplus of applications of the other gymnasia but its orientation is clearly more about diversity than its counterparts. The opening of this school followed a period of hard negotiating between parties. About this, Kapteijns says: “the Barlaeus pushed for the creation of a new gymnasium from the start, against the will of some of the other gymnasia and the city council. We had to put a lot of effort to convincing the other parties of the value of a new gymnasium outside the center or south of Amsterdam.”

Although no results are available due to its short existence, the local authorities are now very supportive of this project, providing the necessary funding and resources to make the school competitive among other “elite” schools. “It’s the only thing we can do to raise its popularity and, at the same time, make the other schools take action as well”, explains Schaapman. In her opinion, schools such as the Barlaeus are “lazy”, as they rely on the fact that they get sufficient students every year and don’t take real action to diversify their environment.  


The lack of diversity in the school population and the failure of the curriculum to provide a multicultural education to students are two tightly interrelated problems. On the one hand, a more mixed school would make it imperative for the school administration to take the minorities into consideration, while, on the other hand, changing the way in which pupils are educated on these issues could improve the relations with minority groups and help them integrate in the educational system. While action should be taken in both directions, the reality is that reforms in these areas are not a priority to the administration of the schools. The Barlaeus is just one example of the insufficient awareness that exists among the most highly educated students in The Netherlands about the reality of the multicultural society they live in. It is also an example of the lack of interest on the part of the heads of the schools to promote change.

The Barlaeus has plenty of opportunity to embrace diversity within the school. Children of foreign descent can enrich the classes with their knowledge and experience, while at the same time they can learn how to adapt to the Dutch society. Conversely, “majority” students should be exposed to the realities of the pluralistic society in which they happen to be the elite. Moreover, all students can learn to overcome their prejudices and to understand that living in a plural society implies a mutual relationship.

It is clear that the present way of teaching at the Barlaeus is not in touch with the multicultural society it is a part of. If the Barlaeus wants to keep offering a relevant education and if it takes the responsibility that comes with educating the future elite of a country serious, it has to embrace diversity more as it does now. For example, the teachers should be encouraged to include issues of diversity into their lessons. But it is not only the issues discussed in class, it’s also about the attitude of the teachers towards the students of foreign descent. They could avoid putting them in the same “pot” with everybody else and rather highlight diversity as a means of learning from one another. More interaction between schools is also a good way of creating contact and initiating communication between ethnical groups. While diversifying the population of a school can be rather difficult to do as it doesn’t only depend on the administration’s actions, facilitating relations between groups is not that difficult to achieve. 

These changes will not take place without a coherent school policy on diversity. The first step would be to appoint one person in the school administration that is responsible for developing and implementing such a policy. But after that the school does not need to stand alone in its quest for diversity. From the interview with Karina Schaapman it became clear that the city council is very interested in diversification policies of schools. The Barlaeus should form partnerships with the city council on these issues. This way it would also be easier to form alliances with black high schools to foster interethnic communication. 

The ancient Greek word for foreigner is barbaros, which means literally someone whose speech is harsh and rude, or non-Greek. This term also gained connotations of savageness and ignorance. In other words, the ancient Greek generally did not have a high opinion of non-Greek populations and were certainly not very interested in their merits. The same mentality of disinterest toward everything that lies outside its own world is still present in the Barlaeus gymnasium today. 

The Barlaeus should instead be more inspired by that other ancient civilization that lies at the foundation of the education that is given at this school: the Roman Empire. The Romans had to deal with diversity in their empire and did so in a positive way. They were not afraid to look at other cultures in their empire with curiosity and respect. For example, they included foreign gods into their own pantheon and thus integrated foreign cultures into their own. If the Barlaeus could take this aspect of the Roman Empire as a source of inspiration for their own policy on diversity, it would stand a good chance of success.


Noorda, Jaap, Klassieke schooling voor elk talent, research assigned to the VU by the Barlaeus gymnasium on the problems students of foreign background face in the Barlaeus.

Weenink, Don, Upper middle-resources of power in the education arena, dissertation at the VU, 2005.



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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2006


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