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Moving Toward Intercultural Education?

What's to Be Done? Who Is Involved, and Who Should Be?

What is education all about? For most of us, in our time, secondary schools were the powerhouses for memorizing facts and figures, which would easily help us pave the way to higher educational institutions. In history class one would cover centuries of Dutch history, while, in geography one would discover what types of food people in other cultures are consuming. The teacher would provide his or her own perspective on the curriculum and supplement these with personal anecdotes.

In my time, these stories resonated very well among all of us, as the teacher would have a similar background compared to our parents. Our teachers were white, 35 years old, born in Bilthoven and have if we were lucky a Dr. title in the pocket. My peers would be called Hendrik-Jan, Rebecca and Sophie, and outside of school I would myself attending field hockey classes and piano lessons. However, my reality is solely applicable to my area of the city. As time passed by, I became gradually more in contact with different educational environments, where I learned to understand there are in fact many structural differences in what is taught and in what manner.

Without the need of any scholarly thinking from books or articles, the biggest difference was easy to decipher, namely skin color. These schools would often have children whose parents, grandparents or great grandparents descended from outside of Europe. It was funny to think that these students had learned about their Dutch culture, assuming that in essence Dutch identity is based on us and the other, as if they were the other.

The misunderstanding of other cultures accentuates the Dutch school curriculum.  When considering the fact that ethnic distribution among secondary school education is nearly completely segregated, and including the teachers. And as often said, education is the key component in overcoming the ethnic tensions, segregation and cultural clashes. Yet, in the Netherlands, education appears to be an integral part of the problem, rather than an actor of social improvement.

An interesting consideration is how this country will be looking in the future at education in connection when faced with a multicultural society. As for other multicultural societies, similar struggles arise. Like the Netherlands, the United States also deals with issues related to multicultural dialogue. Unlike the Netherlands, however, the notion of multiculturalism is part of the national character and psyche. The United States prides itself on its multicultural narrative, using expressions like “the melting pot” or “a nation of immigrants” to describe its body populace.

Subsequently, fostering multicultural dialogue is a common self-professed goal for many educators in schools across the country. It is so common, in fact, that to openly state one’s intention otherwise would be simply inviting oneself to a deluge of criticism. Merely typing “multicultural” and “classroom” in any search engine will bring about a whole host of positive results. While one could argue about the success of inter-cultural dialogue in American classrooms, or that diversity education is a clichéd topic in American education, it cannot be denied that the United States has more experience in this field than the Netherlands. This can be seen in several factors outside of the classroom.



The first factor is the organizational capacity of minority groups within the United States. Organized and politically engaged, ethnic minority groups can and often put pressure on state and local authorities. This helps foster a multicultural dialogue at the federal or state level, which in turn eventually trickles down to classroom. An example of this can be seen by Native American groups successfully petitioning the City Council of Berkeley California to replace Columbus Day with a “Native American Peoples Day.” Not only was the name change symbolic; it also required the city to take actions in schools as well. In this case, the Native American groups were able to initiate a multicultural dialogue with the city that would eventually find its way into the classroom. By giving students a more balanced understanding of the devastation that Columbus’ voyages had on indigenous populations, the groundwork is set for a fair cultural exchange. The City of Berkeley would not have done this on its own; it had to take pressure from those within the minority group to get things moving. For the Netherlands, however, this does not seem to be the case. While there are a number of minority voices and emerging networks of people trying to foster multi-cultural dialogue, they are diffuse and lack unity when compared with their counterparts in the United States.

As the Columbus example shows, history is important. Classroom intercultural dialogue, however, is not often about events that happened 500 years ago, it is often about the present. The past, however, does inform the present and many more schools across the United States are trying to take a more balanced approach to teaching US history that includes minority voices and takes into account minority contributions to American society. Furthermore, in recent years there has been an increase in historically critical scholarship in the United States with works such as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. Interestingly, there has been some push back from certain school districts who believe that such “revisionist” histories seek only to sully American heroes or are inherently Anti-American. While there is substantial room for progress and deviations across regions, a good number of schools try to incorporate the narratives of the country’s ethnic minorities into the grand narrative of American history. This in turn helps set a foundation that can help facilitate multicultural dialogue in the classroom.

The Netherlands has a long and fascinating history, and when studied critically one can see clear multicultural elements in episodes such as the Golden Age, Indonesian colonization, the slave trade and the guest worker programs of the 1980s. As Dutch classrooms explore these topics, students will be better equipped to engage in inter-cultural dialogue. For minority students, this could also contribute to the formulation of a positive ethnic identity, which is perhaps the most important criterion for successful multicultural education.

In the United States the concepts of ethnic or racial identity are frequently explored in both the academic and popular literature, and young people often struggle with issues of racial identity. Current US President Barack Obama contributed to this discussion when in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, he described the identity challenges he faced as a mixed race youth growing up in Hawaii. This issue plagued him for a good portion of his young life until he was able to reconcile them and form a positive ethnic-identity.

Ethnic identity is broadly defined as “having as sense of ethnic pride, involvement in ethnic practices and cultural commitment to one’s racial/ethnic group,” and most of the literature on multicultural dialogue in the United States suggests this is essential to fostering inter-cultural dialogue in the classroom. The premise is simple for how can one engage in multicultural dialogue if one is trying to escape one’s cultural heritage or background? In tandem with that last point, some researchers distinguish between a positive and negative ethnic identity. Studies show that the latter is actually quite bad, not just for multicultural dialogue, but for students’ academic performance, perceptions of themselves and their mental health.

Here again the situation in the United States is different than in the Netherlands. As mentioned previously, most minority groups in America are organized and can take steps to try and encourage community building and positive cultural duality. Also in the United States, ethnic minorities have been struggling for decades to have their voices heard in a positive light. Part of this struggle is captured in the portrayal of minority history as part of the national narrative. This in turn further contributes to a positive cultural duality. Subsequently, many Americans with immigrant backgrounds easily reconcile feeling fully American while at the same time retaining the languages or cultural practices of their parents’ countries of birth.

This duality is not so easy to come by in the Netherlands, particularly for Dutch people with Moroccan backgrounds. Feeling ostracized or not fully apart of society at best does not encourage intercultural dialogue in the classroom and, at worst, leads to the formation of a negative ethnic identity, which makes the bearer more subject to the effects of discrimination. In America, multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue are thought of as ways to learn about the different people within the country and those who live outside it. 



Is the Netherlands in need of a new form of minority agency within the educational system, a so-called Cultural Revolution? The statute of 2006 on “Active Citizenship and Social Integration” has shed light to some lessons we have learned from the inadequacies previous methods on multiculturalism in secondary school education have exposed. However, contemporary experts in the field of education and scholars have revised these ideas and introduced a plethora of new solutions to these everlasting sources of cultural and ethnic segregation.

When looking at the development of intercultural education as a branch within the Netherlands, the statute of 2006 stands out for addressing minority issues as a legal instrument in close proximity with education. However, prior to the introduction of this law, several multicultural methods have been employed from the 1990s onwards. These initiatives have been accused of being inadequate to understand the issues on a personal level because a homogenous panel of white men would not suffice. As a consequence, it is said that the focus is solely on short-term solutions, which do not incorporate the “real” needs from the other perspective.

The 1990s voices exposing grand schemes in secondary schools for social and ethnic cohesion, aimed to incorporate minority and non-minority voices, by creating a vis-a-vis understanding between the “Autochtone” and “Allochtone” ethnicities and cultures. In tandem with the latter, this intercultural dialogue proposed to raise the respect and subsequently improve the learning conditions for the 'Allochtone' student.

It is said that the initiatives were ill-fated in presenting a structural change to education policy in the Netherlands. The Dean, Rob van der Vaart of University College Utrecht (an educational institution renowned for its international approach to teaching), said that the 1990s strategies seem to have fallen short in providing a consistent structure for solutions to be implemented on the long-term. He hints at a general structural problem in the manner in which the agenda of the Dutch secondary school education is drafted: “these agendas seem to be reactive to popular trends,” he said. These popular trends do not give value to a form of agency for those people it concerns. In van der Vaart's vision, one should not discuss these issues within a framework of a container terminology asdiversity or multiculturalism.

In tackling these heavily contested frameworks, new approaches provide solutions to the gap between teacher and classroom. Zihni Özdil, one of the Netherlands most controversial social historians, believes that teachers lack those cultural instruments, which are of fundamental importance to be able to create an environment of intercultural respect and understanding. Özdil speaks of a general problem within the Netherlands, namely the presence of a “de facto apartheid system,” in reference to a statement made by the Dutch government. This system seems to be complicit to societal ethnic segregation, illustrated by distribution of ethnicities across secondary schools. He explains that the placement of students is determined by the postal codes of students' residences, which would therefore agglomerate similar socio-economic or cultural groups.

Furthermore, he speaks in high regards of the values of respect and understanding; however, he condemns the idea of inter-cultural dialogue. Özdil is convinced that the framework of an intercultural dialogue predispositions minorities by framing discussions in a power constellation, in which the minorities on the receiving end are perceived as the “Other.” This critical historian points out that the diversity of teachers' bodies is key to resolving problems, yet the Dutch society of being is “allergic for affirmative action” he says.

Teachers should not be expected to be explicitly aware of their cultural self through pedagogical methods, which would provide a scope for culture stigmatization. Özdil asserts that teachers are more than capable themselves of introducing a cultural heritage to the classroom by their sole presence. However, the space in which these teachers would be able to navigate as representatives of their cultural heritage should be claimed by themselves on an interpersonal level, between teacher and teacher, teacher and school board, and moreover teacher and student. Saying that “I am here and have an equal say'' would slowly pave the way for a cultural revolution against an assertion of “unknown is unwanted.”



Do teachers want a cultural revolution? Sofyan Mbarki is a teacher in Amsterdam-West and a sitting member of the municipality council of Amsterdam. Mbarki proves to have an opinion remotely close to creating a cultural revolution. He sees fit, like Özdil, for schools to avoid culture tourism in which students learn from other cultures from a perspective of the self and the Other. However, Mbarki believes that teachers should explicitly be aware of their own cultural identity, and of what social constructions this consists.

A teacher should become a cultural broker, hence the teacher should not blindly teach his or her own cultural heritage without taking into account the preconceptions one's interpretation pertains. This could be considered an appropriate cultural instrument teachers can employ to navigate as a cultural broker between the narrowly focused curriculum and the conventions teachers learned during their own education. Mbarki thinks that this allows teachers to consciously engage in a dialogue within the classroom without upholding any form of their own prejudices. Furthermore, teachers can for that reason be flexible by assimilating to the student of 2014, including the youth culture, street culture and various cultural backgrounds.

On the other side of the spectrum is Gijs van Lennep, a teacher as the Waldorf school in Zeist. Van Lennep believes that the discussion of multicultural backgrounds should only be introduced when there is a practical concern, such as language deficits or other cultural difficulties that a student cannot overcome by his or her self. Van Lennep placed the attention on that students should become who they want to be, as the individual self is supreme over one’s own culture.

This approach of van Lennep is exactly an incident that the New Urban Collective attempts to address. Mitchell Esajas is the founder of an initiative that aims to empower minority students within their segregated school environments for fair participation in the whole of society. Esajas illuminates that the opinion as those of van Lennep arrive from an acceptance of the limited scope of secondary school curricula. This conventional line of reasoning falls short of openly addressing minority issues within a classroom setting, which is at the cost of the students. Esajas is convinced that experiences of micro-aggressions are completely neglected by these narrow-minded teachers’ approaches

Mitchell Esajas blames, like Özdil, the general segregated school climate of the Netherlands. In order to overcome this gap between the cultures, teachers have to use their obliged time for self-study to employ cultural instruments. Besides being a cultural broker, Esajas does agree with Özdil that it also a responsibility to give agency to themselves, and to the students. The understanding and assimilation of other cultures, what is expected of a cultural broker, should go hand in hand with an agency for empowering minority cultures to feel included and respected. The notion of respect should not come from the majority towards the “Other,” but go beyond this by improving the self-respect of the minorities themselves. Esajas believes that this allows students to feel that each individual, with their cultural heritage, is a universe with identity capital to offer to society.

Zihni Özdil's as well as Sofyan Mbarki's ideas on how to engage in effective intercultural dialogue in the classroom are heavily reflected in the academic discourse on the matter. Regardless of this academic backing, a critical observer could, and should, have some remarks pertaining of the practicality of these concepts.

Özdil's rejection of dialogue and focus on grander societal structures that contribute to segregation creates many questions. Are we indeed living in a de facto apartheid? And, if so, how do we escape such a situation? His observation that Dutch teachers are predominantly white is sound but also simplifies the solution, for one might question whether secondary education will become more inclusive and intercultural the moment we diversify the teaching body. It additionally appears to contradict his main observation that the problems we see in education are a product of bigger societal problems regarding race and culture. Regardless of this critical note, Mitchell Esajas does recognize the existence of “black” and “white” schools as one of the main problems regarding diversity within secondary education. He recalls instances where students from Moroccan or Surinamese backgrounds got a major culture shock when attending universities. After having spent their educational careers in schools with very few white children, the difference from university is sometimes too great for them to overcome. He notes that bringing children into contact with each other, and making them learn about different cultures and perspectives, is vital for them to cooperate later in life.

Zihni makes a very convincing argument in saying that much of the cultural diversity is not allowed room within the Dutch classrooms. All those that attended Dutch secondary education should revisit their history or citizenship classes for a second. What do you remember? Debates and discussion on plurality and migration? Analyses of the development of “Dutch tolerance”? Even more stinging is it when one tries to recall the lessons on the slave trade versus those pertaining to the Second World War. Perhaps it's just me, but these important aspects seem to have been structurally neglected in Dutch education. Is this indeed a major flaw in the curriculum written by the Ministry or Education or perhaps, as Sofyan Mbarki states, merely a minor aspect of the problem?

Mbarki confirms the academic concept of the educator as a cultural broker and stresses that the curriculum is not all that important when trying to diversify education. Even more so, he states that the Ministry of Education's guidelines on pluralism and equality are more than sufficient. He indicates that the core of the problem lies at the teacher: in his or her interpretation of the curriculum and the method of teaching, the teachers of the Netherlands fail in bridging the cultural gap between themselves and their students, according to Mbarki at least. He, and the many scholars that support the teacher as cultural broker concept, stress that teachers need to undertake an effort to understand where their students are coming from, culturally speaking. To do so, teachers would have to first recognize their own background and cultural heritage before they can attempt to understand those coming from different angles. Know yourself before you can help others, so to say. Mitchell Esajas, himself an experienced educator and motivator of youth, makes the remark that teachers really need to make an effort to open up to their students if they wish to understand them. If the teacher is not willing to be taught something by his students, she or he will remain at the sidelines and never fully engage with them. Mbarki makes the valid point that teachers putting themselves in the shoes of their students should not derive from a personal interest or political conviction but rather a professional obligation. A teacher, as a professional educator, has, in his opinion, the obligation to try to understand his students. This understanding namely enables the teacher to play a more effective role both in helping the student shape their identity as well as transferring knowledge. An interesting dimension to this perspective is that it denotes the personal conviction of an educator, and therefore applies to PVV supporters as well as GroenLinks supporters.



One is left wondering though how these keen observations and sharp theories translate into policies that would better the situation. Though opinions differ on the role of the curriculum, the scholars and experts we interviewed seem to agree on a few things. Teachers need to make an additional effort and segregation needs to be combatted. The way these changes need to be realized, however, remains unclear. Does the key lie in additional schooling of teachers, or should we enforce certain changes through adjustment of the curriculum?

The unfortunate truth is that there is no single answer to the previous question. That being said, it does not mean that we, as a society, can just step down and take it easy. The first step to solving the issue of racial and cultural tendencies within secondary education in the Netherlands is recognizing they exist.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2014


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