Teaching Silenced History in The Netherlands

Report of a special meeting of the Dutch History Teachers Association World History Committee

The UN has put forward a global agenda which includes ‘global citizenship education’ as one of the markers of quality education under sustainable development goal 4 (SDG4). As a large global undertaking, possibly also somewhat invisible and slow, it relates to many existing motives of teachers to support their pupils’ ability to make sense of the world around them.

One such nice cluster of activity is the Dutch History Teachers Association “World History Committee”, which seeks to share educational practices which shed new global and/or non-national/non-western perspectives, and strengthen the group’s joint position on Dutch curriculum debates.

I had the pleasure of attending the committee’s meeting yesterday (6th February) which was organised around the theme ‘silenced history’. From my work at EUROCLIO – European Association of History Educators, there has always been this view that liberal democratic countries like The Netherlands offer sound and critical history education. Yesterday’s topics showed the extent to which work is still to be done to develop knowledge of difficult and sensitive topics. Hereby a short report.

History educators Marjan Heessen and Pim Renou chaired the meeting and introduced the work of the committee, which strives to promote world-historical perspectives in Dutch history education by hosting regular meetings to introduce new content, deliver policy/curriculum recommendations and sharing best practices.

1 – The Moluccan People in the Shadows of the Dutch Colonial Project

The first speaker was Professor Fridus Steijlen who uncovered the longer and more complex history of the relationship between The Netherlands and the inhabitants of the Moluccan islands (situated in the Eastern part of Indonesia).

Moluccan history is relatively unknown amongst history teachers. The speaker took the perspective, which allows comparison to other post-colonial groups in European societies, of the (myth of the) ‘ethnic soldier’, essentially the idea that a group/a people is especially useful for combat – the ‘martial race’ doctrine. Moluccans were recruited by the Dutch colonial armies from the very start of their interactions in 1655, but most significantly they were perceived by the Dutch rulers to be the most loyal and most effective fighters in the so-called pacification campaign, essentially wars of conquest on states like Aceh in the western part of the archipelago. This group however equally has shared in rebelling against the Dutch rule, as one of the participating teachers pointed out, as well as campaigning for independence from the Indonesian nationalists after World War 2.

What makes the Dutch-Moluccan history more entangled is the particular way in which Moluccan colonial army soldiers were repatriated to The Netherlands following that countries defeat in the decolonisation war in 1949/1950. Some 3,500 soldiers, with the addition of their families adding up to 12,500 people, were brought to basic living camps, but also immediately released from their army duty. Their original colonial army (KNIL) right to be brought to their actual homes, was hereby discontinued. The struggle to claim these rights from the Dutch state went on, without much success. Early 80s this conflict, negotiations lead to a joint declaration of Moluccan community leaders and the Dutch government in 1986 – which essentially meant funding for housing, culture and jobs – and a show of gratitude to the 1st generation of colonial soldiers. In the eyes of the Dutch government this was the finalisation of the conflict. Still however the questions remain about embedding this in a wider national culture of remembrance.

Comparing to the Gurkha’s (British Colonial recruits from Nepal), which were also ascribed to a fierce some people but also to the Harki’s, soldiers in the Algerian-French war – not an ethnic group, but are organised by French rulers in the wider Algerian territory – we can see a particular silenced history of our European counties’ citizens whose stories are directly linked to colonial rule and warfare – yet rarely told in a central manner.

Teachers found this presentation illuminating and providing them with further context. They also received additional references to both publications and knowledge centres (such as the Moluccan historical museum, national support-point education and the Moluccan canon).

2 – The Black Archives to Uncover Untold Dutch Histories

Amidst highly emotional public clashes in Dutch society around nominally racist heritage (e.g. Black Pete) practices, there is a lot of progress in actually fostering knowledge sharing, research and constructive discussion. One such excellent example is The Black Archives (TBA) initiative. Co-founder Miguel Heilbron shares his personal and professional ambitions and experiences and challenged teachers to seek how they could practically work with new sources to help their students appreciate the histories and heritage of Black-Dutch people.

Miguel detailed that TBA is a relatively new young initiative (est. 2016) which works from the vision to show dominant (white/European/western) perspectives, and open new/other perspectives – black history and heritage in particular to be further illuminated. It brings together personal histories of Black civil, student and migrant activism, which mainly does a great job in showing the historical dimension of the efforts to decolonise Dutch culture and society. One such very rich resource is, for example, offered by the oldest migrant group society in The Netherlands; Ons Suriname.

In the last year, his team worked hard to improve the structure and organisation of the archives and highlight special stories (e.g. correspondence with the black panthers and the amazing life-stories of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud. As a location, TBA offers its space in Amsterdam for events and projects exploring Black Dutch History, including lectures, exhibits, etc. thus acting as an effective hub for a range of initiatives, such as the Black Heritage Tour of the city.

At schools TBA promotes primary sources which dive in to various issues, including the history of racism and stereotypes in The Netherlands, or activism and the efforts done to document decades of police racism.

It’s most impactful public programme has been the partnership with the quality online news media The Correspondent, with whom TBA collaborated on a collection of articles entitled Verzwegen Geschiedenis (silenced history).

A short activity was done with the history teachers to engage in a discussion how this history might fit in the current system. The teacher sitting next to me, for example, was enthousiastic about working with sources of the Black-Communist activists to give another perspective on the Cold War history, civil movements and activism. Another teacher applauded TBA’s potential to deepen students’ historical understanding of current controversies and racism.

Following the session, several teachers sat down with Miguel and planned ahead how to work more closely together. Certainly a promising partnership of education and civil society!

One after-thought stuck with me though. If we are to promote black (and female (e.g. the new Dutch initiative F-site)) voices and stories in Dutch history education, what does this mean in relation to other silenced/repressed White and maybe also Male histories? It goes without saying that the history curriculum has for a very, very long time been dominated by white male actors, but also within that category, it is not all simple. At times, it seems to me, that the diversification of national history curricula and content, how valuable it is, might face further backlash as there are also untold/silenced histories of that same population group (e.g. the miners in Limburg, or, broadly speaking, other labour/exploitation histories).

3 –West Papua: A forgotten story of Dutch decolonization and Indonesian brutality

The third contribution of the evening was highly anticipated, as the efforts of Mr Raki Ap were also documented by a film crew. Mr Ap introduced himself as an activist, a political refugee at the age of 1 and a very concerned Dutch citizen. After sharing some of his personal background, which included Dutch army service, he dove straight into the matter at hand, his leadership in a global awareness-raising campaign called Free West-Papua to draw attention to the historical and current atrocities committed against the people of West Papua.

The historical context was presented briefly and reminded the teachers of the Dutch initial policies to support West Papua to be decolinsed and establish an independent state, as well as the global/Cold War pressures which lead to a sham referendum being held in 1969 upon which the West-Papuan population was annexed to Indonesia. He illustrated what this has meant all those years for the inhabitants, including lack of basic human rights, exploitation of natural resources (including mining of one of the world’s largest Gold deposits and deforestation of the jungle for the production of Palm oil) and mass murder, malnutrition and so on.

A deeply disturbing situation which fails to generate mass attention, in a way, offers Dutch history teachers who seek to advance the global citizenship of their pupils an opportunity to become aware of current abuse of human rights and trace back the historical context to the Dutch/UN decolonisation process.

Mr Ap illustrated what efforts he and his peers undertake and how they orient themselves now more to also raise awareness amongst pacific countries to generate a wider platform of support at the UN, as well as story-telling in The Netherlands, which, as he pointed out, has a particular responsibility to address. Most history teachers in the room expressed their interest to seek to support this awareness raising, but also signalled that they would need more access to sources and educational materials. One fresh idea was raised at the end of the meeting, which was to co-develop this together.

I felt this presentation was a prime example of how human rights can, and should, enter the history education classroom, and I was glad to see the direction which the discussion took afterwards.

Doing World History, or Doing Dutch History Better?

It pleases me deeply that the Dutch History Teachers Association has a World History Committee. Indeed the world today is getting smaller, or flatter, or more dependent, and it makes a lot of sense for young people to be more aware of how the world around them came to be.

Yesterday’s meeting, however, brought another dimension. It is not simply doing more history of the world, and looking beyond one countries’ border, but it is looking better at the historical experiences, consequences and legacies which colonial history of this country has left both here and there. Moreover, putting forward source materials that shows the people-dimension of this history can go a long way to actually, simply, making Dutch history education.

We is defined by where we’re heading, not where we have been

Talking Future of Madurodam – The small city of the smile

In 1952 a park was built in The Netherlands which aimed to reinforce a Dutch collective identity and a sense of positivity toward the future. Named after war hero George Maduro, a miniature park called Madurodam was created.

Today the place has a great calling for tourists for having many famous Dutch landmarks collected in one place. The park is visibly built with much care and attention for detail, drawing also a crowd of enthusiasts. But the largest group to visit the park is parents with young children, fitting perfectly to the foundational mission to help kids smile and have fun.

I remember very well the first time my grandfather took me there. I must have been 10 years old and very excited to ask him for some coin to put in the machines which would make the part come alive. Nothing spectacular according to current standards, but making the miniature world come alive for half a minute was actually quite thrilling back then, and probably still is to most kids. Nothing wrong with this.

But in the last few years the park has been re-invigorated, with new attractions being built. Just like with the existing features Madurodam, visitors can expect an interaction. And while the scale has increased and the visitor participation is more rooted in immersive experience, the thing which is really interesting is the coming of the historical narrative and framing to the park.

There are several reasons why this is so interesting:

  1. Building national historical narratives through public institutions, or via public funding is usually a governmental affair. Madurodam is a private foundation and receive no government funding. Its drive to foster collective identity with national historical narratives is rooted in its foundational mission, and is not the result of a public policy. 
  2. The delivery of national historical narratives is a serious affair led by cultural and educational institutions. Madurodam, however, seeks first and foremost to entertain, inspire and (positively) energize the visitors. Similar to other popular histories (games, movies), academic validity plays a secondary limited role in the storytelling concepts. History as a feel-good story, in search of future happy endings.
  3. Madurodam is certainly an established name in Dutch households. It even has a real (school going youngster) mayor appointed annually. It financially supports a charity fund aiming for children to be prepared for active citizenship. In the Dutch language, however, it can be used to portray something as small and irrelevant. Being well-known but arguably less significant in the public mind, provides it further independence.

In the coming years, the park will have a large expansion. New attractions and experiences will be built. To reflect on the position of the park toward history, and matters relating to public historical awareness and national narratives, I had the opportunity to speak with Joris van Dijk, Managing Director of Madurodam, and avid reader of history books!

Retelling Dutch History

Go to Madurodam and you will find Dutch history retold. In addition to the many interactive features of the miniature part (such as running dams, sluices, trains, cars, etc), there are now larger attractions that seek to want the visitor to be inspired by episodes in Dutch history.You can be in the room where 16th century citizens decide to declare themselves independent from the Spanish Empire and sense a feeling of Braveheart-esque yearning for freedom. You can board a 17th century ship sailing to New Amsterdam (before it became New York) and listen to Governor Stuyvesant’s motivational speech. You can help run the 19th century steam-powered pumps to help tame the “waterwolf”, eventually making a large part of land between Amsterdam, Haarlem and Leiden dry and fit for the 20th century building of Schiphol International Airport. And next season, you should be able to board a historical KLM aircraft to take part in a chronological fly-over of the Dutch country, landing in a future sea-based new International Airport.

Responsible History

Is this nation-making, or is it selective ‘slicing’ of history, as Van Dijk put it? Is it possible to take part, even if one is not a public body, in public history without seeking to address wrongs of the past? It would be easy to enter condemnation-mode, and urge Madurodam to turn several pages to include wartime collaboration with the persecution of Jews for example, or the Dutch role in slave trade and enslavement. Addressing issues that have been challenging the post-war and post-colonial Dutch collective identity seem to not fit in a place where that collective identity is grounded in national pride.

It would be too easy however to simply judge Madurodam as a chauvinist place and ignore the context in which Madurodam operates:

  • It attracts tourists and recreational visitors who are not there for learning per se.
  • It seeks to advance a collective sense of optimism.
  • It caters to young kids (mainly until 12 years old)

Moreover, the educational programme developed with ProDemos helps primary school students understand democratic decision making in simulation role play methods. It is in a way telling that there is no history activities offered in the educational packages.

Mr Van Dijk acknowledges that the historical dimension is not the main point of attention in the construction of the story-lines, but has also been very open about the need to work more with historians and generally ensure historical thinking and historical empathy play a role in future attractions.

Putting Inclusive Learning in Leasure?

Admittedly, planning a visit to Madurodam for many parents is all about their children simply having fun. Learning about the country’s landmarks, and to a limited degree its history is facilitated through the distribution of an informative booklet. Mr Van Dijk looks toward new technologies to build a digital environment in which all visitors will be able to engage with the landmarks, Dutch history, and possibly also values related to democratic citizenship.

This drive stems from a very broad view on society and the world today. It is clearly visible in the mission and vision of the Madurodam Children’s Fund which looks to develop children’s empathy, dialogue abilities and empower their participation in society. This means that simply having fun is not enough. It becomes clear that the fund is pursuing this to defend the future of children who live in a society of increasing polarisations and politicising of culture and identity.

The fund does not directly operate necessarily in the park itself, but the transformative values recognised by the park certainly could be instrumental in rethinking the ways in which the park provides historical context and/or motivates the visitors to engage in historical learning.

Going beyond the set pride-generating story-line, which at times might border national myth-making, the park has an opportunity to bring in layers of interpretation and relevance on the individual level.

Our Past and My/Your Future

Mr Van Dijk is motivated in this respect by the European slogan “Unity in Diversity”, or as the American Dollars say “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many one). He would strive for the park to attract visitors who seek to know who we (referring to the Dutch) are, but leaving the park with a sense of who they (referring to the individual) are, and where they would like to go to.

Positioning this ambition in what he sees as “thirst for targeted meaning” amongst visitors, the idea of taking national historical narratives merely as canvas for individual sense-making is very interesting. It fits with the ways in which museums for example seek to deliver authentic experiences to visitors. Mr Van Dijk refers to a high-cultural process, which – as far as I understood – means the ongoing collective creation of shared purpose among the nation. Without being very specific about who belongs and who does not, I understand in this regard that Van Dijk indeed means all the citizens of The Netherlands.

In order to contribute to this process, but not confuse the visitor, some form of mass customisation comes into play. History is so full of stories, but which stories get to be told, which get to be problematized, and which get to be sanctified?

On Message

I never expected to have such great conversations in Madurodam. For all I knew, this park of miniatures was an extension of hobbyists seeking to show their superbly crafted iconic landmarks.

Understanding that people seek an escape from reality, that they seek to have fun, how can Madurodam bring in history – argument-, evidence- and fact-based – without letting the visitors on to a national fairy tale of achievement?

Reversely, how to positive stories of courage and change, get told in such a way that young children, and society at large can find solace and inspiration to avoid the cynicism?

It is interesting to compare Madurodam with its contemporary creation – the Efteling, a fantasy-theme-park. Both, in a sense, seek to instil a sense of wonder, spark the imagination. Is the historical learning that Van Dijk aspires to merely an educational residu of a feel-good park, or should more be done to salvage historical learning?

The title of this article is a (approximate) translation of the line “Wij wordt bepaald door waar we gaan, niet waar we waren” from the song “Van de Regen naar de Zon” by Typhoon

The pictures are supplied by Madurodam©


Liberating the Big Data of the Past

It’s 2025 and you are looking at buying a house. Before you do, you access your timemachine, which puts you in a historical geographic information system. Maybe it’s an Assassins Creed-type immersive experience, or maybe it’s more like a Google Streetview. But whichever it is, you are free to encounter time- and location-specific primary source materials. Not only that. You might also be able to look ‘behind the scenes’ at different interpretations and connections between primary sources across various interpretations in society of said primary source…We are talking annotations, enriched stories, thematic pathways and much more. Before you know it, you have browsed through several centuries of change and continuity in and around your possible house.

This is Timemachine. Born from a desire to radically scale up the Venice Time Machine project (documented very well by the Arte Production “History and Big Data”), the partnership now brings together over 200 institutions from all over Europe. It brings together innovators, networks and users in many fields, including archives,artificial intelligence, data science, gaming, heritage, history and visualisation. One of my favorite organisations, Europeana, is a core supporter as well! What do they want to do, and how?

It’s an exciting time for this initiative as in the coming days the European Union will publish it’s selection results. If positive, the initiative will receive major funding in the years to come!

The initiative website already provides much information about the approach, the vision and the partners – but what would such a time-machine mean for the future of history and history education?

I spoke with Dr Thomas Aigner, Steering Committee member of Timemachine and President of Icarus (International Centre for Archival Research), to find out more about this vision and its implications.

Historians Needed

Timemachine is pitched to bring about a new paradigm for the historical sciences. This involves many new disciplines (AI, robotics, data, physics, etc.), but Aigner holds that the historians’ method of investigation, the philosophy and above all the art of interpreting will make historians more important than ever. No longer will historians be seeking for a needle in a haystack. Instead the masses will be playing around,educating themselves with needles and hay alike. Historians need to foray into designing user experience of interpretations. Much of which resides already in historical pedagogy and cultural heritage education already.

While the project expects to achieve technological breakthroughs in, for example, AI-enabled deciphering of historical scripts and smart translation, it will still be the responsibility of historians in society to assess sources, connect dots critically and tell stories. Only difference will be that they will no longer hold a kind of monopoly to the historical record.

This, one might say, is a process already very much in progress. Public historians seek to further understand their position in an increasingly digitized historical record.

Just as in the 19th century, being overwhelmed by the alleged “experience” of past times in some cases undermines the least distance to the historical subject presented. The borders between the individual-temporal levels become blurred and the observers run the risk of perceiving the representations as mirrors of the past without any reflection. This phenomenon can also be recognized with meticulously investigated Virtual Reality offers which, “in historical terms”, are as exact as possible. (Virtual Time Travels? Public History and Virtual Reality;Public History Weekly)

Trust in Data? Google? Europe?

Aigner talks about the imperative to “liberate the Big Data of the past” and make it accessible for all, in passing also referencing the need for Europe to do this “before Google does it”.This seems a very valid concern! Not only has the Google Books project been a warning shot in terms of figuring out “who owns heritage” (check out the 90 minutes documentary Google and the World Brain if you have a chance), but also in terms of how Google approaches knowledge through AI and algorithms. Playing around for example with “Talk to Books” shows that while it can be easy to find out what books say by asking questions, the perception on the validity of that knowledge, in my view, falls behind the accumulated contextual knowledge of historians, who are trained to cross-reference, as well as “read between the lines”.

Also Google Arts & Culture has featured extensive browsing capabilities of heritage markers.

Be that as it may, how does the noble goal of “liberating data” relate to the cluster of problems around fake news, disinformation campaigns, political echo chambers and polarization in public discourse?

Well, that struggle will go on. Aigner agrees that use and abuse of the past is not something to be resolved with technological breakthroughs. And perhaps Technology is actually part of the problem? But, removing the barriers (access, language, relational, etc) to the historical record will enable all stakeholders to better research, narrate and experience the past.  Timemachine essentially is about the creation of the tools necessary to open to a new world of technology-enabled-history, including “to develop new technologies for the scanning, analyzing, accessing, preserving and communicating of cultural heritage at a massive scale”.

…and Education?

Technologies in virtual/augmented/mixed reality, big data and AI are very promising, and Europe’s thirst for recreational, intellectual, political or simply personal historical experiences, will certainly help in pushing the envelope. Even we can see this as a form of democratisation of the past. Fair enough.

In education, however, the process of learning matters. There are pedagogical concerns and the question of the role of technology in learning still looms in the educational field. Timemachine might eventually offer learners experience which create ‘historical sensations’.It might inspire far more original archival research and even source analysis and critical thinking. But if will still need educators to run the show. 

It seems a process which is just starting. While education policy makers orient themselves to the need to address democratic values, skills for the 21st century and so on. “Technology may enhance teaching, but requires good pedagogy and skills”, say the authors of Teaching in the fourth Industrial Revolution. I will need to read more and seek to follow these teachers. 

Dots on the Horizon

Every citizen will be able to access rich historical data. The big funding from the EU should facilitate the building of a “massive semantic graph of linked data –probably the largest ever built about the past – unfolding in space and time as part of an historical geographical information system”. Still an overly academic project, hence the large EU science funding in the form of FET-Flagship, one can only hope translations to citizens of all ages through public,and general education, get prioritised as well.

Of course, as a historian, I am thrilled to get my hands on this technology. Already working with the Dutch National Library Delpher online archive of newspapers has been an amazing experience and inspiring to do more research. But the idea of a massive single linked approach certainly is incredible.

Also I can see much enthusiasm in the field of cultural heritage, where so many different public authorities(museums, municipalities, provinces, etc) and private entities (tourist companies, seek to provide tourists and the public at large with immersive experience, in which the past can be experienced and more.

Exciting times ahead for sure.

But then I imagine. We have reached the new reality. Big Data of the past has been liberated. A plethora of new research emerges. The public is unable to ignore historical perspectives and anew layer to daily life is made possible. And then you look at the house your about to buy, and you see that is was an SS-headquarters during the Nazi occupation. Or, more to the point, you figure out that the house you are about to buy features high on crime. You won’t go there. The house price drops, and social cohesion with it…Perhaps you see the garden was the site of witch burnings.

Metaphorically, people have described history as a vast ocean of inspiration, but also as the monsters under the bed.

And it is at that point that some questions are likely to remain:

  • How will the public-at-large navigate the moral waters of history?
  • Are we at risk of algorithms catering for us to view only the history which is recommended to us? Like with Netflix,Amazon, etc.
  • Who will govern the data to the extent that the user behaviour might render some historical sources more valuable than others?

Honest proposal writing: Part IV “Whipped Cream”

One of the strangest compliments I have received n my short career as freelance fundraising adviser is that I’m very good in taking a bit of milk and changing it into whipped cream. But, honestly speaking, even though whipped cream makes proposals look great, I wish I wouldn’t need it. Let’s discuss some examples of ‘whipping’.

Imagine your project is about training social workers to be better equipped in their work with problematic youngsters. Imagine the project looks at some successful methods from different countries, documents and published these methods on a website and then has a series of training events to spread them. Normally, I feel, this kind of paragraph should do.

I do apologize to all reviewers who have had to deal with what I am about to make out of the simple, and handsome paragraph, above…

Social workers who work with troubled youngsters across Europe have at the core been able to provide their own methods – often tailored to their local context and content-sensitive. There is limited cross-border exchange among them which forms a particular bottleneck for effective knowledge-development. Our project entails a comprehensive exchange of best practices, rooted in local methodologies. An initial phase of structural documentation, and online free-of-charge publication serves to deliver high quality in situ  cross-border capacity building and professional development programmes which facitate the active and shared learning of the social workers across Europe.

Maybe this wasn’t that bad. I don’t know. Is the ‘whipped cream’ really needed? Do words like cross-border, professional development and capacity building really mean anything, or are they more often (mis)used to just be/sound sophisticated where what we actually want to say is simple: We will train people.

Honest proposal writing: Part III “Evaluate This”

There comes a time in every project application that one must depart from all the good stuff (the vision, the plan, the activities, the partners, the results, the impact), and write a blob of text about evaluation.

The questions don’t make it easy.

How will the project activities, the deliverables and the results be evaluated? Explain which quantitative and qualitative indicators you propose to use…etc.

Imagine God having to consider this dimension before Moses would accept the 10 commandments. Thou shalt have focus groups at set intervals of the implementation period…

Evaluation sucks. How to still make it work?

There is a big risk that you end up creating a completely new project layer on top of your existing project, all full of surveys, interviews and questionnaires. In reality, this will be the part you will hate most in your project.

Another pitfall is that you confuse evaluation for monitoring. After all, I imagine, you would have already crafted a good set of project monitoring actions (such as: we will check if we are doing what we said we would be doing and if we don’t, we will discuss why not, and when we know that, we will see how we change what we were going to do and start doing what we said we would do). Evaluation is not monitoring. Evaluation is about creating a space from where you, or others (you know: target groups, stakeholders, experts, internal/external, advisors, supervisors, people, your mother, and so on), can enter into a reflection about an aspect of you trying to reach your result.

Still confused? Let’s try to break it down.

You can evaluate the following:

  • How is the work going? (implementation, collaboration, dynamics, and so on)
  • What the work is making (outputs, deliverables, conferences, books, propaganda)
  • Is there change (impact, sustainability, joy and peace on earth)

I tend to at first lose myself in the forest of indicators, seeking to prove to the donor that we will get straight A’s. But I think evaluation far more should serve the project being great.

I could be wrong.

 

Honest proposal writing: Part II “Ends”

Q: What are the major objectives that the project should attain?

Hang on a moment. I’ve just spent a good amount of words to detail the main aim, the general objectives, the specific objectives, the results (attained at the end of the project), the deliverables (produced during the project) and the impact (aspired for after the end of the project), and suddenly – you (the anonymous application form) want to me find, somewhere in my logical framework yet another set of objectives – the major objectives.

The honest answer would be:

The major objectives are the objectives (general and specific), cut and dried and put on a bed of softly booked impact indicators. After the project duration, these major objectives can be blended gently with the results. Don’t forget to remove the working outputs off the deliverables. Major objectives are to be served on a plate full of the main aim.

Well, OK, I won’t write that. But let me issue a somewhat innocent, and arguably naive warning that at times, our project proposals have been so trimmed and modeled down for managerial accountability that is becomes rather difficult to earnestly advocate a project’s actual essence, it’s mission, it’s vision, it’s value. Of course you (the donor) want to know what I want to do, how I want to do it, why I want to do it, and for who. But is it really that important to break down the project into aims, objectives, deliverables, results, impact…and major objectives?

Perhaps another approach to this questioning can be imagined by simply having these two questions:

  • Why is this problem your project wants to fix so important for everybody that you, and your project, are deserving a smack amount of public funding?
  • Discuss how your project will fix this problem. Start with what you want to have at the end of the project (results). End with how each of these results can have impact.(to continue to fix the problem). Fill up the middle with some nice hand-drawn diagram of how each of these results requires a set of activities.

Alright, back to the LogFrame now.

Honest proposal writing: Part I “Just do it”

Q: “How will you ensure implementation according to planning?”

  • Passive aggressive comments and/or sarcasm during progress review meetings.
  • We will wing it. We are awesome. You know this. Look at our track record.
  • Mental and physical torture of all stakeholders, and on all levels.
  • Set up a bunch of milestones, benchmarks and indicators. Make sure they are mainly void of meaning, and then report to you about them in words that are nearly identical to the proposal.Jokes aside. This question of course wants to map out what strategies and methods you have in place to actually implement a project. How do you schedule? How do you follow-up with people on what they had to do? What do you do when people don’t do what they said the would do? Do you recognize risks and bottlenecks in your own planning?

So, yes, I get it. It makes sense. I guess I would just love to see an application at some point having questions like:

What will you do when things don’t go according to plan? Imagine one such scenario and take us through your thought process.
Have your partners during the proposal phase expressed some worry about the planning being ‘too much planning, and not enough doing’? How did you respond to this?
What is the opposite of planning? Do you value this as positive or negative, explain why.
…and back to work…

No Escape From Balkan?

When I left my job at EUROCLIO, one of the most touching good-bye’s was in the Balkan. In Topola, Serbia, to be precise. Individuals with whom I had worked closely for over ten years were sad about my decision. After all, I had in  way fallen in love with ‘the region’, it’s people, it’s black humor, it’s food – and it’s attempt to make something positive happen, amidst a quite dire situation of brain-drain, corruption, nepotism and political mud all over the place.

Last week I had a chance to return to ‘the region’, and see many of my friends again. This time, however, things were different. This time, there was no international organisation to set the stage, create the objectives and steer towards an outcome. It was a project imagined by five history teachers associations (Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia), and funded by the Western Balkan Fund – a funding instrument at least partially bankrolled by the States.

The seminar had four educators from each of the five counties, who were almost entirely selected based on the quality of a model lesson plan they submitted for review by a regional board. The theme was the lessons learned, or not learned, from Yugoslavia, which would have existed 100 years in 2018. I really liked the approach which was chosen that allowed all educators to present their lesson plans to one another in open-for-comment sessions, only to be followed at the end of the two days with a detailed scoring card, which allowed all participants to assess the learning outcomes, innovative pedagogy and applicability of the developed workshops. The sum of all scores lead to an ultimate winner who also received an award of €300,- for her fine work (Congratulations Fetnan Dervis, and thank you for the nice words).

I myself took the opportunity to listen to the five association leaders about what drives them to continue, how they reflect on the regional cooperation in history education so far, and what they hope to be able to do in the future. The result of my short interviews is this quickly thrown together documentary.

Being there as a “EUROCLIO Ambassador”, and without the responsibility to manage the event, really showed the changed dynamic amongst the regional group. Trust, as Bojana puts it in the interview, fueled the mutual confidence that, despite lack of funds, lack of political will, lack of appreciation by authorities, the road that this group of people is on – and has been on since 2003 and earlier – is a good one.

After all was said and done, this time, the goodbye’s were hopeful, relaxed, easy. We see each other next time. Like Dubioza says: No Escape from Balkan.

 

Intercultural Incompetence – some thoughts.

A friend with tons of experience of doing research in South Asia recently put it very well: “Intercultural competence is just good listening with a thin layer of contextual knowledge”. We got to talk because of a strange experience I had recently.

Earlier this week, an oral historian from a rich country (not mentioning which one) working in South East Europe called me and asked if, given the fact that I had done some project work with EUROCLIO in this region, I could help her out. I was expecting to talk about some of the history she was studying, or some advice about working with different organisations and institutes, but it seemed her biggest challenge was how to get people to come to an agreed time and place to meet. She found is frustrating that people don’t work according to schedules. At the end of the day she was best helped with me sharing some of my experiences and advice on communicating.

After we finished the talk, I realized this had been quite problematic. We were making gross generalizations and putting it all on  culture. “Those people” had been, after all, living under communism, and therefor did not really know how to respond professionally. Or, due to the warm climate, there is a certain “we’ll see what happens”, mentality. Possibly, their culture, is just to “not make appointments”…

OK, fine, there is a whole word of cultural variance when it comes to how people conduct their work. But being aware of this is not simply a matter of applying tricks (e.g. send them a reminder). It is all about getting to actually know people.

Even more important, however, is the actual dynamic which exists between the richer and the poorer. Does “intercultural competence” in a way hide away this dimension? At the end of the day, whatever research you are doing with people living in tougher living conditions, you are proposing that them helping you out is of equal value – but evidently it is not. One side has a fat research grant, and the other side potentially has two full time jobs, limited to no social plan and is confronted with weak institutions and a collapsing democracy whichever way they look.

So, in this area of working together across all sort of divides, is culture really the issue to be competent in, or are we missing out on a whole range of other dispositions?

After all – I am one of those people who has put in his CV, and repeats it at length in applications that he has intercultural competences. But what does it actually mean? And even more important, how is it actually attained? It seems to me that my friend was spot-on. Be a good listener, be interested in the ‘other’ (whoever it is), and build your contextual knowledge (history, culture, politics, sport, economy, and so on). But be an individual, be human. Don’t draw easy conclusions (like: those people are all lazy), because you would simply be amplifying stereotypes and inviting others to be stereotypical about you (like: they only think about money and planning without emotions).

Just some thoughts.

Blogging, Facebook and the Urge to Interact

So now that I have my own website, I have to also face up to the fact that I had been a quite active internet user since, well, 1997-ish. Thankfully the Internet Archive doesn’t have any record of my first Xoom (or was it Geocities) website, where I put mainly pictures of Aliens. I did for a while have also not one, but two blogs on blogspot (one called Think and Explain and the other Ahava), and tried to join a blog collective De Grondslag (untraceable). Then, for mostly vain reasons, I also had a blog on a newspaper portal (Volkskrantblog) called Dit en Dat (archived). I actually posted all sorts of opinions, and even poems (!) on those old blogs. Hilarious to read them back, this one about History and the threats to Western Civilisation in 2006 (in English), or these poems in Dutch:

But then, the monster which ate the internet arose. Facebook. In a way I feel bad that so much content (ideas, conversations, questions, jokes, interactions) have been thrown into the myth of the personalized experience (timeline), and I should (one day) sift through the content I created and/or shared on that platform and somehow salvage it. Or should I? Facebook’s own feature to remind you of your own memories is nice and kind, but it rarely brings to the front the more meaningful (text-based) interactions I’ve have with people.

Well, I do share a lot of things and ideas on Facebook, and care less about the privacy around those messages. Is this smart? Is it a romanticized idea that the Internet still is a great place for conversations with (connected) strangers? Funnily enough, people who I know in real life occasionally thank me for continuing to share stuff on Facebook, and seek to engage in conversations.

And yesterday, it was somebody I remotely know from my old student association Catena, who got somehow inspired by my reckless #public challenging of the Facebook algorithm (not really my intention, but that is how he perceived it, which is great), and proposed that – in order to fix our addition to swiping-sans-thinking – we should just produce more content and seek out public interactions. Makes sense! Thanks, Maarten!

So there is this urge to be visible, to be read and commented upon. Perhaps I just like writing and should do it more? Wouldn’t be a bad conclusion of this short investigation.

Ultimately, what I would like to see more, is opinions and experiences of people. Short incidents, insights. Things that make you wonder and think. Can we do that more? If not on Facebook, where?