Transfer, Crisis and the Conceptual History of Civic Education in the Netherlands, 1945-2019

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Transfer, Crisis and the Conceptual History of Civic Education in the Netherlands, 1945-2019

Wim de Jong

This paper analyses the development of civic education in the Netherlands from the perspective of conceptual history. Activities aimed at fostering the democratic competence and personality of citizens have been very diversely described in various national contexts: from instruction civique to education civique, staatsbürgerliche Erziehung to Politische Bildung, civic or social or citizenship education. Used interchangeably, nonetheless this paper argues that there are underlying reasons for shifts in dominance of varying designations, which root in the development of both political and educational debates. Transnational transfer is highly important in these shifts, and shifting uses of a certain term are linked to social and political developments.

1. Education for ‘state’ citizenship

Between 1945 and 1965, the mostly used concept was staatsburgerlijke vorming of opvoeding, which had been influenced by the German staatsbürgerliche Erziehung. Emphasis was on the duties toward the state, and less on fostering ‘democracy’. In Dutch schools, civic education mainly came to the fore in history classes where ‘staatsinrichting’ (institutional form of the state) was part of the curriculum. The liberal-republican, French citoyen connotations of ‘staatsburger’, however made a curriculum aimed at more than a factual description of state institutions controversial for the strong religious groups dominating Dutch politics.

 The post-war Netherlands were in a bad economic situation, with some cities in ruins and a shortage of all life commodities. Democracy returned, but there was fierce debate about how it should be reconstituted. Was a simple return to pre-war parliamentary democracy self-evident, or was this a chance to fundamentally renew the system? Democratic education was seen as necessary to counter a moral crisis induced by the German occupation. It often was related to more general educational reform ideas, in this period was referred to as ‘staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’ (education/raising/pedagogy) or ‘vorming’ (formation). This ‘education for state citizenship’ had already been prevalent in the first half of the century. During the interwar period, social democrats talked about ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ education (volksopvoeding), referring to their goal of emancipating the broad masses.

‘Staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’ initially came into vogue mainly among Catholics. ‘Staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’ was clearly inspired by the German staatsbürgerliche Erziehung. Education reformers like Kerschensteiner and Foerster saw the ‘state’ as opposed to the party and class man. In being part of the state, such loyalties to partial interests could at the same time be transcended and allocated a place.1 They actively spread their ideas to other countries in the interwar period, giving lectures in the Netherlands as well, popularizing the terminology of staatsbürgerliche Erziehung, also in circles of ‘folk’ educators, and reform-pedagogics. Kerschensteiners Arbeitsschule was akin to Deweys ‘democratic education’ in terms of learning by doing,

Problem with ‘staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’ was the prevalence of the ‘state’ in it. In the ‘pillarized’ Netherlands, the idea of the state organizing a strong national cultural policy and pedagogic program aroused fears of ‘state pedagogics’, associated with totalitarian countries. Integrating citizens in the state was fine, as long as it was done within the communities of Catholic and Orthodox-protestants. Much more than other designations of this activity, such as ‘social education’, the specific terminology here caused a refusal of active government policy in this sphere; if not referred to as ‘staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’, activities in the sphere of societal or democratic education within schools were much less sensitive.

These sensitivities notwithstanding, the dominance of the idea of ‘state citizenship’ showed itself in the rather uncontroversial support for so-called ‘citizen days’ on the local level from 1948 until the mid-sixties, in many Dutch cities such as Amsterdam and Nijmegen. Organized for newly enfranchised youngsters, they involved music and speeches in a big meeting e.g. in the local concert hall, where government ministers were invited to give lectures about rights and duties in the state, a booklet on which was gifted to the youngsters, with a picture of the queen on the first page. As they were organized locally, and without a grat rhetoric of a big national plan for state citizen education, they went by without controversy. The emphasis on duties as well as rights in these gatherings however fits ‘staatsburgerlijke opvoeding’ very well.

2. Introducing civic education and the turn towards political education

A discourse of crisis of democracy was the backdrop of the introduction of the subject of ‘maatschappijleer’ in schools, which signalled a reorientation toward a sociological ‘sozialkunde’ to counter alienation. Its vague description made it acceptable to religious groups. The political upheavals of the 1960s put the radical emancipatory ‘politieke vorming’ center stage, many social movements and leftwing social workers were inspired by the German politische Bildung. It was however heavily controversial, as it emphasized political controversy. ‘Citizenship’ was banned between 1966 and 1990 as ‘bourgeois’ and system-affirming.

The 1960s were a period of great change in Dutch society and politics. Post-war reconstruction was nearly finished, and criticism of authority in the churches led to a process of secularization and a drop in church attendance. From the mid-1960s onwards the party-political landscape, which rested on the integrated communities the ‘pillars’ had provided, experienced an earthquake due to these reasons. Already in the beginning of the decade, there had been a new discourse of ‘crisis of democracy’, which was believed to be rooted in alienation of normal citizens from an opaque politics dominated by vested interests and a society changing at breakneck speed.

       The term staatsburgerlijke opvoeding, still used by parliamentary politicians such as the above, was increasingly discarded. In an overhaul of the secondary education system the school subject of maatschappijleer, with reference to British civics and German Sozialkenntnis was introduced. Despite the vagueness with which it was announced, there was an idea underlying maatschappijleer, it stood for the desire to socialise education and integrate the curriculum. In addition to the rise of sociology and the interest of politicians in educational renewal, the demands of modern working life contributed to the introduction of social studies.2 Social doctrine, based on the model of American civics, had to provide an overview of the foundations of democratic state and the forces that ‘control modern life’ using newspaper articles and political speech.3

            This was only an intermediate stage in the radicalization of Dutch political debate. After 1968, many New Left movements sprang up, which aimed to ‘politicize’ all spheres of society, which they saw as in need of drastic democratization. Many of these movements, from the radicalized peace movement to the environmental movement and the feminist movements, saw raising awareness, the abandoning of ‘false consciousness’ and the education of both their constituencies and the public at large as key activities.

Until the mid-1960s, ‘political education’ was mainly associated with political parties and their youth organisations. From the mid-1960s onwards, the term was broadened and struck democratic political formation that was not necessarily partisan.4 There were transnational influences here again, again mainly from West-Germany, which had developed into the mecca of politische Bildung and where civics had been referred to with that term ever since the post-war period. German politische Bildung took a radicalizing turn in the 1960s as well. A popular method of making workers aware of their social position was the ‘exemplary learning’ developed by the German APO-angehauchte trade union worker Oskar Negt. It aimed to teach workers ‘sociological abstract thinking’. Negt sought to break through apathy and alienation by penetrating workers of the malleability of society and the alternative of ‘worker self-government’, used by social workers in the Netherlands as well. Dutch radical defendants of political education like Willem Langeveld felt students should make the connection between their own existence and the abstractions of politics, for example at the level of their neighbourhood.5 Inspired by the German theorist Hermann Giesecke, he saw current controversies as central to political education. She had to prepare young people for a world of power relations and conflicts of interest.6

3. The return of ‘burgerschapsvorming’ and the rise of the pedagogical state (1990-2020)

The term ‘citizenship’ was taboo for two decades due to its connotations with a conservative, petty bourgeois attitude. From the 1990s onward the concept returned to the centre of discussions. ‘Burgerschapsvorming’ became the dominant designation, influenced by Anglo Saxon ideas of ‘civic’ and ‘citizenship’ education. It was part of a conservative crisis discourse, a reorientation and critique of an all too permissive society that had supposedly developed since the 1960s. Now, ‘Political education’ was increasingly discarded as standing for the system-critical social movements between 1965 and 1990.

            Burgerschapsvorming emphasizes civic virtues such as respect and socially acceptable behaviour were more important in these conceptions than democracy, which mainly came to the fore in ‘democratic values’, less in teaching students critical attitudes toward the political system. Instead they reevoked the formation of state citizens, however without returning to the 1950s emphasis on the ‘state’.

The paper’s final argument is that this development is again caused by a transnational crisis of democracy discourse, in which indifference and apathy of youngsters figure largely, fostered by the development of regular reports on the state of civic education in different countries. The theory underlying ‘burgerschapsvorming’ also stems from different sources than the ‘political education’ of the previous period did, switching to more Anglo-saxon influences.


  1. G. Kerschensteiner, Staatsbürgerliche Erziehung der deutschen Jugend, 14; F.W. Foerster, Staatsbürgerliche Erziehung, 282. []
  2. NL-HaNA, OKW / VHMO 2.14.43, inv.nr. 108: Stichting Contactcentrum Bedrijfsleven-Onderwijs organiseert conferenties om algemene ontwikkeling binnen het onderwijs te vergroten. “Coördinatie van voorlichting bepleit bij keuze van studie en beroep”, 01-12-1961. []
  3. Onderwijsvernieuwing. Rapport eener commissie ingesteld door het hoofdbestuur van de Nederlandsche Maatschappij voor Nijverheid en Handel. Deel 1: Algemene beschouwingen; Rapport middelbaar onderwijs (Alphen aan den Rijn: Samsom 1946) 109. []
  4. L.H.W.J. Joosten, Politieke vorming, 14-17. []
  5. Vrij Nederland 05-07-1969. []
  6. H. Giesecke, Didaktik der politischen Bildung (München: Juventa 1974/1965) 144-145. []

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