Literacy: from luxury to everyday commodity

Today, we almost take it for granted that we can send our kids to school at no cost at all. To be precise, we must send them to school:  education is mandatory for children between 6 and 17 according to Dutch law. Home teaching is not allowed, and keeping your child at home for trivial reasons as an extra holiday can result in serious fines for the parents. It's clear that education is taken very seriously in the Netherlands. However, it has not always been like that. For many of our ancestors, learning to read and write was a luxury far beyond their reach.

Middle Ages
Up until the late 1500s education was a rich man's thing. Among the nobility it was customary to educate the firstborn son as the successor of his father. Private teachers would educate him in the art of reading, writing and calculating (all needed to run the estate he was to inherit) and politics, discussion and noble manners (needed to deal with political intrigues and acquiring a strategically chosen spouse). The second son would receive a decent military training, also given by private teachers. The third and other sons could opt to go into a monastery in order to get a proper education, which involved a generous donation to the monestary by their dad.

Daughters would be trained in music, dancing, reading and writing in order to become suitable spouses for financially interesting noblemen. Becoming a nun was a popular way to escape being married off and dedicate a life to science and art.

Ordinary people usually did not master reading and writing. They did not have much need for it either. Books were scarce and in everyday life it served no practical purpose. Youths would simply learn a craft by starting to work as young as possible. Fathers would teach their sons their own craft or send them off to be taught by a master craftsman. Daughters would be trained at home by their mothers to become mothers and housekeepers themselves. For both, calculation (by head) was a far more important skill to master than reading or writing. After all, that was a skill you needed to make money and spend it wisely.

Golden Age
In the 1600s all of this changed. The Dutch Republic suddenly flourished and business was booming. In a matter of decades the need for written documents and people who could read and write them grew explosively. Contracts were needed to arrange big deals, people got wealthier and felt a need to draw up legal acts for their property acquisitions, their inheritances and business deals.

No longer was education a luxury reserved for noblemen. It became a practical everyday need both for the wealthier businessmen and the people they employed. Becoming a clerk was a new way to make money. So everyone that could afford it, employed private teachers to teach their children at least the arts of writing, reading and calculation.

The Enlightenment
Under pressure of the Enlightenment in the late 1600s and 1700s the idea arose that everybody should be able to get at least a basic education. Therefore, the Church (Protestant and Catholic alike) would employ a teacher for the poor. Sometimes, this teacher was paid by the Government. To stimulate parents to actually send their children to school they would also pay a compensation to the parents for each child attending class. This may sound odd, but we need to keep in mind that children were an important source of income for the poor and child labor was an absolute necessity for many families. Sending your children off to school meant less income and even more poverty. The compensation made it possible for the poor to give their children an education without suffering income loss.

These Church and Government funded schools were called "armenscholen", which means "school for the poor". We must not confuse this with our modern concept of a school. They usually consisted of one classroom with one teacher per up to 100 pupils. There was, however, no such thing as group teaching. The teacher would sit at a large desk and would call the pupils to his desk one by one to explain them a lesson or to check whether they had learned their lesson well. If they had not, they would be smacked. Older children would also help the younger ones. Lessons had to be learned by heart by reading them aloud over and over again. All the walking and talking in the classroom would have hardly made it an environment for proper learning. On top of that, not all school teachers were really skilled to teach and only interested in the money they made with it. Nevertheless, most kids did eventually master some basic reading and writing skills.

To improve basic education, the first Education Act was approved in 1806 which, among other things, stated that:

  • Teachers needed to get a diploma in order to be allowed to teach.
  • Classroom teaching became mandatory and children had to be split up in age groups.
  • Schools were obliged to teach Christian and social values.
  • Government inspection would check whether schools obeyed the rules.
  • School fees became mandatory.

However, the act had considerable flaws. It prohibited the foundation of any school teaching other values than what the Government saw as "neutral Christian values". Orthodox Protestants, Catholics and other groups refused to send their children to public schools and hence did not send them to school at all. For many poor the school fees just were too high, resulting in numerous drop-outs. Parents that did pay were offended by the new mandatory classroom teaching, complaining that the teacher could no longer give the child the proper, individual training they were paying for. Finally, the act failed to make schooling mandatory giving parents legal room to send their children to work instead of to school. As a result, illiteracy remained high.

Industrial Revolution
By the early 1800s, the Netherlands had slipped into a deep crisis and it was commonly assumed that this was due, at least partially, to the low education of the masses. Education became a high priority. However, due to the fierce discussion about how education should be arranged, nothing was achieved for a long time. To finally resolve the issue, a new Education Act was passed in 1857 which stated that only public school would be funded by the Government provided that they would supply "neutral" education and accept pupils of all faiths and all social classes. Still, education was not mandatory.

Under the new act four types of schools arose, "number schools" which were schools for the poor, each marked with a number; "letter schools" which were schools for the working classes that were marked with a letter; "second class bourgeois school" for the lower middle-class that were given proper names; and finally "first class bourgeois schools" for the high middle-class. The upper classes still employed home teachers like a governess to teach their children.

Though theoretically there now was a school system in place that had trained teachers, classroom teaching, and affordable options for all classes and faiths, still many children were not attending school. The reason for this was the Industrial Revolution. Children were a popular work force in the factories and they remained a vital source of income for the lower classes.  The issue was partially solved by the liberal politician Samuel van Houten. He forged the so-called "Kinderwetje van Van Houten" (Child Labor Act of Van Houten) that prohibited child labor in factories for children between 6 and 12 years old. Land labor was not included in the act. The law was praised by many but proved difficult to enforce and in practice very little changed and illiteracy remained high among the lower classes.

Modern Time
Thanks to the improvements in education in the 1800s a proper education had become commonplace not only for the rich and noble, but also for the middle classes. It remained a luxury, however, for the lower classes. Poverty made them very dependent still on child labor, keeping kids from attending school.  Finally, in 1900, a law was passed that made "proper schooling" mandatory for all children between 6 and 12 years old. Proper schooling was defined as schooling approved by the Government. In 1900, this only included public schooling and homeschooling, provided it was given by a qualified teacher. It was not until 1917 that a the law was finally adapted to include schools based on a certain faith or philosophy other than what of the Government had defined as "proper schooling".

In 1969, the law was adapted and schooling became mandatory for all children between 6 and 16. In 1975, another year was added. Also in 1969, homeschooling was no longer seen as "proper schooling", much to the discontent of the high classes.

The result of mandatory education is that, today, most Dutch cannot imagine that not so long ago, getting an education was not so commonplace. Everybody goes to school and learns how to read, write and more. Anyone can go to high school and university.  However, the system as it is today is not ideal either. In an effort to provide schooling for everybody,  the system has been generalized so much that special groups find it hard to fit in and drop out making illiteracy raise again. The last decade or so voices are raising to loosen up the mandatory schooling system and allow home schooling again since it would provide means to give special groups a more suitable education. Gifted children would benefit from attending school less and get additional tailored home-based teaching that adequately challenges them. Children that have trouble learning from books would benefit more from practical, hands-on education on the job. So, even if we have come a long way and should be grateful for all that has been accomplished, there is still much room for improvement.