Humans of EUROCLIO: Ineke Veldhuis-Meester


Ineke Veldhuis-Meester
EUROCLIO Affiliate 1992-Present

“It is best to connect past and present, and this is what EUROCLIO does.”

Ineke Veldhuis-Meester stood at the threshold of EUROCLIO and has remained active within the organization ever since. From the start, she has been part of the Historiana Learning Team, developing innovative and multi-perspective learning activities. Currently she works for the project “Decisions & Dilemmas” on the reasons for European cooperation after World War II. Her background is in teaching History and Civics in a Dutch secondary school/gymnasium and at the International School in the Netherlands. For 18 years Ineke was responsible for the Pedagogy of History teaching at Groningen University, and from 1997-2000 she served on the National Board for the Association of Teachers in History and Civics in the Netherlands (VGN). Her interest in assessment led to constructing national history exams at the National Institute for Assessment and Measurement (CITO). With ‘a gang of four’ she implemented a new examination system for History in secondary education throughout the Netherlands. After retirement she continues to serve as expert in History Education on Council of Europe and EUROCLIO projects; her field of interest is multi-perspective History teaching and innovative methodology, the shaping of historical consciousness in collective memory and remembrance today.

Q: How did you first get involved with EUROCLIO?

My first involvement with EUROCLIO was very early on.  At the time, I was the chair of the postgraduate teaching committee of the Dutch History Teachers’ Association (VGN), where Joke was president. We became close while working on reforming the examination system of the Netherlands, commissioned by the Ministry. In 1992 and 1993, Joke and Hélene Budé set up EUROCLIO, and I was with them at the founding meeting in Leeuwarden in 1993. From that point on, I continued to be involved, as we worked intensively together from 1990 to 1999. In that period, I myself would become a VGN board member. Along with reforming the examination system, we also had to change the curriculum.  During these efforts, I learned that implementing these changes successfully was highly dependent on working with the teachers themselves. We had between 60 and 80 half-day workshops all over the country where we gave information, explanation, and professional coaching to teachers focusing on how to educate their pupils in the new curriculum. We engaged with the challenges of the reforms on all levels, and we were very intense and met many times! It took me two and a half to three hours to come to each meeting, and I returned the same day, so it was a lot of travel and work time.

But in the end, we published two books on the reforms to the examination system and curriculum, in 1993 and in 2000. So that is the story of my initial involvement with Joke, and I think we worked well together because we both had the same determination.

Q: You were a teacher-trainer for many years. Are there any specific challenges or insights that you can share from your experiences in this profession?

Unique challenges presented in the course of teacher trainings. I remember my first experience at one teacher training course in Poland in the 90s, where I was introducing a new examination (Matura). Joke was involved in that program, but she had asked me for the assessment part because I was a teacher-trainer and I had been constructing Dutch national exams as well as British Coursework for the 12-15 International examination. At first, the teachers were apprehensive and maybe even fearful. At the same time, however, they were eager to learn. It was so soon after the communist regime had ended. The teachers said things like, “You don’t give me knowledge!” and they gravitated towards yes/no questions rather than toward more open and broad queries. I recall asking one of the groups “Is Hitler the only one to blame for the second world war?” and the response was immediately, “YES!” So then I asked, “But can you imagine that the role France and Britain played made them also a bit to blame? Weren’t other parties somewhat responsible?” I tried to teach these educators that there could be stages to a good answer, and that responses shouldn’t have to be black or white. These questions do not warrant merely a straight answer. History is complex, and I tried to explain that the more complexity that can be understood, the more valuable it becomes. Personally, I was impressed by their amount of knowledge. If they could apply that in a kind of new way, this would make them better history teachers. I realized that they needed many more sources and more professional training.

I’d also like to share a couple of impressions from my experiences as a teacher-trainer. First, I remember being told at the last teacher-trainer session in the above program in Poland, “You brought imagination back to our education.” Isn’t that a reward? It made me happy. Imagination in education is so valuable, and it is something that I strive for and that I believe others should strive for in their practice. This feedback was therefore quite significant to me.

Secondly, I recall that at the time, in countries that had belonged to the former Soviet bloc, apprehension was quite prevalent among the teachers that I worked with, and these individuals did not champion the value of cooperation. They seemed to focus on knowing the ‘right facts’, of the post-soviet nationalist curriculum. I realized that these educators’ professors and government officials were also observing.

When I was in Moldova in 2002 and 2003, in Saravejo in 2003, and in Romania from 2004 to 2007, there were 2-3 years of programs with money of the Council of Europe that, in the context of the Stability Pact, were designed ‘to prepare countries in eastern Europe for democracy’. We worked with teachers, teacher-trainers and persons from the ministry during this time, and I engaged them in interactive exercises around a couple of sources to get them to think more openly. From one seminar I remember: At first, educators just wanted me to tell them the ‘new’ truth. I responded with, “Which truth do you want to hear? The truth of Stalin? ‘The’ East? ‘The’ West?” I tried to get them to recognize that more than one perspective exists. There is not One East nor One West, and even within their own country there were different ways to look at the past. To stay away from sensitive politics, the strategy I used was asking the educators to jot down five facts or events that they would want tourists to know about the country. If I had tried this exercise in Western Europe or the U.S., most people would have been trying to read the responses of their neighbors. But within this group, most of the individuals wrote while covering their papers to hide what they had written. This gave me the impression of the fear, still so prevalent in society, that came with sharing your opinion. The new governments that existed after the wars in Yugoslavia wanted specifically the history of the new nation state, and no history that connected between the nations of the former Yugoslavia, being taught. After the educators had written their responses, I asked them to share what they had written with their neighbor, and to not immediately react or apologize for what was written, but rather to silently reflect before interacting. That was my way of getting the participants to interact with one another and to try to remove a little of their fears of opening up to one another. People did open up once they got to know me, as well. Of course, strategies and approaches differ from country to country, from group to group.

Thirdly, I’d like to share that I believe continuation in professional training to be rewarding for everyone, including myself. I learned this from having been involved from start to finish in a professional training program entitled ‘Education 2000+’ in Romania and the Bulgarian ‘Cultural Rainbow Program’. I saw that when you work longer with individuals, they trust and feel more comfortable with you, so they open up. Together we created a safe basis for interaction and had more fun. This is why I believe that 2 to 3 year projects to be invaluable!

Q: Do you have a first or favorite memory of working with EUROCLIO?

It’s not specific, but my favorite aspect of working with EUROCLIO has been connection. Through this work, you can reach people, make them happy and encourage them to be open, to think with you, to imagine and to not fight against you. Additionally, after every course I felt rewarded by the real contact with people, the places of heritage I was brought to, the landscape, and the culture and organization of society. I learned so much from my contacts with participants and the course leaders, and I felt enriched by experiencing different ways of living. I was and am given so much cordiality, warmth and open-heartedness, and the hospitality so many persons extended to me often made me remember, ashamedly, that I and other Dutch people have lost this unconditional hospitable approach to guests and friends. It is so worthwhile; I try to practice this approach.

There were wonderful specific moments as well. One warm evening at the coast of the Black Sea in Constança Romania, my colleagues and I were walking because our Romanian colleagues wanted to show us something. When we came upon a statue and I asked who it was, they promptly began to recite a poem that they all knew by heart to relay information about the statue. For me, this was incredible. It seems that we, as north-western Europeans and perhaps especially as Dutch citizens, have a shame culture that dictates that you should not proudly raise your own country above others. But our Romanian colleagues stood there and recited the poem, integrating that historic period into today’s world before moving into a nationalistic song. When I asked about the song, they told me that they had all learned the song when they were babies, and that they continue to teach their babies this nationalist song. The moment was so wonderful; I was in a spell on the warm evening, with people that trusted us enough to proudly share their nationalist song and poem with us. On the whole, it was clear to me that in eastern European countries, most people are much more outwardly proud of their national histories than us, and in this moment, this sentiment became even clearer. Apart from all of the dangerous aspects linked to these feelings, I felt ‘connected.’

I also recall specific moments that remind me of how moving it is to know that you can have contact with a person who resides in such a different atmosphere of thinking and possesses opinions that often do not match your own. At annual conferences, I have that strong feeling of forming together ‘One Big Family’. EUROCLIO feels like my second family. At a recent annual conference, I was reminded of the splendor of this kind of exchange. I was speaking with a man from Turkey with whom I have worked before. I asked him if he was not quite tired of sharing his political opinions with big groups of people, and he responded that he almost felt as if he couldn’t trust many people with his own thoughts. But when we went for a quiet walk in the evening, it was possible for us to exchange our opinions and for him to share his thoughts with me. This kind of personal exchange is so dear to me.

Q: How did EUROCLIO contribute to your work? To history education in general?

Personally, I have made friends all over the world who have broadened my mind. I learned as much from my colleague-educators as they learned from me, and I experienced other ways of living and perspectives. It enriched my personal life to work with these highly motivated educators and organizers. All of the EUROCLIO personalities are quite stimulating, whether it be in programs with the history associations, in specific teams, in Historiana from the start, or in the secretariat; they have energy, they want to work and to develop in a direction that mirrors my own. EUROCLIO espouses a way of thinking and behaving with determination that I share, and that is enriching to others and to myself.

In terms of how EUROCLIO contributes to history education, I don’t believe that it necessarily aims to always be on the cutting edge of history education, keen on the newest tips and tricks. For EUROCLIO, I believe it is more about spreading a different mission: showing that new perspectives, as well as old, can and must be connected. It all has to do with connection for EUROCLIO, with opening up and experiencing others’ different views, with moving all of us forward to understanding and democratic persuasion. Rather basic in the world is the idea that every human is an ‘animal sociale’ and this has been laid down in the EUROCLIO manifesto.

Q: What is the role of EUROCLIO today? In the future? How will it develop?

I believe that a main focus of EUROCLIO is and should be to continue to build up and strengthen countries’ organizations associated with history education, both in areas where EUROCLIO is already established and in new areas.  We already have so much experience reaching people in divided societies.  The built-up professionalism should be employed, and we should continue to support these organizations by invigorating them and not patronizing them. We must also explore new areas. As EUROCLIO Ambassador, I recently went to India in connection with the ‘Dealing with the Past’ project to establish connections as we work in the same field; in July 2017, we have another organized team visit to Korea. Opportunities in places like these are exciting and useful. It is important that the member educators’ organizations, new and old, should be continually monitored by EUROCLIO’s team (which is perhaps a role that can be fulfilled by ambassadors), and these members should show up to the annual conferences as they mostly do. Money plays a role, of course.

I strongly believe that a big part of the development of EUROCLIO is through Historiana. The new, successful Historiana format, with its creativity, technology, and discussions of the pros and cons of the new and old media, gives a new form to educational exercises previously completed in class with sources on paper or slides. I’m happy to still be involved, despite being at a bit more of a distance nowadays. Although, next August in Estonia I ‘ll conduct workshops on ‘Changing Europe’, involving life stories from the period of the start of the EU!

Q: In your career with EUROCLIO what has been your greatest challenge? How did you overcome it?

In 1997, the Dutch ministry asked me to become a member of the Project Group of the Council for Cultural Cooperation Project: Learning and Teaching about the History of Europe in the 20th century. I learned first about the difference in cultures and views between countries in western and south-western Europe outside the former soviet dominated countries. I found this experience interesting, intriguing and also heavy and difficult sometimes to cope with.

As I explained above I had an even heavier experience working together with colleagues in programs in Eastern Europe. Mainly in the first twenty years after the fall of the SU, in many countries, history education in school and at university seemed to be focused on knowledge of the right facts to pass final examination. I realized people were not used to, and often could not, speak openly. At the time, their professors and government officials were often present in the training meetings. Did they watch how far we could move away from the traditional history content, which was often politically influenced? Which sources we brought in? I felt I had to deal with them as well, as we wanted to move away from the facts in the prescribed textbooks. And I did, in my way.

I came from a different world, where you could freely express your thoughts. At best, those who heard your thoughts valued you as being honest and brave, and at worst they saw you as too courageous, especially being a woman. So in Moldova, I first asked professors why they stood aside and did not cooperate. That was a mistake. But that same day, I already got some participants so far that they individually asked the professors sitting adjacent to them for help to answer my questions encouraging them to think of sources for an event of their choice. Soon, small groups gathered around their former professors with questions, and the professors went into discussion with their former students. The ice was broken in the evening with a drink and a talk via an interpreter.

I learned to cope with these challenges by always starting a professional training with questions. At first, I’d ask for the participants’ views on certain events in their own history, and then I’d widen their thinking by asking questions concerning one or two sources, gradually building up their skills to analyze and interpret.

But going from teaching facts to dealing with interpretations of these facts is not an easy path. My method was to let participants work in small groups, where they could speak more freely and in their own language. I’d engage them in activities on how to look at sources together and then how to analyze and agree to interpret them differently. When the history was too heavy to name a country, I spoke of ‘the history of this region’ and we looked – in mixed groups of course – at what to put in a tourist guide of that region, so there would be no political issue at stake. My best experiences are from working over a longer period in a project so that trust had been build up.

Q: Within EUROCLIO and outside of EUROCLIO, who has influenced you the most professionally and/or personally?

Within EUROCLIO I would say the team of Historiana. We started in Historiana with ‘discovering diversity’, implementing multiperspectivity in history education in a new technology concept, developed by Steven and guided by our chief editor. Bob Stradling was ‘the Great Helmsman, and it was a joy working with him. He is inspirational, and accessible, full of ideas and determined to finish the task ahead, of which he can already see the result. I was lucky to be involved from the beginning in the development of Bob and Steven’s project. We started with ‘People on the Move’, a series of case studies on migration, in which history content and history learning had to be made accessible for a whole field of educators. We had to find out the right format. Chris Rowe was often at our side with his enormous knowledge, energy, and willingness to help us out, from a range of sources, to find the right words. Furthermore, my friend Joke van der Leeuw-Roord has inspired me; we both have the same conviction and similar ideas about good steps to take. But Joke has additional, admirable characteristics; she dares more, she can be very decisive, and she is far more strategic than I am. Because of all these things, she is more powerful and she has reached far into places, where other people would have waited to go, e.g. driving in a taxi in Russia in the nineties as two women (with Hélène Budé). Her far-reaching example made me refuse to accept that the Congress on Nationalism in India in November of 2016 would do without a EUROCLIO contribution while I could still go! I went to Jonathan, who is always in for a solution, and we created a new program on that very morning. So I went to Calcutta and paid a visit to six schools as well! It was an efficient and rewarding event. Then ‘the two boys’ who continued Joke’s role in EUROCLIO, developed into young decisive and amiable steering men; Jonathan and Steven are quite inspiring and efficient. I admire them, and I also admire ‘the two girls’, firstly Judith, followed by Aysel, who as junior managers started and soon developed into energetic and charming leaders of complete programs, both nearby and far away, with power that drove people forwards.

A person further away who inspires me was Rumyana Kusheva from Bulgaria. With a firm hand, she led the teachers group in the EUROCLIO Rainbow project, and she always reminded us that we were colleagues all striving for similar aims towards a more multiperspective history education. She was decisive, open, determined, and committed, and she especially wanted to ensure that the students became good citizens. I keep her in my mind as an exemplary individual.

Q: How has your perspective on history education changed since you began working with EUROCLIO?

I would actually say that working with EUROCLIO has not changed my perspective on history education; rather, it broadened my vision on the power of history in society and in a community, both in terms of its influence in the way society has been constructed and how it can be used and abused to influence people’s opinions. I became more aware of the positive role history education can play to show and explain the constructive character of history to pupils/students. The more I learned about the role of history in countries, the more I was driven to work to spread the multiperspective approach in EUROCLIO projects. My recent experiences in the History Project of the Black Sea Region showed how difficult that is, and how wonderfully it can work as well.

EUROCLIO has confirmed my own philosophy. I believed that a good history teacher connects past and present, and this is exactly what EUROCLIO does. I want to teach students history by encouraging a way of thinking – a critical mind that students can continue to nurture into adulthood. It has always been my goal to make people critical in this way, so I don’t think I can say EUROCLIO changed this for me. It has also always been imperative to encourage people to not immediately judge others, but to instead, first inform themselves.  This is especially relevant in terms of today’s context and media influence. Because of the media, our role as teachers has changed. I believe that multimedia should be used more in education; although even then, the students are in their own media circles, so our influence as teachers is limited. We must continue to think of how we can open students’ minds to encourage them to consider and to be aware of the need of multiple sources of information from multiple perspectives. I think EUROCLIO aligns with my own philosophy on this matter.

Q: How was your time spent in India? Do you have any insights from your visits?

One thing I learned is that the challenges there were exactly of the same kind as the challenges here. Problems about nationalism were quite prevalent, because there’s an interplay of different kinds of nationalism. There may exist a kind of civic nationalism, but at the same time, one’s own nationalism is present. These feelings cannot be eradicated. The situation is also varied with so many languages and so many points of view. I noticed the importance of religion in so far as it provides a sense of belonging and forms a foundation for a way of life, but I also saw how religious groups designate different groups as ‘the other.’ So I learned from my visit to Calcutta that in order to communicate, it is necessary to come together on another level. And again, I also strove for the same goal of experiencing and encouraging the warmth and cordiality that connects people.