Educational Websites on the Memory of Slavery in Europe: The Ongoing Challenge of History Teaching

Stephan Klein

Around 1960, many history classrooms in Western Europe would look something like this: a history teacher stands in front, looking at his students who sit in rows behind their desks. Their textbooks are open. The teacher starts to tell them about an important historical event and will continue to do so until the end of the lesson. At some point, the teacher uses a visual tool to stimulate the imagination and ask questions. The walls around the blackboard have been decorated with some large colored drawings: the wall charts, visually supporting the teacher’s story, and drawing students into the strange worlds of princes and commoners, military leaders and soldiers, and captains and sailors.

Half a century later many of these students—now at a mature age—may hear about the history classrooms of their grandchildren. Some teachers have supposedly stopped telling great stories about important national events and focus more on so-called historical thinking skills. Some of the topics their grandchildren are learning about were absent from teaching around 1960. The schoolbooks are still there, but there is massive new content available in new media, inviting children not to listen in silence but to participate as active learners. History used to be better, the older generation might think. The value of

This article springs for an important part from my research at the Center for Historical Culture, Erasmus University Rotterdam, in the research program Heritage Education, Plurality of Narratives and Shared Historical Knowledge (2009-2014), led by Maria Grever and Carla van Boxtel. The construction of the website ‘Slave Trade in the Atlantic World’ (mentioned in this article), which I coordinated, is the valorization of this research project (mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ).

S. Klein (*)

ICLON - Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching, Leiden, The Netherlands © The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_37

nostalgia for thinking about future education may be debated; but surely in between these periods of coined and recalled memories, fundamental changes have impacted on history classrooms.

This chapter starts with discussing the early twenty-first-century classroom from the angle of two clusters of interrelated developments: (1) the questioning of national narratives and the growth of public interest in the past; (2) the rise of a critical approach in history teaching and the media revolution. Then, we will consider how these developments have impacted on a particular educational context in Europe: the Netherlands. Here, as elsewhere, the questioning of the national narrative has led to major debates about the content and pedagogical approach of school history. To illustrate this point we will focus on the historical issue of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. After the year 2000, this topic has emerged as an important newcomer in the Dutch national history curriculum. For history teachers in the Netherlands, the new topic raises questions of how to balance respect for present emotions with historical thinking skills, introduced in 1993. What complicates the challenge is that the topic is presented not just in history textbooks but also in various new media on the internet. New media may have much to offer, but they also have great impact on pedagogical decision making by teachers who want their students to work with them in the present age. To show what is at stake, we will analyze the historical narrative and pedagogy embedded in a small number of Dutch educational websites on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery and we will compare these with English websites on the same topic, as transatlantic slavery has recently become an important curriculum topic here as well. The comparison reveals that educational websites are not just learning tools but layered sources, originating from various interests and goals by multiple stakeholders. The rise of these new learning media on new historical topics is but one of many signs testifying to the growing complexity of pedagogical decision-making by history teachers in the twenty-first century.

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