4.4.2: 1830 - 1910 - Education and literacy

In 1830, like in the preceding period, the Netherlands was among the countries with the highest degree of literacy in Europe. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an average 60% of the brides and 75% of the grooms signed the marriage certificate, but these figures show substantial regional and local differences. In 1900 the literacy rate had increased substantially: only 5 to 10% of men, and 10 to 20% of women were still 'illiterate'.

The percentage of persons able to read and write relates to the quality of and the participation in primary education. In 1830 62% of boys went to school and 47% of girls. The percentage of school attendants gradually rose and the difference between boys and girls was reduced. In 1830 the Education Act of 1806, which had introduced class teaching instead of individual education, was still in effect. Successive education acts, of 1857, 1878 and 1889, imposed increasingly high demands on the content of the curriculum and the skills of the teachers. General compulsory education was introduced in 1900, but by then, most children already went to school. The school funding controversy was another important item: liberals were in favour of public, government-financed education only; religious parties pleaded in favour of government funding of confessional education as well.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, primary education consisted mainly of reading education, aimed at imprinting Christian values. De brave Hendrik (The Good Henry) by the Haarlem teacher N. Anslijn has become a proverbial example of this kind of education. In the second half of the century, the idea gained ground that a good education was a condition for social improvement and thus an element in the fight against backwardness and poverty. Because of this view, education gradually lost its doctrinal character. Learning the alphabet was no longer a goal in itself, but was developed as a means to learn to read.

The degree of literacy is a yardstick for the size of the potential reading public. The size of the actual reading public, people who regularly read books, newspapers and magazines, can sooner be derived from the participation in secondary education. The figures are low: in 1900 only 4% of the 12-19 year olds attended secondary schools, and also 4% received vocational training, and only 0.4% of those in the age group between 18 and 25 attended university.

Around 1830, secondary education is split into two blocks: the Grammar and French schools on the one hand, vocational training on the other hand. Legal regulations for professional training were completely non-existent. Latin schools offered the classical curriculum and constituted a preparation for the university, in the French schools modern languages (French had a much more dominant position than German or English,) contemporary history, geography and mathematics were taught. Here too, legal regulations were absent, resulting in a great variation in quality. The Higher Education Act of 1863 provided a 'HBS' (secondary modern school) with a curriculum aimed at a non-university career and the Act of 1876 a classical education, the former grammar school, now called 'gymnasium'.

With the Act of 1863 the subject of Dutch language and literature received an official status, but without the legislator prescribing a great deal about the content of the literary education. In the following years a rather large number of literary series and anthologies of Dutch and foreign classics were published, aimed specifically at secondary education. Getting acquainted with the literary canon was considered a means to achieve civilisation and as a stimulus for the creation of a national feeling. This goes to show that secondary education was increasingly given the role of founder of the cultural ideal of being well-read.

author: B. de Vries

Education and literacy