Speech minister Bussemaker at International Human Rights Education Conference
On December 17, Minister Bussemaker held a speech on human rights education during the opening of the International Human Rights Education Conference (IHREC) in Middelburg, the Netherlands.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It was Franklin Roosevelt who once said:
“In politics, nothing happens ‘by accident.’
If it happens, then you can bet it was planned that way.”
President Roosevelt did great things for our world.
We might even say that he’s the reason that we are here this evening. However, I’m afraid I’m not in full agreement with his sentiment.
It just so happens that I have a small role in a play about our former Queen Juliana on Saturday. She was a monarch who truly felt involved in world politics. Believe it or not: this weekend I’ll be playing the part of Eleanor Roosevelt, which is a great honor for me personally.
Now that this coincidental honor has come my way, I’d like to make use of it by having Eleanor be my guide during my speech today.
Borrowing a number of her quotes, I’d like to reflect on how I, as the Minister of Education, look at human rights education.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The terrorist attacks in Paris on November thirteenth have served to make this conference all the more topical.
We’ve all seen the seas of flowers at the sites of the attacks.
The candles burning on street corners in a city we all know and love. And perhaps you’ve also seen the clip of the French boy telling a reporter that there are weapons and people who do bad things. But his father tells him that we have flowers.
I think that clip is so touching because we all know that flowers and candles cannot protect us in a literal sense. But they do express something of the values that millions of people all over the world share.
Equality. Dignity. Liberty. Justice.
We might see human rights as the flowers and candles of our democracy.
They are delicate, but they have great universal power.
They represent values shared by all cultures and religious traditions.
And they are available to everyone. For you are vested with human rights and children’s rights when you are born into this world.
And still, each new generation must learn the fundamentals.
“It is today that we must create the world of the future”, Eleanor says.
Human rights are not ‘for later, when you’re grown up’.
Young people are citizens, too. They are already part of our democracy. At home, at school and out in public.
At school young people need to learn more than reading, writing and mathematics.
“Whether or not they have made the world we live in, the young must learn to be at home in it, to be familiar with it”, Eleanor tells us. “They must understand its history, its peoples. Their customs and ideas and problems and aspirations. The world cannot be understood from a single point of view.”
I see human rights as an essential topic when engaging young people in dialogue about their role in society. When speaking with them about their rights as individuals, but also about the fact that they have duties and responsibilities towards others.
Conversations like these can be difficult, especially when values and beliefs collide.
Where does my freedom end and yours begin?
And do things that benefit me also benefit others?
Our society is highly complex.
That is the price of democracy.
And it does mean that young people should be given the chance at school – the mini-democracy par excellence – to practice what it means to live together in an open and free society.
“Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home – the neighborhood, the school or college, the factory, farm or office. Unless these rights have meaning here, they have little meaning anywhere.”
This is why I feel it is vital that students in higher education learn to comprehend these social themes not only in theory, but also in practice.
Institutes of higher education train the leaders of the future, after all. Leaders not in the sense of rulers, but as the enlightened standard bearers and stewards of their culture’s values.
Just consider the teacher who has to respond appropriately to pupils showing signs of radicalization – I’ll return to this theme in a moment.
Or the doctor whose patients have unorthodox attitudes to illness and health, and who must still deal with them professionally and respectfully.
Or the economist in the banking industry, who is expected to weigh financial and human interests fairly and ethically.
You cannot learn these sorts of things from books. Experience is what counts.
“Living and learning must go hand in hand”, says Eleanor.
“It takes everything we can acquire to help us understand the new situations, the new problems that are arising on all sides.”
I served as the rector of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences for a while. At the time, we already had quite a few refugee students. I was really struck by the effect they had on our Dutch students, who got a first-hand glimpse into the world of the refugee.
For instance, they saw someone of their own age who had lost everything, yet who still had the discipline to burn the midnight oil for a solid week before an important exam.
Experiences and encounters like these can be quite unsettling for young people. The wider world suddenly becomes very real.
That forces them out of their comfort zone, but I also feel that experiences like these are key to understanding others.
This brings me to primary education, secondary education and secondary vocational education. What happens there?
Formally, all primary and secondary school pupils receive lessons on citizenship. This includes human rights. Schools can decide for themselves what they teach, because the teachers are in the best position to gauge the needs of their pupils.
At the primary level, the concept of the Peaceful School has been a resounding success.
Pupils in secondary education attend guest lectures, get acquainted with local politics, or participate in debates on social themes.
And following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, pupils at a vocational school in Rotterdam engaged in a Socratic dialogue about living in a city with one-hundred-seventy-four nationalities.
I am immensely pleased that we have entrusted our schools with the responsibility to teach citizenship and human rights on their own.
But there is also a downside. And that is that not every school is capable of getting the most out of this freedom in their curriculum.
Schools do organize guest lectures about sexual diversity, for example. Or about culture and faith by pairing up Jewish and Muslim young people. But they then have a hard time transferring the lessons to the day-to-day reality of the school environment.
Educational researchers tell us that youngsters in secondary vocational education should learn to think more critically. I have therefore ordered a study into the approach to citizenship lessons in these schools. And I am having a method developed for teachers to help them promote their pupils’ critical thinking abilities.
The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has also studied the approach to human rights in secondary vocational education. I expect the results of this study early next year.
And the State Secretary of Education, Sander Dekker, has recently issued a preliminary recommendation for a future curriculum for primary and secondary education.
This recommendation calls for citizenship – including human rights – to be made more prominent in the core of the Dutch curriculum. It also calls for clearer learning goals and teaching methods.
I am pleased with this preliminary recommendation. In education, it is wise to continually evaluate what we want young people to learn, how we wish to teach them and why we are doing it.
“Democracy and ignorance do not go together”, Eleanor tells us. “It is not enough to love democracy and to believe in it. The citizen has to understand it, to be familiar with its institutions and with his history. And he has to be able to think for himself.”
Here in this modern, progressive country, we sometimes think that human rights education is only needed in far-flung dictatorships.
But I believe we need human rights education here, too.
Precisely because of the great differences in our society between how people live, what they believe and how they think.
It is because we wish to foster diversity, that we need to instill human rights as a non-negotiable, solid foundation.
An occasional, ad hoc lesson is simply not enough.
Just as education should not only be about learning, but also about personal development,
citizenship and human rights education should not just be about memorizing abstract theories.
It should be about learning to see the world through the eyes of another, and looking at yourself from the other’s perspective.
Naturally, this will have implications for teacher training programs, too.
In the Netherlands, citizenship is part of the program for everyone training for a grade-two or primary school teaching qualification. Primary school and social studies trainee teachers also study human rights as part of their program.
But what goes for the pupils also goes for their teachers: it’s about more than rote learning alone. You teach who you are.
Earlier this year I visited the Boston Teacher Residency program. The students I met told me: as a teacher you don’t just teach... you help to build the future of your nation by ensuring that each new generation gets a good education.
I really believe in teachers as nation builders. As standard bearers and role models. But I am also aware that this formative task can be complex, especially in this day and age.
For instance, if pupils express radical ideas in class that run contrary to democratic values. Or if pupils simply reject other perspectives out of hand.
How should you as a teacher respond if you know that your pupils are watching videos of beheadings?
How do you deal with a schoolgirl who thinks her future is in Syria, as the bride of an ISIS soldier?
How do you teach and convince young people that just because they’ve seen something on YouTube doesn’t mean it’s true, and that they need to think for themselves?
Situations like these are complicated and difficult.
This is why I want all aspiring teachers to be well prepared for them.
For to be the guardian of Eleanor’s ‘small places’,
and to truly comprehend that there is more than one way to look at the world,
you as a teacher must be aware of your own background, ideas and moral frameworks. Whether you teach French, economics or physics.
I am therefore pleased that so many teacher training programs have begun to espouse the precepts of ‘Bildung’ in recent years.
And together with the teacher training colleges, we are also currently developing a learning method for trainee teachers that will help them hold dialogues in their class about complex topics such as homophobia, antisemitism and islamophobia.
I also feel that experienced teachers should feel supported and capable of conducting difficult conversations with their pupils and of dealing with complex situations.
We have set up a platform and training programs to provide them with practical information and support for their citizenship classes,
and to help them conduct difficult conversations in the classroom about topics like radicalization, refugees and the value of the rule of law.
I will also be highlighting the dangers of radicalization in education during the upcoming Dutch presidency of the EU.
However, teachers also need to be able to count on support from nearby. From their administrators or management.
And from each other.
I was very impressed following the attacks in Paris to learn that a number of teachers worked through the weekend to put tips online for their fellow teachers on how to talk about the events in class.
This is the really wonderful aspect of the freedom that I just mentioned: it encourages teachers to proactively put real thought into what needs to be done in the here and now. And not to wait for whoever is responsible for teaching citizenship and human rights to come up with a brilliant plan.
Still, the human rights curriculum needs maintenance, too.
I therefore call on teachers, pupils, students, principals, administrators of vocational programs, colleges and universities to enter into dialogue with one another about how to make human rights an explicit part of the discussion on radicalization and extremism.
About how violence differs from flowers and candles.
And what democracy requires of us, every single day.
And I will be engaging them in dialogue, too, in the months to come.
Ladies and gentlemen, I shall now conclude with a final quote by Eleanor.
She says: “Human rights are a bridge where we can meet and engage one another in dialogue.”
For me, it is vital that we truly experience that encounter in education.
That we not only impress upon the minds of pupils, students and teachers that people have rights,
but also that they experience in their hearts what this means.
I hope that this conference will be the bridge on which you meet for the next few days, and that you will find it to be both inspiring and educational.
Thank you for your kind attention.