Storytelling. Reflections by a history teacher

For almost two years now, my 12-year old daughter has been complaining that her history lessons in high school are “so boring”! She is now in her second year, and has had two different school teachers. When I ask her: well, don’t they tell nice stories about how life was in the past?, she nods her head. I find this highly surprising, and, to be frank, most worrying.

As an economic and social historian trained in Utrecht in the 1990s, just before poststructuralism reared its head, I am totally in favour of providing students with the big picture: underlying mechanisms explaining structural changes in the economy, society and culture over long periods of time. In fact, in high school I myself was most inspired by a young teacher, Sipko Veeneman, who tried to show us the broad developments leading up to (for instance) the Dutch Revolt, the Industrial Revolution, or the Cold War. Nevertheless, he told stories as well. Not only about the “grand men” such as William of Orange, James Hargreaves, or Joseph Stalin, but also about how “ordinary people” must have experienced life during these periods of decisive change.

At University, the dynamics between larger socioeconomic structures and historical agents of everyday life continued to fascinate me. Professors such as Gerard Trienekens and Maarten Prak inspired me with their great stories, about female spinners in villages communities, or about poverty and living conditions in the Dutch Republic. The interactions between big developments, such as economic crises and industrialization, and small people, women, men and children of the past, remain a fruitful field of study, especially when analyzed through space and time. This fascination has laid the foundation for, and continues to inspire, my academic work.

Unfortunately, Sipko unexpectedly passed away last year, far too young, and with him, his beautiful stories and dedication to his pupils have also died. Gerard Trienekens is now retired, but I can still listen to his stories at those rare moments I take the time to call or visit him. I am glad though, that Maarten Prak is still around, inspiring his students with his enthusiastic teaching, just as I remember him doing over twenty years ago. From September onward, we will be direct colleagues, which I am very much looking forward to.

Over the past five years, I have been teaching history to non-history students at Wageningen University. This was a great challenge, great fun, and highly educational, because it forced me to constantly think about how the study of the past is relevant for today’s developments and other academic disciplines. But I am looking forward to teaching history again to students who truly chose this major because they are intrinsically interested in stories of the past. I can only hope to bring them a fraction of the enthusiasm my own inspirators have provided me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *