The Netherlands is a country known for its religious, ideological and ethnical tolerance. But what is perhaps less known is that it is also a country religiously divided into a northern part dominated by a culture of Calvinism and a southern part, which is predominantly Catholic. Today, when people speak of ‘below the rivers’ they refer to the Catholic provinces and when they talk about ‘above the rivers’ they are pointing to the Calvinist provinces north of the geographical border of the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine, which roughly run parallel to this historical and cultural border.
When the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht and were recognized by the peace agreement with Spain by the signing of the Treaty of Munster in 1648, ‘the Low Lands’ (as the Netherlands is literally translated), did not include the southern provinces. Only with the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were these provinces included, and not until 1831 when Belgium gained independence were the borders constituted that comprise the Netherlands as we know it. Culturally though, the southern provinces and especially the province of Limburg (the hind leg of the Dutch lion) where I grew up belonged to the Catholic sphere of influence. Even in present day the Netherlands, it makes a huge difference in attitude and perspective on life if you are from above or from below the rivers.
As a child I slept in the attic room of our home, which had 5 windows that looked like embrasures cut out in the rooftop. In the small distance that separated the small town of Papenhoven from adjoining Obbicht to the south, I could see the church belfry in the center of town rising high above its surrounding, the short line of farms and single family houses of red brick stone and tilted tile roofs. Looking out of a ‘loophole’ in my little fortress in the attic, to the west I looked over fields of golden grain stalks billowing like ocean waves to a slight breeze. From my window I could clearly see the river Maas cutting through the landscape meandering along, and at the other bank of the river, Belgium. I lived on the narrowest stroke of land in the Netherlands, where Belgium and Germany squeeze the hind leg of the Dutch lion. On the other side of our house was the Juliana canal and only 2 or 3 miles further to the east lay Germany, the old heartland of Charlemagne, buried in the nearby famous Dom of Aachen. Like in Belgium, most people in Limburg are Catholic, so are the schools, the soccer clubs and of course the ‘fanfare’, the drill band to be found in each small town in Limburg. The ‘Episcopal College’, my secondary school, was located in Sittard, a border town with Germany and 5 miles from my home. Diligently for almost 6 years, I bicycled every morning through the alternating corn and grain fields, meadows and small villages on my way to school.
I never liked school very much, not even my Catholic primary school, the Saint Joseph school. At first of course, I didn’t think much of it, like small children never do. The world to small children is simply what exists immediately around them. To the young child’s mind, there is no other happiness than the one that surrounds them. At Catholic school we would say our prayers each morning before lessons started, and on Friday and Tuesday mornings the local priest would teach Bible classes. All this constituted my childhood happiness in which I participated wholeheartedly like all children did, even though my parents were from above the rivers, and even though now the faithfulness of Catholicism is a strange entity to me. As a young child I didn’t give it much reflection, nor could I. With the wisdom of hindsight, it might look cruel that it was always Mohammed, the Moroccan kid whom the substitute teacher used to pick on, until one day the teacher, holding him firmly by his neck, pushing him out of the classroom, ended up busting his head through a glass panel in the door. Yet, I didn’t think much of it. Now, of course I recognize the scholastic methods of Jesuitism, and the dominance of structured discipline in Catholicism at my school over the Protestant’s care for nurturing each child’s inner nature and the diversity of individual personalities. I didn’t think much of it, even though my most profound school memory has always been boredom and aloofness from the Catholic methods of education.
My parents of course did not grow up in Limburg, but they moved there when I was barely a few weeks old. They raised me in the progressive spirit of northern reformers like Comenius, Rousseau and Froebel, allowing me as a young child to explore my own needs, drives, feelings and thoughts and form my own personality freely and spontaneously. The only limitations I faced were the limitations of common reason, which were without exception explained to me rationally after which it was left to me to decide on my actions AND bear the consequences that resulted from them. This of course was the worst preparation for attending a Catholic school one can imagine, with its more rigorous perception of social hierarchy and educational method. Yet, alternatives to attend other schools are scarce in Limburg unless you are able and willing to travel more than an hour daily to reach one of the few Montessori schools in the south. Thus, my parents being pragmatic and practical people, I completed Saint Joseph’s elementary school and entered a Catholic secondary school called the ‘Episcopal College’, a name reminiscent of its past when it was an integrated part of the monastery still located in the adjacent building. A few monks even taught some classes there until as late as the early 80s. I will not draw out all the petty arguments, my naively offending inquiries into the reasons for certain rules and disciplinary measurements that followed, and the tensions between me and the school master and head teachers that arose. Enough to draw out a particular scene, which engrained itself in my precious and unraveling awareness as a budding teenager. It was this experience, which was to become my sobering ‘way of light’ while finding my way through the dreary labyrinth of the world.
Once, we were given back our graded Latin exam to review. We could take them home with us, but had to hand them in the very next day. Of course, it came to be that I forgot to pack my papers and I apologized, pledging I would bring back the exam the next day. But it caused my teacher great anger and he punished me by ordering me to hand copy the school’s regulations and hand them in with the exam the next day. Unfortunately too, I was the only student who had forgotten his exam and I suspected a personal vendetta in his harsh and unreasonable punishment. Now I understand his reaction was a typical scholastic pedagogical method that must be common in the Catholic training of a teacher, but I also resented his incompetence as a pedagogue who failed to acknowledge the reasonable nature of the child I was.
At first I didn’t, no couldn’t, take his response serious and in a calm manner of disbelief I politely replied: ‘I am sorry, I will return my exam tomorrow.’ I couldn’t and still don’t see the loss of returning the exam one day later, but it seemed to make a huge difference for my teacher, who insisted.
The next day I came to school and handed in my exam without the composition, which as a result accumulated to a doubling of the writing imposition for each extra day I was late. In the following lessons again it was doubled until finally I was excluded from Latin classes overall and was called into the principal’s office to explain my behavior.
The school principal, Bitsch, had the posture of a saturated pig, adorned with a friendly neighbor’s smile, in which I hoped to find the insight of reason. Maybe I should have abandoned all hope the moment I entered his office and heard him recite a quote from the Bible. Of course I forgot the quote, as I also did not know the answer to his question of where in the Bible the quote was located. He provided the answer for me, although I could not know if he was sincere in answering, more than I had been. His ‘compromise’ was for me to copy the school regulations ten times by hand, encouraging me to be the wiser of the two and just swallow my pride. This halfhearted attempt to reason made an even weaker impression upon me than the complete lack of it in my authoritative Latin teacher Hanssen. The punishment was ridiculous from the start and I could not submit myself to ridicule. The main conclusion I drew from this was that my enthusiasm for formal education definitively cracked and it was not long after this that I would drop out of the ‘Episcopal curriculum.’
Despite dropping out of school, I never lost my enthusiasm for learning. However, I never lost my skepticism for formal education and have become an autodidact by heart. I consider learning a life-long obligation without end in the line of Comenius’ thought. I think back of my days at school now with a certain bitterness for the professional pedagogues who could not recognize a child’s nature and instead of stimulating it to find its own path, they attempted to curb and bend it to serve their own purpose. Nevertheless, I am a warmhearted supporter of education for all and the principles promoted more than 400 years earlier by the Czech educational reformer Jan Amos Comenius. Comenius was born in 1592 and brought up in Bohemia in the present day Czech Republic; and like I did, Comenius suffered from incompetent teachers as a child. But despite their incompetence, he grew to love learning and proper education as the pillar of societal reform and human progress.
In a time of fierce religious conflicts, Comenius was the head of the Union of Brethren, the first Reformed Church in Europe, which followed the principles of the Czech reformer Jan Hus (1369-1415) and was brutally suppressed by the Jesuit King Ferdinand of Habsburg. Despite the incredible hardship he would suffer in life, from an early loss of parents, wife and children, home and experiencing the Habsburgian contra-Reformist suppression and the cruelties of the 30-Years War between the Catholic League and the Protestant German princes, Comenius was able to find his way out of the ‘Labyrinth of the World’ and regain the ‘Paradise of the Heart’. His book of that title would become a classic in European literature, while Comenius himself grew to become one of the most celebrated educational reformers in history. He advocated reforming the old medieval scholastic method and introducing a more child-friendly method of education, which in our time has become so evident.
Being a refugee most of his life, Comenius was finally settled in tolerant Amsterdam in 1556 until he died in 1570. He now lies buried in the Wallonian Church in Naarden, the Netherlands, a place of pilgrimage for many Czechs, to whom Comenius is one of their biggest national heroes. Still his name is associated with the Comenius Education program of the European Union and the Comenius Medal, one of UNESCO√É¬≠s most prestigious awards.
For Comenius education was a way to reform the whole of society. I now know how fundamentally different Ferdinand’s Catholicism was from Comenius’ Protestantism, and understand how the schism between these two teachings affected my own childhood. I now understand the inevitability of the clash between a rigorous Catholic educational method below the rivers and the free spirited nature of a young child from above the rivers.
Documentary about Comenius in Amsterdam
Comenius Medal of UNESCO
Comenius – European Cooperation on School Education, European Union
Comenius Mausoleum and Museum, Naarden (Dutch)
Major works of Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670)
- The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (1631)
- The Gate of Tongues Unlocked (1631)
- The Porchway of the Latin Tongue (1633)
- The School of Infancy (1628-1631)
- The Great Didactic (1636)
- Natural Philosophy (1633)
- Tractates introducing the Pansophic Ideas of Comenius (1639)
- The Way of Light (1642)
- The newest Method of Learning (1642-1648)
- Outline of a Pansophical School (1650-1)
- Pictures of the World (1658) online text
- Exhortation of the Churches of Bohemia to the Church of England (1661)
- General Consultation about the Improvement of Human Affairs
- The Angel of Peace (1667)