What is your dissertation about?

“I studied national narratives and explored why these do or don’t change and are passed on in Dutch and English school textbooks. To do this, I used two cases: the beginning of the Dutch Revolt (1566-1584) and the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. The latter has now acquired a topical relevance in the Brexit debate. Supporters say: ‘We’ve often stood ‘alone’, like during the battle with the Armada, and that gives us hope for the future.’ Opponents, like Cameron in 2016, give the same example, but using the Armada to illustrate that anything that happens in Europe also affects England.

“People who conduct research into school textbooks often claim that historical narratives change under the influence of political interventions, for example. That happens in America, Russia and Japan too, where school textbooks are regarded as political instruments. I consciously studied England and the Netherlands because they have a free book market and textbooks are not prescribed by the government. Here too, however, there is often criticism that certain scientific discoveries, for example, are not included in the textbooks. Some historical narratives seem slightly static. I studied why that’s the case.”

Tina van der Vlies 2 – De Promotie – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

How did you conduct your research?

“I studied 24 textbook series, so twelve series for each country, including workbooks and teacher guides. My aim was then to look in more depth at the form of these historical narratives so that I could analyse the more hidden processes of their alleged preservation. For example, I was interested in recurring historical comparisons. For a long time, Philp II, Napoleon and Hitler were portrayed in the same way and regarded as European tyrants. These different historical narratives shared the same heroic plot: England was able to stand up to these powers on her own.”

What are your main conclusions?

“Modern debates and socio-political events have a great impact on how an old event is interpreted. Take the Dutch Revolt, which for a long time was remembered as a ‘fight for freedom’. During the Second World War, Queen Wilhelmina used it in her political rhetoric, by comparing the situation at that time with the Revolt. But at the same time, Catholic and Protestant historians began to collaborate more. For the Catholics, the Revolt had always been a painful issue, because for them it had not resulted in freedom at all. In 1954, a group of nine authors including Protestants, Catholics and pacifists jointly published a history book in which reference was made to Erasmus and in which the Revolt was interpreted as a ‘fight for tolerance’.

“An important result is that national historical narratives are so powerful because they don’t stand alone. I studied English and Dutch school textbooks as layered narratives, in which historical accounts refer to each other.”

What do you hope to change with this dissertation?

“Firstly, I hope to offer insight into why certain historical narratives seem to be almost immune to changes. As such, I want to stimulate discussion and awareness of national historical narratives. The second goal concerns how we conduct research into textbooks. That is done by critical academics, often highlighting omissions or inaccuracies, for example. But it’s also necessary to understand what is happening in the textbook.”

Mireille-Kirkels-Levien-Willemse

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What did you find difficult about obtaining your doctorate?

“To be able to work on your dissertation, you need calm and space in your head. You can’t get that in a stolen hour. I often felt guilty. Towards my child, for example, when I was working, or vice versa. It’s a piece of baggage you carry round. The advantage is that you go into something in great depth. I could be my own opponent during my defence, because I’ve often been in a dialogue with myself about how to improve things. Years ago, someone said to me: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. At the time I thought: What kind of hollow shell is that? But later I thought: he’s got a point. I’m quite a perfectionist, which you need to be during this process. But it can also be a pitfall, and I’ve learned that it’s important to be pragmatic in your work and reach a conclusion.

What’s on the cover?

“It’s a (royalty-free) oil painting by Philip James de Loutherbourg about the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I thought it was beautifully painted. If you write about subjects in a scientific way, they can sometimes seem a bit remote. But a picture like this makes you realise what an incredible naval battle it was, in which people died and were wounded. I find that very moving. For historical understanding, it can sometimes be important to move past the ratio.”