The Netherlands

Okay, so with all the comparing that I’ve been doing, the time has come to say something about my own country as well.

Yesterday, I’ve been talking about the Japanese school system. In Japan, it’s impossible to fail or repeat a year. You just can’t fail. Period. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been teaching English, and all agree that the level of education is pretty low here. One teacher said that of all his students, one fourth (1/4) shouldn’t have passed, but that he couldn’t fail them. (It wouldn’t be fair to the students for his course to be ten times as difficult as other courses, you can only raise the bar a little.)

This system – you can’t fail a class – is used both in primary and secondary school, as well as in higher education and in universities. In Japan, there are no separate levels in secondary school (VBO, MBO, HAVO, VWO). This means that the teaching level should be adapted to all scholars, which explains why the quality of education has degraded. I think that this also implies that anyone can get into university, as long as they pass the entrance exams. Apparently it is very hard to pass the entrance exam, though, but after that the no-fail-system apparently resumes.

In university, I see no good reason to allow everyone to pass. It can and will degrade the quality of education (it already has in Japan, I believe) and it can really demotivate the intelligent students.

But when you look at secondary school, I think the Dutch system has a clear disadvantage as well: The segregation between levels of education do not take into account that people can’t be so easily divided into groups: If you are tested to be at some level, you are expected to be at that level for all topics. But I don’t think it’s that straightforward. Some people are good at math and bad at languages, for some it’s the other way around. (In practice, it’s more accepted to be in the second group.)

Fact is, some people are better at some subjects than others. In the Netherlands, students have to choose from four ‘profiles’ and these profiles have mandatory subjects. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do feel that everyone should have some basics in math, language, history, etc. But right now, if you are very bad at one of these subjects, you have the option of a) suffering b) going to a lower level because of it, even if you are intelligent enough to do all other courses at this level. Furthermore, if you fail your year twice, you’re expelled. I disagree with this kind of punishment.

Although I don’t think that we want the ‘eternal scholar’ (like the ‘eternal student’), I feel there should be a better way to deal with scholars who aren’t characterized by the four main profiles that we have, for example by allowing them to take a lighter program if they’ve already passed the state exam for some other topics with a high grade. I’m not in favor of giving away diplomas, but I’ve heard some stories of people being expelled while most of their other grades were actually (very) good. I just don’t think that’s fair.

If you don’t have a secondary school diploma and you have your mind set on a high school or university, there are 21+ entrance exams that you can take, but I don’t think that’s an easy path to take.

In short, although we have good quality of education, we’re no saints either. If a scholar fails his year twice, you can’t put all the blame on the scholar and kick him out of secondary school. There should be some dialogue to see what went wrong.


Not surprisingly, I’ve also been trying to explain to people how The Netherlands works. (I’ve also spent some time trying to explain that neither Holland nor The Netherlands are the correct names for our country. It should be Netherland, but I’ve stopped trying, everyone uses Holland or Oranda here, I’ll be glad if I can get them to say The Netherlands instead.)

But it’s not easy to explain how a country or its people works, and that is why I realize that everything I say about Japan is crude generalization: Everything you say about a country is generalizing, I guess. Anyway, I’ve tried, for example, to explain to Japanese people that Japan is reasonably safe, compared to Nederland. That’s no easy task! If you tell people that in Nederland your wallet can get stolen, they will inevitably interpret this as ‘your wallet will get stolen’.

Also, I’ve tried to explain what a foreigner in Nederland would encounter, but firstly I can’t really predict since I’m a Dutchie myself and secondly… well, results may vary. In Japan, the responses to foreigners are pretty much the same everywhere: Asians from other countries are generally ignored (I just learned that today), white foreigners are approached with curiosity and black foreigners are avoided for fear of theft. Thenagain, in Kyoto people are much more used to foreigners and they will make more of an effort to be friendly to all three groups, so here the responses may differ as well…

Also, I’ve tried to explain that our culture is much more individual and, much like Japanese culture, has both its good sides and its bad sides. In Japan, there seems to be less choice in how you behave. In Nederland, you have a choice, which also means that there will be people who abuse that choice. A well-known example is the confusion between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom to insult’.

With this freedom of choice, comes the problem of having to choose. In Nederland, it’s not always clear how to approach people and you have to figure out how everyone wants to be treated. I will sometimes switch back and forth between formal and casual talk, because often people will not confirm which they prefer and that’s just bloody confusing! If it was up to me, I would get rid of the formal ‘u’ in Dutch, just as the English no longer use ‘thou’. Then, the problem is reduced and it’s simply a matter of avoiding sentences that require you to use the other person’s name. 😛