History Education Research

Dr. Tina van der Vlies
Why school history matters: public discourses on the purposes of history education, 1920 - 2020

History education is contested and a topic of fierce public debates: opinions about school history’s purposes are related to ideas of meaning and engage with identity, citizenship, and group formation. My research question is: Which ideas on school history’s purposes circulate in English and Dutch public discourses in the period 1920-2020, and how can changes and continuities be explained?

Until now, no systematic and longitudinal research into public discourses on school history’s purposes in English and Dutch mass media exists. This is remarkable because mass media not only vent opinions but shape public opinions as well. It is highly necessary to fill this gap: a comparative, historicized and source-based research on this topic has potential to defuse the current explosive debates about school history by providing insight into patterns and developments. This research aims to raise awareness about the direct and indirect forms of instrumentalization of history education. A longitudinal and comparative perspective will enlighten present-day discussions about school history’s role in society, furthering an open dialogue.

A comparative approach is necessary to acquire more insight into the influence of specific national contexts in order to understand which events, persons or developments triggered public discussions and in which direction they evolved. The choice for comparing English and Dutch public discourses is a deliberate one, because both nations share interesting similarities regarding their national contexts and the much-discussed position of school history. As established overseas colonial empires, both England and the Netherlands were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade until the nineteenth century. After 1945, they faced a process of decolonization with increased migration. Their populations have become more culturally heterogeneous, and this has been an extra stimulus for public debates about the purposes of school history in both nations.

As a consequence of studying ideas about school history’s purposes in the public arena, Why school history matters also aims to reveal – from a longitudinal and comparative perspective – how communities think about themselves and their place in the world. Hence, this project is a form of ‘memohistory’: it does not examine historical events but the narrated and remembered past, and the attributed meaning to the past in the present process of shaping identities (Rigney, 1990; Assmann, 1997; Tamm, 2015, Van der Vlies, 2022). The expressed purposes in public discourses should not be underestimated: they can have societal impact and for example affect government policies on school history’s purposes.

The project runs from 2021-2023, is embedded at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and is funded by the NWO Rubicon Programme.

Previous projects


1. NWO PhD project Humanities 'Duurzame Geesteswetenschappen'

Tina van der Vlies MA (2011-2016)
Historical scholarship and school history: national narratives in Dutch and English textbooks, 1920-2010

A frequent complaint in Western society is that young people are ignorant of the history of their country of residence. Politicians as well as some prominent historians blame school history for not offering a convincing vision of the national past. Most history educators, however, are of a different opinion. Why the relationship between historical scholarship and school history is problematical is not clear. This research project seeks to analyze specific aspects of this relationship: the narration of the nation in history textbooks.

The research question of my project is: How have developments in historical scholarship influenced the construction of national narratives in Dutch and English history textbooks for secondary education between 1920-2010, and what were possible dynamic interactions between scholarship and school history? The research period covers major developments since the 1920s, apart from the history profession:

  1. Global transformations on domestic issues and the public self-image of both countries (since 1920 continuation of colonial framing of both nations; after 1945 de-colonization; in the 1960s a mellowing of nationalism in post-war Europe; since the 1990s re-nationalization). 
  2. National education policies and regulations.
  3. The rise of educational studies. 
  4. The changing textbook market and emerging new media. The project seeks to elucidate the relationship between historical scholarship and school history. It will investigate continuities and discontinuities in presenting national history in Dutch/English textbooks, and will support teachers by enhancing their insights in the changing contents and standards of history textbooks.

Tina van der Vlies has been awarded with the ‘Paper Prize 2014’ at the International Standing Conference for the History of Education (ISCHE) in Istanbul, 2015.

Supervisor: Prof. Maria Grever, CHC-EUR; co-supervisors Dr Stephan Klein, CHC-EUR / ICLON Leiden University, Dr Jacques Dane, National Museum of Education Rotterdam.

Advisory Board: Prof. Carla van Boxtel (EUR/UVA); Prof. Terry Haydn (UK); Prof. Ed Jonker (UU); Joke van der Leeuw-Roord (EUROCLIO).  

2. PhD project CHC / HAN

Drs. Marc van Berkel (2011-2015)
Holocaust education in a transforming historical culture. History textbooks and curriculum development in the Netherlands and North Rhine-Westphalia, 1960-2010

In what ways did a developing historical and memory culture in the Netherlands and North Rhine-Westphalia influence Holocaust Education between 1970-2010?

Theoretical notions

  • Historical culture; memory culture.
  • Popular historical culture; public history.
  • Collective memory: communicative and cultural memory.
  • Holocaust; Shoa; Holocaust education.
  • Transnational memory didactics.


  • History textbooks in Germany and the Netherlands.
  • Curricula and policy documents in both countries concerning education.


  • Comparative research methods.
  • Text book analysis; how and why? (analyzing methods).

Supervisor Prof. Maria Grever, CHC-EUR.


3. Master Theses on History Textbook Research


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