A Special Conversation

'A Special Conversation'. Lezing door de minister van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap, Jet Bussemaker, bij The Hague Center for Global Justice, Den Haag, 3 april 2017

Ladies and gentlemen,

Two weeks ago ‘we’ here in the Netherlands went to the polls to elect a new parliament. Voter turnout was high, and that is something to be proud of. The results left some of us with a bitter aftertaste. My own party, the Social Democratic Labour Party, tumbled in the polls from nearly twenty-five (25) percent of votes to a historic low of not even six (6) percent. So personally, I am not too thrilled, which I’m sure you will understand.

The elections were remarkable for yet another reason, however, because the outcome has revealed a fragmented political landscape. The one-hundred-and-fifty (150) newly elected MPs represent no less than thirteen (13) parties. Among them are many single issue parties. The last time this many parties had seats in parliament was forty-five (45) years ago. It is also noteworthy that the largest party only won about twenty (20) percent of the vote. In other words: the largest party has seldom been this small.

This outcome is the political confirmation of something we have been aware of in our country for a while: divisions running between groups of people in Dutch society are becoming deeper and deeper.

‘Separate worlds’, noted a government research report three years ago. Society is fragmenting into groups of like-minded people with similar lifestyles, the same tastes or the same religion. And the empty spaces between these groups seem to widen.

This phenomenon does not necessarily have to be problematic. In the twentieth century we went through a lengthy period here in the Netherlands known as ‘verzuiling’ – best translated as ‘pillarization’. For decades, Roman Catholics, Protestants, socialists and liberals organized themselves culturally and politically among their own kind: they founded their own schools, their own sports clubs, their own newspapers and their own broadcasting companies.

And, of course, their own political parties. Compromise was the method for maintaining political and social balance between all those different groups during these decades. And compromise has now become one of our greatest political talents here in the Netherlands.
We call it the ‘polder model’, based on the fact that compromise was our best weapon in the fight against water.

An extended period of ‘ontzuiling’, or ‘depillarization’ started in the nineteen-sixties (1960s). Today, however, I see a new tendency for groups to retreat into their own separate clubhouses once again.

I also see that these groups are less and less understanding of one another... that they know less and less about each other, and that they each feel that they and they alone represent what it means to be Dutch.

This development is a cause of personal concern. What will happen if these groups never meet again, if they no longer communicate with each other? How then will we achieve our common ideal: a just and peaceful society?

The political answer to this question will have to be distilled in the weeks to come. Last week, the liberal conservatives (VVD), social liberals (D66), Christian democrats (CDA) and the greens (GroenLinks) started working on a new coalition government.

This means they must adopt a different stance than they did in the run-up to the election. During the campaign, your goal is to mobilize your constituents, to convince undecided voters of your plans and your ideals. This requires bold statements, not only about yourself, but also about your political challengers. It’s all in the game.

But when it’s time to form a new government your goal is to forge a connection with that same challengers. Negotiators have no choice but to seek compromises between ideals and political objectives, which are sometimes miles apart. I became a minister in a coalition of extremes: the liberal conservatives (VVD) and social democrats (PvdA). A coalition that existed by the grace of far-reaching compromise.

I myself have conducted lengthy negotiations with various parties to introduce a new system for student finance. I can tell you that it takes evenings and nights of endless talking to get to big transitions like this. The system had to accomplish three things at once:
-give young people the scope to pursue their academic dreams,
-enable investment in higher education to keep quality levels high,
- and keep state finances healthy.


Today’s negotiators must understand and empathize with other parties and their constituents. They must be respectful of each other’s rights and values at the negotiating table. They must be prepared to make concessions. They must devise creative solutions that do not favour any specific group, yet that appeal to all. In essence, this is the way politics should be. Not only here in the Netherlands, but also further afield. In conflict areas, in Europe, in the United States.

It is an approach that transcends politics, by the way. It also involves getting along in the workplace, where all sorts of people with different backgrounds and specializations must work together to solve problems. And it involves getting along in your neighbourhood, especially in today’s multicultural society, where people from different cultures and lifestyles must find a way to live in harmony with each other, and not simply alongside each other.

Living in a democratic society requires a special kind of conversation. A democratic conversation where you listen sincerely, where you sincerely engage in deep understanding, and where you pursue progress together. It’s a different conversation from convincing others of your point of view, or using your power to get things done.

In this special kind of conversation, compromise is not the ultimate betrayal of your ideals or identity. Rather, it is the result of a joint quest for the best solution. This is the essence of democracy, of collective self-government. In a dictatorship, the leader calls the shots. But in a democracy, we have to work things out together. Without such conversations there can be no democracy, no justice.

You may wonder where education comes in. Since I am a political scientist by training, I could easily continue on this path. But this is where want to shift my focus. Because this is why education is so essential to democracy. Education enables successive generations to decide the future of their society, which is why our young people must be taught to have these kinds of conversations. Education prepares new generations for life as mature, responsible citizens with a clear sense of self. People of empathy. Citizens who understand and respect human rights.
We need human rights education precisely because of the great differences in the way people live, what they believe and how they think. It is precisely because we wish to foster diversity that we need to enshrine human rights as a solid foundation.

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, who spent her entire life championing the cause of human rights: “Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home – the neighbourhood, the school or college, the factory, farm or office. Unless these rights have meaning here, they have little meaning anywhere” – end quote.

Keeping human rights alive depends on encounters between people from different backgrounds – just like you as you are gathered here. Despite the fact that we have created a relatively egalitarian society in the Netherlands (with comparably little hierarchy and the broadest possible range of equal opportunities for every child), encounters like these are sometimes lacking.

At my request, the journalist Margalith Kleijwegt reported on social divisions in secondary education, vocational training and higher education. Her story was shocking, to say the least. She met impressionable young people – vulnerable and longing for identity, self-esteem, stability. They were searching for these certainties in their own social circles.
And she met teachers who worked hard to help them become more resilient – but who also encountered IS sympathies in the classroom, or students who said that Hitler was an organizational genius.

Fortunately, stories like these are not the norm in our educational system – I want to emphasize this. But these sympathies do crop up, and this has implications for how groups interact. What happens in the classroom is consequential for the social fabric of society, after all. Schools can do something about this, and they must. I have once heard a teacher say: ‘it is in the school yard that human rights are invented every day.’ And I am sure we all have our memories of how true this statement is.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is easily said. But it is a major responsibility. These conversations about identity are very fundamental.
-Who am I, and how do I relate to you?
-What values ​​are important, or even sacred to me, and what are yours? -Where does my freedom end and yours begin?
-And do things that benefit me also benefit others?

We can only hold that special conversation if we know the answers to these kinds of questions. Schools in the Dutch educational system have a high degree of independence and responsibility.

Unlike in Germany (with its decidedly culture of hierarchy), in France (with its highly formalized, state-run educational system) and in the United Kingdom (with its insurmountable division between public and private education), schools in the Netherlands are themselves responsible for how they teach, while the government manages them by setting end terms and monitoring educational quality.

Formally, all primary and secondary school pupils and vocational students receive citizenship lessons, including lessons on human rights. Schools can decide for themselves what they teach, because the teachers are in the best position to gauge the needs of their pupils.


There are many great examples of how schools exercise their freedom. At the primary level, the concept of the Peaceful School has been a resounding success. Schools that apply this concept spend time every week on coexistence: belonging together, resolving conflicts, listening to each other, empathy, cooperation and diversity. Pupils in secondary education attend guest lectures, get acquainted with local politics, or participate in debates on societal themes. And following the horrible Charlie Hebdo attacks, pupils in Rotterdam engaged in a Socratic dialogue about living in a city with one-hundred-and-seventy-four (174) nationalities.

But there is also a downside, because not every school is capable of getting the most out of this freedom in their curriculum. Schools do organize guest lectures about sexual diversity, for example, or about culture and faith by pairing up Jewish and Muslim young people. But they then have a hard time transferring the lessons to the day-to-day reality of the school environment – to the behaviour and attitudes of their pupils.


This is why I have championed citizenship lessons that help young people learn how to deal effectively with the diversity of Dutch society. Classes that teach them about our fundamental freedoms and rights: freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the right to equal treatment.

When these rights and freedoms collide, pupils and students should be equipped to make a balanced judgement, and this requires skills such as empathy and critical thought. We are currently giving careful thought to a future curriculum in primary and secondary education. Citizenship – including human rights – will feature even more prominently, and it will be more clearly defined as well.


This is a step in the right direction. It is wise to continually evaluate what we want young people to learn, how we wish to teach them and why.

This gives us the opportunity to continually evaluate whether our young people are acquiring enough knowledge and skills to hold the democratic conversation needed for building the just society that we aspire to.

But of course the acquisition of knowledge and skills does not stop after secondary school. Vocational education is just as important. Regardless of your profession down the road, you will have to hold that special kind of conversation at the workplace.

You and your colleagues will have to work together to solve problems, despite differing backgrounds or expertise. Misunderstanding makes solving problems increasingly difficult – and far less fun.

This is why I have strongly emphasized citizenship in vocational education in recent years. A fantastic example of the work currently being done is the partnership between the Institute for Global Justice and the Mondriaan Regional Training Centre here in The Hague – to study and implement practical methods for Conflict Prevention at the local level.

The Mondriaan training centre has put tremendous effort into citizenship lessons. They have seen the atmosphere improve in the classroom. Students learn better and conflicts are resolved more quickly, costing less energy. So I am all the more pleased and proud that a representatives from the Mondriaan training centre are here today. Please, share your experiences later on during our discussion!

The concept of the Peaceful School has been implemented too at a number of vocational schools. I saw this concept in operation for myself while on a working visit together with His Majesty King Willem-Alexander. Learning to recognize differences, mediating in problem situations, taking responsibility and making democratic decisions go hand in hand with vocational lessons. In addition, I have ordered a study into vocational schools’ approach to citizenship lessons, and I have had a method developed for teachers to help them promote their pupils’ critical thinking abilities.

To all of this I add an additional layer in higher education: leadership. Higher education is, after all, the pre-eminent place to turn young people into stewards of our cultural values and into the nation-builders of the future. And to the students who are here, I would like to stress this: your role is so important! You are building the culture and the society of tomorrow!

In some political circles, the word ‘elite’ has taken on a negative connotation, but it is simple fact that our institutions of higher education produce the movers and shakers in our society. As leaders, they will need to understand the art of compromise and take everyone’s concerns into account.

To this end, they need to understand these concerns and be able to explain why the compromises they reach are in the interest of everyone involved. They must spend their time in higher education learning to reflect on their special position in society.


I feel it is so important that an economics student, for example, knows and understands how debt counselling works. This is why I am pushing for more programmes in higher education that connect with the social issues of our time. This is a great way to give students the opportunity to share their talents and give something back to society. And, I add, to make sure they are not just living inside their own bubble.

Their leadership role is also crucial in a globalized world. When students gain international experience – or when Dutch students encounter an international classroom – they acquire skills that benefit them for the rest of their lives. They get to know other cultures and perspectives, helping them learn to engage in an international, democratic conversation.

This is essential in a global economy. Excellent programmes, such as Erasmus, are already in place in higher education. But I would very much like to extend the scope of these programs to vocational education, so that the professionals and craftspeople of tomorrow are also able to become vital members of the Global Village.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I cannot resist quoting the very wise Eleanor Roosevelt yet again:
“Whether or not they have made the world we live in, the young must learn to be at home in it, to be familiar with it.” They must understand its history, its peoples. Their customs and ideas and problems and aspirations. The world cannot be understood from a single point of view’ - end quote.

Education – both here in the Netherlands and around the world – is meant to change this ‘single point of view’ into a broader worldview of greater nuance. And that entails more than just skills in reading, writing and mathematics. It entails more than an awareness of the borders of your own country, or of the European Union.

It also means learning to listen, to comprehend and to empathize. Learning where freedom begins and ends. Learning what justice means to others. Learning to switch between perspectives. And yes, learning to hold a comprehensive, democratic conversation.


At some point in the next few months, a new Dutch government will be in place. Hopefully it will be based on a truthful, meaningful, democratic conversation. It must be noted, however, that this new government will take office in a polarized world where democratic conversations are rare indeed.

More and more authoritarian leaders are rising to power. Leaders who are embracing identity politics to create divisions, to the point where dialogue has ceased.

They are doing so literally, by building fences around their territory, right here in the European Union (Hungary). Or by building walls ten (10) metres tall (Trump in the US). But also by using words to drive a wedge between people and nations and by implementing highly nationalistic policies (Russia, Turkey and others).

Our response must be to strengthen and bolster democracy as a place where differences converge, where conflict is allowed – but where we use this conflict as a basis for exploring the best solution for all. This is ‘the fierce urgency of now’.

To quote Eleanor Roosevelt for a final time:
“Democracy and ignorance do not go together. It is not enough to love democracy and to believe in it. The citizen has to understand it, to be familiar with its institutions and with his history. And he has to be able to think for himself.”

And, I would like to add, he must be able to hold a special kind of conversation. A democratic conversation that leads to a society where universal human rights are paramount. Where we constantly strive for more justice, more freedom, more dignity and more equality.

And that special conversation starts at school.

Thank you very much.