Review Beyond the Wilhelmus, on developing citizenship in education by Bram Eidhof

This review article was published on the website of the Dutch magazine for education Didactief.

“Polarization between groups of citizens rises, the feeling of being politically powerless is wide spread and trust in political parties is relatively low. If ever there was a moment for citizenship education, this is it”, Bram Eidhof writes in Beyond the Wilhelmus[1], a pamphlet based on his dissertation Influencing Youth Citizenship.

Eidhof’s problem-analysis

Citizenship in Dutch youth is more or less like in Flanders, that is: pretty bad. This is not so much because of teachers or principals. Quite the contrary, they think it very important. According to Eidhof, the main problem lies with parliament. Until quite recently there the idea of citizenship through education was met with considerable resistance. It was feared it would come down to state-led indoctrination. It also would not be up to the state, for schools would simply be too different and determining what good citizenship is, could best be left to groups of citizens deciding this on the basis of their philosophy or religion. And it would run counter to the autonomy of the child.

But in 2006 – a period of turmoil in the Netherlands because of public figures killed in the streets because of their opinion – parliament decided to go ahead with it. However, the legal text shows the mentioned objections were not fully dealt with. A clear view on what citizenship education is, with a definition and concrete competences, still is missing and schools only need to make an effort and are not obliged to reach certain results. “This way an uncomfortable discussion about what should be done (…) resulted in a lack of priority. And citizenship still is a vulnerable concept that can mean just about anything.”

The four functions of the democratic constitutional state

To resolve the matter, Eidhof continues, we should no longer make absolutes of the objections but keep in mind three citizenship-goals to protect the underlying values: the personal values of the pupils – since in the end it should be they who decide what type of citizen they want to be, school-specific goals – fitting the value-orientation and challenges of individual schools, and national consensus goals “which will make pupils capable to deal in a good way with the diverse perspectives and interests manifest in society”.

On the first two types of goals and the relationship between all three there isn’t much more to be found in Beyond the Wilhelmus.  It’s clear Eidhof concentrates on the third type. Doing so, he arrives at the democratic constitutional state as “the most solid and uncontested basis” which in fact holds four functions: dealing with conflicts in the most peaceful and righteous way, the capacity to continually change by means of collective and democratic decision making, countering inequity and combat the abuse of power.

Goal and conditions of citizenship education

To Eidhof citizenship education should consequently teach pupils the skills or competences “that will help them realize these functions, for themselves or others, whether it applies to a social or political context”.

Next to this general goal there are four conditions to be met. Citizenship education should be genuine: it should not shy away from facing tensions, unequal power relations and the fact that many of the constitutional values still are not fully realized. It should be free from indoctrination, cannot be just an elite project or a way to create a docile population. It also should enhance intellectual virtues, like arguing a case in a decent fashion, have an open mind and be truthful. And parliament should facilitate it, should come up with a good definition and give it more priority by means of stimulating refresher courses for teachers and providing the means for schools to develop their citizenship curriculum and ask them to evaluate their approaches.


In stressing the need to prioritize the education of critical citizens, Eidhof joins the growing consensus amongst specialists in Europe and beyond. Also with stipulating the mentioned conditions, most will gladly concur or agree. The well-written pamphlet has its merits. But it also has some shortcomings.

The limits of a liberal focus      

‘Polarization, the feeling of being political powerless and the lack of trust are growing. Therefore we should make sure that pupils learn the skills needed to secure the four functions of the democratic state.’ That’s the core of Eidhof’s plea. But this is too weak to provide an effective framework for citizenship education.

Sure, it can’t harm to make these skills more explicit in educational views and to work more or harder on them in school. This can benefit the peaceful and democratic way to handle conflicts in a diverse society. But therein also lie the limits of a liberal focus on the democratic state. Since it leaves the causes of polarization, powerlessness and lack of trust too much aside. Any deduced citizenship program will therefore run the risk of being no more than a mere palliative.

Central in the causes of the democratic deficit is the centrism of the traditional political parties. In the last four decades they became more and more interchangeable, causing the depoliticizing of the main problems that divide society: the ecological question, the closed society and the sharp rising inequality especially. What should be in the forefront is therefore not only teaching and learning democratic values and skills, but also and at least equally the necessary knowledge and insight in these main problems and the fundamental choices that need to be made on each of these societal fractures. Then and only then can we avoid citizenship education to be about just anything or to be limited to the inter-subjective level of handling diversity or conflict management.

Beyond the Wilhelmus?

These main problems can also not be solved within the national boundaries: citizenship education should be world-citizenship education: knowledge of the constitution should be complemented with knowledge of human rights and the history of international dimensions of politics and power – subjects that are conspicuously absent in a pamphlet that wants to go beyond the national anthem.

The curriculum as a missing condition

Realizing that educating critical citizens also means teaching and learning the insights in the forces that govern peoples lives and shape the problems of the future, also brings us to a third point. The need of such an insight makes us remember that in fact the whole curriculum – or at least its base – is meant to support this goal. Citizenship education therefore should not really be something new or independent. Rather, it should simply reinforce the integral learning through the curriculum by developing a functional context of use – as a line of defence against further inflation of enlightenment ideal, so to speak. So we should add a fifth condition to the list: supporting the integral learning in and through the curriculum.[2]

Keeping in mind this extra condition, one avoids citizenship education to be limited to a single course, meaning one would hardly touch on or use the main school-factors that influence citizenship, such as underscoring or developing relevant content and goals in other parts of the curriculum, stimulate the democratic attitude of other teachers, multiply the possibilities for pupils to participate in class and school policy, strengthen the purposiveness of school policy or just simply increase the weight citizenship is given in school.[3]Meeting the same condition also avoids the other risk of wanting to stimulate all these factors separately. Before you know it the school will count more pedagogical wizards or external companions than teachers, or will welcome all kinds of initiatives and refresher courses for the teachers to go run after.

How to account for the curriculum then?

However, the teacher trainings could focus more on the knowledge and skills needed for an approach that does account for this extra condition. This kind of approach starts with the fact that moral and/or citizenship education is most effective when using project teaching: all (social) problem-solving/directed methods that use both a knowledge and a doing part. The goal then is to assign as many teachers of different courses as possible a feasible two to three weeks part or sequence in a long-term (say between two and seven months long) project, in which they link the goals or content of their courses to the project’s theme that illustrates a social fracture. That way the pupils of one class or study-year take a binding subject along or through their curriculum, strengthening both their citizenship competences and course-specific learning.

When one now organizes that kind of long-term project with the phases of a moral stepping plan, one will ensure that all other conditions will also be met, politics will come to life and any or every set of citizenship competences can therefore be developed.[4]  Evaluating pupils’ progress in this kind of “WELT” project[5]has two parts. The first comes down to add up the marks for the tests or assignments done in the different courses. And the second part consists in the results of the jury’s reflection.

This jury meets a couple of times per year and counts both the teachers involved and the representatives of the civil society organizations and/or city services that help out with parts of the project or provide places for service-learning. With this jury-system the team creates connections with the school’s environment so that the school can transform itself into an extended school for world-citizens.

The main scale to enhance (world)citizenship education today

Although somewhat more clarity and more result-driven demands of parliament might help a little, we will make more and faster progress focussing on promoting that kind of generic and integral program.

In spite of his focus on parliament, Eidhof realizes that adding another bucket of competences to the already existing containers would come down to overloading the ship or bail out a bucket elsewhere – with the risk of yet another war of the courses on board. But transfer the main point of change with the mentioned program to the level of school-systems and this problem will get solved.

That way we also create a well-founded relation between the three types of citizenship goals of which we couldn’t find anything more in Het Wilhelmus voorbij. The link between the consensus goals, the freedom of education, and the personal goals, is an effective and sufficiently generic program that can suit every school. A program that covers the first goals in a practical way, guarantees the third and enters the second with a single learning practice that meets all conditions without crushing school-specific needs and capacities.

Suppose a school welcomes a large group of recently arrived migrant youth and the language teacher therefore wants to next year organize a debate-competition in April to secure their progress. What could be better than the team proposing both teacher and kids to use the competition to also fill in the phase of solutions and values of a citizenship project on poverty in the neighbourhood, on which practically all courses collaborate and that uplifts the school and improves their learning in general?

Flemish teachers will probably already have recognized the similarity with the Integrated test in professional, technical and art tracks of education, or Research competence in general education. These indeed already are long since existing (limited) trans-course learning practices in the last years of secondary education that precisely because of their trans-course structure have more impact on the learning process than any other singular learning activity. Their effectiveness indeed is the reason why they can be found in pretty much all schools of every school-system in Flanders. Transforming these into WELT projects would make them even more trans-course, allowing to share the workload better among more teachers, and would improve the relation between theory and practice in every strand, thanks to directing them towards citizenship goals and a better world.


Eidhof’s merit is that he lists the four functions of the democratic constitutional state and essential conditions in a well-written plea for better defined citizenship education that includes parliament to make necessary competences mandatory. His plea however needs to be complemented with the theory of societal fractures, world-citizenship and the extra condition of the curriculum. Also the work in parliament should not be overrated. The main focus of change lies in promoting an integral and sufficiently generic project-approach for every school that can balance the three types of citizenship goals.

[1]Only in Dutch ; Het Wilhelmus voorbij. Over het ontwikkelen van burgerschap in het onderwijs, Amsterdam: Van Gennep. The Wilhelmus is the Dutch national anthem.

[2]Eidhof does mention, in footnote 44, that more can be gained from the curriculum. “E.g., in my dissertation I show how language and citizenship education go hand in hand.” But this remark, let alone a wider connection, doesn’t get any more attention or didn’t make it to the list of conditions for citizenship education.

[3]E.g. in Flanders P. Loobuyck already for years makes a plea to make competences in knowledge about religions and for democratic citizenship mandatory and realize these preferably in a new course “Religion, Ethics – Citizenship, Philosophy” (see especially his Meer LEF in het onderwijs, Brussel: VUBPRESS, 2014). However, nowhere does he point to the need for trans-course, trans-curricular or school-wide approaches that need to involve as many teachers/courses as possible. As a course LEF should even replace the religious and ethics courses in the public education systems, or push them outside the mandatory curriculum. But those competences are already for years and decades part and parcel of (amongst others) History and/or are also covered in the set of trans-curricular competences that indeed got but an effort-obligation, but are now being scaled-into several courses of the curriculum. In the public system GO! I helped create a new course Active Citizenship that will be introduced next year. But this is different from the LEF proposal and especially didactically more sound: without touching the value of the religious and ethics courses it is also meant to be the axis for trans-course and school-wide approaches, like the WELT program I describe further in this article.

[4]A stepping plan for moral reasoning mostly has the following phases: problem-description, (scientific) analysis with (in this case) attention to the global scene, discussing possible solutions and weighing these against constitution and human rights, consulting others outside the project and finally taking a position – which can take the form of a text, installation or artistic performance.

[5]World Education Learning for Tomorrow, see www.civiclab.befor more info and examples.

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