Meet... Els Stronks
“The universal child or the universal youngster doesn't exist. How our youth develops can't be seen separately from the Dutch culture, language, and the historical thinking on child rearing and education in the Netherlands. Cultural-historic research shows these traditions, but also provides space to look at the future. An example is that not everything always was as it is now, so not everything has to stay that way. Youth research can also profit from that.” The person speaking is Els Stronks. As a Professor of Early Modern Dutch Literature, she brings a fresh wind from Humanities to Dynamics of Youth, the UU-wide research theme on the youth as they grow up.
Thinking on youth development is historically and culturally determined.
Why do you think historical awareness is indispensable in youth research?
“Because conventions on child development are also culturally determined. That Dutch culture is imbued into our thoughts on the constitutional state, education and even medicine. For instance, do we approach children with autism differently here than in other countries? And can you also explain that from a pedagogical historical context? Or how do we think about an eating disorder such as anorexia? Eating food and self control are also culturally determined: just think about ideas on fasting that exist in various religions. That's why interdisciplinary youth research is important. So you don't fixate too much on one perspective as a researcher, but combine expertises. That what I like to stand for as a member of the Programme Commission of Dynamics of Youth.”
In which regard is thinking about children and youngsters currently different from the previous four centuries?
“In all those centuries, you see almost all flavours come by in the Netherlands. Very long ago, they thought children were already born sinful. After that, the realisation that children possibly have different brains and need different education came about. But that didn't mean that a children's world also immediately came into being. Back then, children were on more equal footing with adults in some areas. An example is that as a child, Constantijn Huygens could already write along in poetry books for parties and festivities that adults were writing in as well. Today, the accent is primarily on stimulating children's own environment, which is separate from the adult world. That has upsides and downsides. If you create a separate reservoir for the youth, they also lack the connection with that adult society.”
What does early modern Dutch literature, your field of expertise, tell us about the youth of today?
“In the 17th century, the Netherlands were the most literate country of Europe. Now, Dutch youngsters are no longer ahead of other western countries in terms of reading and writing skills. I worry about that. And I'm the type of academic who believes you shouldn't just analyse a problem, but also take responsibility for it by offering interventions.”
Is that why you took the initiative for the projects Taalbaas and the Schrijfakademie, in order to improve the linguistic skills of the Dutch youth?
“Yes, we're currently in the middle of recording a new series of master classes for Taalbaas. In this project, we let pupils between the ages of 12 and 18 years experience what they can do with language by means of master classes with actors, journalists and comedians. Professionals who turn language into their professions to transfer emotions, to convince or get readers to think. Together with composer and poet Micha Hamel , I also founded the Schrijfakademie for youngsters. There, the emphasis is more on the writing process than is the case in current writing education. That education is much more about planning your writing properly, and being able to properly provide and receive feedback. Also important, but writing is primarily about putting something on paper. Which impressions and feelings do you experience, and how do you put that into words? With that type of writing education, we try to give that power of language more attention within the school subject of Dutch and make youngsters more powerful with language as well.”
Have we started looking at language in education differently?
“The accent in our language education has shifted to a functional approach in the past twenty years. You need language to apply for a job or complete your tax forms. From the communication sciences, there came more attention for the text structure and recognising argumentation at the same time. The thought was that this would improve reading. But that causes you to miss out on the substantive experience of language, the nuances in the meaning of words. Take the discussion on racism. The words black and white are not racist by themselves, but can be intended to be racist in the context of a sentence. It requires a lot of linguistic feeling to see exactly what's happening and if you don't develop that, this can increase polarisation. That's why a literate youth is very important. This is also where I see the connection with research within the educational sciences.”