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New book reflects on power and normality

Who determines what is wrong with children and how they develop? Educator and sociologist Annemieke van Drenth wrote a book about this that will be released on 10 June. In it, she uses the history of the school for ‘idiotic children’ in The Hague to investigate how special children were identified in the nineteenth century.

‘The field of remedial education has quite a long history’, says Van Drenth. She previously published a series of books and articles on the cultural history of gender and disability. ‘The attention paid to special children is often linked to the start of special education, which was stimulated by the Compulsory Education Act of 1901. That was when the realisation suddenly dawned that not all children could take part in it. So what should be done for those children in particular?’

The ‘school for idiotic children’ in The Hague

Children who develop differently have been the subject of attention for some time now. The common theme in the book De ontdekking van het speciale kind [The discovery of the special child], published today, is the history of the ‘school for idiotic children’ in The Hague: the first Dutch school for special children (who were then referred to as ‘idiots’). This school was founded by writer and clergyman Cornelis van Koetsveld, who studied at Leiden University. He was concerned about children who had fallen behind and at one point specifically went looking for ‘idiot children’ in The Hague, where he became a pastor. They had no such children there, according to a local administrator. ‘What you were capable of as a child was not so important. But when the awareness grew that education was necessary, normality and abnormality became increasingly interesting,’ Van Drenth explains. ‘Even though people didn’t really understand what “idiocy” means.’

Visibility for certain characteristics

For a long time, Van Koetsveld’s school was subject to the Lunacy Law. That meant that children could only be accepted under that law (i.e., with a judicial authorisation). Judges asked doctors and others to advise them about the problems with those children. Questionnaires were already being designed at that time, and they functioned as an early form of diagnosis. 

‘How did people come to associate certain characteristics of children with idiocy? What conceptions of normal and abnormal underlie this? Van Koetsveld asked himself the same question for his school for “idiotic children”. At certain stages, he also thought about how special children could be offered adapted education. Knowledge about that process is still relevant today’, says Van Drenth.

Gradually it was realised that children are individuals who develop based on their own unique character. Their development is dynamic and in interaction with the environment. ‘People realised that all children are in fact idiots at birth, and they must develop to break free from the initial phase of “idiocy”’, says Van Drenth. Children need to be challenged by outside stimuli to develop, grow up and become adults.

Annemieke van Drenth’s 'De ontdekking van het speciale kind'

Intrigued by ‘caring power’

Van Drenth has spent her entire career studying the relationship between caring and power. She explains that people often think that power is something that comes from above, something that subordinates or oppresses people. What Van Drenth wants to show is that you also have power from below. ‘It starts with parents who have power and children who depend on them. However, professionals soon share this power: in schools, in education, but also in other institutions concerned with the mental well-being of children. Caring power is necessary for development, but it also creates responsibility’, she says. 

There is once again an enormous amount going on in relation to youth care. ‘In a culture that runs on economy and efficiency, there are children who need specialist care that is simply too expensive within the system’, notes Van Drenth. And municipalities must make those decisions, even when they do not have the expertise to do so. Schools – including those that offer special education – are then judged on effectiveness and success.

No benefit from too difficult children

Much of what we see today was already present in the time of the school for ‘idiotic children’ in The Hague. Van Koetsveld, too, was reluctant to accept children who were too difficult into his school. He also tried to keep the children from the upper classes in order to raise money for his school. And he, too, wanted to show success and progress in the development of his pupils.

That desire to raise children to be full participants in society is still there, Van Drenth says. Results must be visible. The meritocratic idea that you are only worth something if you have a certain kind of social success puts intense pressure on schools and children. ‘With my book, I hope to reflect on the status quo: on the way in which a certain way of “being normal” has come to dominate.’

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