A Niagaran in the Netherlands

by Dr. Thomas Chambers on February 24, 2016
A Niagaran in the Netherlands

Dr. Chambers is a professor of history at Niagara. He has also taught in our M.A. in interdisciplinary studies program. Dr. Chambers is currently on sabbatical in the Netherlands! 

Hoi! That’s Dutch for “hi” and is the greeting you give and receive as you zip past someone atop the Huissendijk, riding your bike in the pouring rain with a brisk wind whipping in your face. This is just one of the many culture shocks I’m experiencing while living in the Netherlands during my sabbatical. If you didn’t have the chance to do so as an undergraduate, seize an opportunity for a brief study abroad trip, or maybe an exchange program, to broaden your horizons and expand your learning. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered:

Education in the Netherlands places more emphasis on experience and less on “book learning” than in North America. My sons, ages 13 and 10, attend an international school and spend far fewer hours in class and complete much less homework than when at their American schools. Primary grades have recess twice a day, and head outside unless it’s a downpour.

My fifth grader has had homework twice during his six weeks here (besides reading 20 minutes every day, just like home!). My seventh grader goes in at 9:40 some days, 8:30 other days, and is out as early as 1 p.m. and no later than 2:40. His “Maths” lessons require some work but otherwise it’s pretty laid back. Both boys love school, eagerly ride their bikes there daily (1.5 miles each way!), and relish the time to learn outside the classroom by doing things like visiting the local farm, reading the World War 2 markers around our house, shopping at local stores, and interacting with their new friends. Dutch kids are happy and constantly outdoors doing things; the fact that they can speak two or three languages besides Dutch (English is nearly universal for anyone under 30) shows that they are learning in ways that we, as North Americans, can only imagine.

Dr. Chambers 3 edit

My wife is on a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher grant to study civic education and electoral behavior at Radboud University and has seen many of the same trends (follow her blog). She is taking a class that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but attendance is not mandatory, and many students just show up for the exams. They tell her that they’re traveling for the weekend, are enrolled in another course, or simply would rather just do the reading. And this is at one of the country’s more impressive research universities!

Interestingly, my wife is taking a class that is in English, as are about half of the courses at Radboud. The professor will lecture in English, then ask the students to break into groups for discussion, which they conduct in Dutch! Theses are generally written in English, but the library holdings are almost all in Dutch. This is a true bilingual institution and culture!

To give just one more example, we have struggled with basic commercial transactions like buying food. We’ll use Google Translate to look up how to ask for products, then get to the counter, attempt to pronounce a phrase, and be greeted by a perplexed look from the clerk. (By the way, they sit on stools behind the register and slide your products down a chute, where you bag the items yourself in a bag you brought.) Then, the very nice employee answers your question in English. Apparently, I get points for trying! A smile and “dank je wel” completes the awkward transaction. 

We have learned that getting along in another country requires a willingness to try new things, embrace not knowing what is going to happen, and simply realizing that food or bike lanes or family leave or big refrigerators are not better or worse in one country or another - just different. That sense of experiencing something beyond our ordinary lives makes studying abroad all the more meaningful.

And for those of you over 21, I should mention that the beer is really tasty here - maybe even better than in North America!

For more information about our interdisciplinary studies program, contact Dr. Mustafa Gokcek at gokcek@niagara.edu.