Childhood Education in the Dutch Republic

How did the system work?

In Delft, children as young as three were sent to ABC schools (ABCscholen) until they were seven. Then they moved to either a Latin school, which was in a separate building and of which there was only one in Delft, or to one of the dozens of schools conducted in private homes. About two-thirds of the teachers were men. While reading, writing, and arithmetic were primary, other languages, especially German and French, were common. Also, a given teacher often had a special interest that would attract students and their tuition-paying parents. Students stayed in these schools until they were 12 or 14, depending on the curriculum.

After that, the Latin school students could go on to a university. The others went on to an apprenticeship, as did Leeuwenhoek.

From what we know about Leeuwenhoek's parents, we can safely assume that Antony went to what they called an ABC school. The teacher was probably a man, and Antony would have learned reading, spelling, and perhaps some writing.

His father died when he was six, and Antony went to a live with a teacher in Warmond. Why Warmond, why that teacher, and what was the curriculum beyond the basics? Although van Seters' article makes an interesting case, we don't have any direct evidence. It's safe to assume that it was similar to the education that Antony could have received in Delft. If it involved French or German, Leeuwenhoek didn't learn enough to claim any knowledge as an adult. Given his penchant for numbers and other quantities, arithmetic may well have been his favorite.

We also don't know how long he stayed, but until the age of 12 is a reasonable estimate. Thus, it would have been 1644 or 1645 that he moved to Benthuizen for an apprenticeship with his uncle Cornelis Jacobs van den Berch. Three or four years after that, he moved on to another apprenticeship in Amsterdam.

What happened in the classroom?

Education, like most other things at the time, was not standardized and was only nominally regulated.

On the right sidebar are three images (click to enlarge) from the second half of the century by Ostade, Luyken, and Steen that show what went on in the schoolroom. On the right are three details of Ostade's 1664 painting, two decades after Leeuwenhoek would have attended such a school.

Let them play freely and let school use play for their maturing ... otherwise they will be against learning before they know what learning is.

- Johan van Beverwijck

We see no common instruction, probably because of the range of ages. At the beginning and end of every day, each student recited in front of the schoolmaster and got some feedback, in terms of today's educational jargon. For the rest of the day, the students worked on their own (lower right), in small peer groups (middle right), and in cooperative learning modes (upper right) where older students worked with younger ones. This was a competency-based curriculum without objective tests, standardized tests, or grades. A major source of income were the fees for the oral examinations that certified competency.

Leeuwenhoek is often described as an auto-didact, a trait that he would have had as a child, too. Much of his training in lens grinding, metal working, and surveying would have been spent with a master in a cooperative learning mode, and his training in anatomy would have been spent in a group. However, it seems likely that as a student he would have spent more time as the individual scholar lower right. Indeed, given how he spent most of his adult life, in solitary, self-initiated observation, Leeuwenhoek would have found this form of active education to his liking. He wasn't one who sat around waiting to be taught.