Why do we go to school?

Critical notes on the Czech educational system

Not so long ago I saw one of those good old Czech film classics, a black-and-white film called School — Basis of Life. Apart from the humorous level of this film, it evoked my own experience of school. What we still laugh at most in this film, seventy years after it was made, are the various situations that happen between the world of the students and that of the professors. It is a constant rivalry. The students are expected to exercise a permanent RESPECT (and it is really the key word here) towards their professors — masters. Although there is a certain exaggeration in this film (it is a comedy, after all), one gets stunned at moments as one realizes that some of the things that the film parodies are still alive in today’s Czech schools.

Respect is something one has to develop automatically and maintain during one’s studies. Respect for teachers, directors, deans, administrative workers, librarians, school porters — simply for anyone connected with running this institution. Well, there is nothing wrong with respecting people in general, but it should not turn into an obsession. People should deserve respect, it should not be automatic. And this is the core of the problem.

It has become taken for granted here in this country that a mere office equals respect. It doesn’t matter what the person in the office is like, simply that he/she actually holds the office. Another thing, also deeply rooted in our environment, is that to be young automatically means to be inferior: not good enough to oppose, to disagree, to not respect. I heard my grandfather once say that when he was young, even a forty-year old man would still be considered too unreliable, young and inexperienced to hold a respectable office. That is probably why most men grew their beard (as well as belly) as soon as possible and then completed the appearance of an "honourable man" by hanging a pince-nez on their nose.

In short, both the Austrian Empire as well as the Czechoslovak communist republic used school as an institution to support the authority of the state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which the Czech lands had been part of and which was best symbolized by the immortal Kaiser Franz Joseph I., approved of "common decency" and keeping up the established rules and order. A young man was not considered sufficiently mature since he "cannot understand things"; he can only listen but never discuss or even talk back. All of that which counts as normal and natural today — self-confidence, courage, curiosity — was to be suppressed. To be an ideal young man was to seem shy, humble and stiff.

But back to the film. In what ways has the Czech educational system changed since the times of Austria-Hungary or the later years and what still remains rotten in it? It is true that a student nowadays gets relatively more freedom to express himself, he can disagree but he is still reminded of the uncrossable line between him and the teacher. Of course, there are exceptions at all school levels but the usual Czech teacher is still not a friend or someone who cares for his student beyond grading him/her.

Maybe this is just an ideal, but I happened to meet an ideal — and more than once. And those that I remember especially well I met at an American high school, so I think he/she exists. It does not mean that such a teacher-ideal cannot gain respect. It is an art, definitely, to be able to communicate with students equally, to awake an interest within them and remain worthy of respect at the same time. I still think that to be a good teacher is one of the most difficult jobs. There are many average teachers — those who teach us how to learn (just like they did themselves) — but only a few who awake our own potential in us and encourage us to realize it. I still lack this class of teachers who would work for us more as tutors, inspirers or advisers rather than "authorities".

The Czech school still stresses memorizing facts and offers very, very little chance for debate. But how else do we realize our knowledge than by presenting it, by defending or attacking facts, simply by trying out our own unique, unchangeable self, our identity. And school should not only lead us to the knowledge, it should also shape us into valid human beings. I myself have learnt many times that a truly passionate discussion about an issue has taught me more than many passive presences at lectures. And so, the conclusion is to not exclude chronological knowledge completely but keep in mind that it provides us only with the material and that there is then a task left for school — to teach us to build something of this material, to teach us to tinker with ideas.

In my school, I miss such courses as creative writing or rhetoric; neither is taught even at university level. Here our American colleagues seem to be at an advantage. Not only that their universities offer such courses, but a student is treated as a unique individual whose opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. Mechanical knowledge is not tested (or valued) as much as personal input. A "Sprt" (geek) does not enjoy huge success at an American school. This word has become very familiar in this country, though. In my life, I have met so many of them! They still enjoy success here. What I also got a taste of when visiting an American university was sovereignty, spontaneity and an ability to express oneself.

Well we don’t really get much chance for that here. As far as I remember we used to write approximately 2-3 essays a year in Gymnasium, and it is important to mention that they are not really called essays in Czech but "Stylistic Works". The word essay in our environment means something different, it’s more a work on some special theme, not a paper based upon an individual consideration and contemplation of a problem. Also, when writing any kind of paper, one is expected to rely on some other works — secondary literature. Usually the longer a bibliography a thesis has, the more respectable an approach it is met with by the professors.

So, what am I trying to hint at here? I definitely don’t want to sound completely negative toward the Czech educational system because I (fortunately) have seen exceptions both in attitudes and in methods, and it is those exceptions which illustrate how to rescue this institution for the future. Because an institution is nothing else but people. Yet I wanted to note certain "rots" that have been dragging on within it for ages and which could be changed, if only "the system" did not dread experimentation so much.

It is a pity that fewer and fewer young graduates from pedagogical schools want to go into teaching due to the unfavourable financial situation. I always felt that it is youth that the youth needs. Some energetic authentic individuals who would cause a few ripples in the stagnant waters of our educational system. If only every student could meet one, he would be saved.

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