Czech Republic in need of a strategy

April 14, 1995

While I sympathise with many of Josef Jarab's comments on higher education in the Czech Republic (World View, THES, February 10) I find his evasion of any serious discussion about the role of higher education in a post-communist society particularly troubling. Beyond the usual pieties, he says nothing of the university's or of individual intellectual's responsibilities to the community. While money is certainly needed to hire faculty, establish graduate centers of excellence, and improve research facilities, his implication is that money is all that is needed.

Adequate funding might loosen up the entrenched Czech Academy, but in the absence of a programme committed to open discussion, critical thinking, pedagogical reform, student rights, accountability in decision-making processes and the like, the university system will remain mired in the narrow-minded and intolerant elitism that characterises it at present.

If a functioning democracy is to be built in the Czech Republic, educational institutions will be at the forefront of that effort. It was, after all, students who spearheaded the "Velvet Revolution".

A university that shuts its doors in the face of students, contemporary ideas, and the general public, shirking its role in a community or a country, cannot help but remain an isolated enclave of spurious elitism. Yet so far only modest and superficial efforts have been made to reform the academy, which was devastated by the "normalisation" tactics of the late 1970s.

Czech and Slovak universities were granted the right to self governance in 1990, but have been slow to exercise their new powers. Often policies are decided upon in an ad hoc manner, and many decisions have been finalised without consulting those on whose behalf they were purportedly made. The heritage of communism means that effective policy-making procedures are still rudimentary. Too many pre-emptive decisions are still made and handed down apodidactically to students and teachers, who are cowed and seldom protest. We are left with a faculty atmosphere where covert, even conspiratorial, operations take place habitually, where operations work against the spirit of tolerance, open discussion, and free thought, for which the academic enterprise has traditionally stood-in this country as fully as in the West.

The dangers of too much conformism in the academy should be self-evident by now; rightfully universities should serve as open forums for dissent and debate, where new ideas can be tested against traditional wisdom. But the traditionalists seem to have the upper hand in the academy. Even those who think of themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the heroes of 1989, have a great deal to answer for five years after the fact. Denied recognition and influence for so long, those mellow dissidents who survived may today want to cling to power fiercely, to wield it with a vengeance. If the work of some researchers benefited by being protected from prying state eyes, however, it suffered, by the same token, for not being subject to critical analysis. Now this work has, at long last, seen the light of day, proponents are unwilling to allow it to open discussion and criticism. So much is understandable, but unacceptable, in an institution of higher education. Consequently, much of the work being done, at least in the fields I am qualified to judge, remains timid, pedantic and out of touch with the international community.

Just as in our role as scholars we are held accountable to and by an international scholastic community, so too, as teachers, we will be held accountable by our students. But we are giving students short shrift. The attitude of university teachers and administration towards students is shocking. It is students who will bear the full brunt of the universities' failure.

I could pile up anecdotal evidence on the manners in which students are silenced and abused, particularly when it comes to disciplinary procedures. Whatever offence students may be guilty of, they have the right to the principled, deliberate and open handling of such matters. In a word, the students are effectively silenced. We cannot go on treating them with the same institutionalised contempt.

I am still new to the academy in this country, and do not yet fully understand how policy is established or carried out here. Clearly, I do not wish to impose my own cultural expectations on the academy or the people in it. I understand the work of a university is to be involved in the kind of democratic reforms that will put an end to the conspiratorial back-room politics characterising the former regime's attempt to stifle intellectual and public life. What I have witnessed at Masaryk University, however, seems consistent so far with old-school party politics, and does little to reinforce any impression that this faculty is interested even in self-reform. The university needs to assume an active role within a participatory democracy, and that calls for openness and involvement on the part of the university.

Arthur Redding works for the International Institute of Intercultural Studies and is currently lecturing in the English Department at Charles University, Czech Republic.

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