In an age of enlightenment

February 4, 2000

After years of being told how to think, first by the state and then by the church, the Poles, says Richard Bradford, have a mind for change Teaching in Poland was not exactly a childhood dream, in fact neither was teaching, so to find myself doing both at a university here, within sight of the pine-speckled Beskidy Hills, is something of a surprise.

In the run-up to post-communist Poland's full European Union membership, the education system is in complete upheaval, with reform following reform.

First it was decided to extend the requirements of state school teachers, encouraging many to enrol on diploma courses at great personal expense. Then, last summer, more reforms were introduced, requiring those same teachers to pay for degree courses to learn combined subject skills, such as history and chemistry.

On the face of it, it is a good idea to have better educated teachers, but here they get paid only 600 to 850 zloty a month (about Pounds 120). There is an understandable reluctance to fork out another 2,000-3,000 zloty for yet more courses.

The result, instead of achieving better standards of state teaching, is that increasing numbers of good teachers are pulling out of state education altogether and concentrating instead on private students.

University lecturers have fared better because they were better educated to begin with, but there are still huge uncertainties hanging over the system's future.

Luckily Poland's universities have politically influential boards of directors, often with members with both strong business and political ambitions. As much as this will no doubt secure the survival of the universities as institutions, from a student's point of view, things could remain as dire as ever.

To understand why, it is necessary to delve a little into Polish history and the combined impacts of both communism and the Catholic Church on these once great freedom fighters.

From the outside, communism conjures up images of unsmiling Russian leaders and poverty-stricken Poles queuing for days on end, knee deep in snow, outside empty shops. Seen from the inside it is more spiritually than physically destructive.

Imagine almost 50 years of being told not to think, not to question, just to accept and obey. Imagine that, after 30 of those years have elapsed, the election of a Pole, Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II brings new hope. Imagine, then, the impact of the loss of that hope when the increased strength of the church simply increases its own mantra of "do not think, do not question, just accept and obey".

The Polish people have spent three generations being told what to do and being taught not to take responsibility for their own actions, which were always dictated by someone higher up the food chain. Ten years after the demise of communism, but still with a politically strong church (abortions were outlawed last year), commercialism and performance-related meritocracies are having a hard time making ground.

Even at the universities this means that lecturers, higher up the food chain than their students, answer to no one but themselves, with the power to pass or fail students entirely as they see fit - even on the basis of whether they like or dislike someone, rather than an individual's performance.

Testing (outdated, short-term memory tests) is done on a regular basis and the contents of these tests are often totally obscure facts so the lecturers can reaffirm

their positions of knowledge

superiority.

One example of this is a grammar test, for general language students, on all the scientific conjugations of obscure atomic materials. Another is a history test on the states of America that instead tested something completely different, such as post-war farming techniques. Consequently 56 out of 60 students failed.

Despite protests, no quarter was given during marking. Lecturers here grew up having no compassion shown to them and now they display that same quality to their students.

At state-run teacher training colleges, the very institutions that are producing the next generation of food-chain superiors, the story is still as bad as ever, so the cycle is set to repeat itself.

If this sounds like education from hell, it is. But in the middle of it all, there is a small contingent of Poles and Britons, mainly

lecturers teaching English as a foreign language, fighting to bring about change.

Seen as a threat by many of the self-serving established regime, and as problem makers by some students who are shell-shocked at being encouraged to think for themselves, it is not easy going.

Ironically, progress is being helped by the influx of some good private schools, which are beginning to highlight the differences in both teaching standards and methods. Officially competitors, like compatriots at arms, enlightened individuals have begun working together to achieve the common aim of progress by demonstration, cooperation and expansion.

Now, when I step into my classroom and look up above the blackboard at the blood-red placard displaying the white Polish eagle with its golden crown, I feel glad to be here, with a tingle of inner excitement at the prospect of what is to come. It is no longer a question of whether the general situation will improve, but rather when it will improve and how quickly the cycle can be broken so students, and their subsequent students, can be saved from their cruel fates. Richard Bradford is a lecturer in English as a foreign language at the University of Silesia.

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