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October 13, 1995

The Humanities Institute at Charles University in Prague was founded only two years ago, born in the vacuum created by the disappearance of the old Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

But its roots lie in the Prague Spring of 1968 when a group pf Czech philosophers, led by the late dissident Jan Patochka, founded the Underground University.

Zdenek Pinc was one of those young people: he followed Patochka and acted as his assistant. He was expelled from the state university when he was 25 years old and forced by the communist authorities to work as a night watchman for 17 years. Today he is director of the Humanities Institute.

Pinc recalls how the underground groups in former Czechoslovakia had received support from foreign academics, including staff from Oxford University. "The best known of the philosophers and intellectuals who helped us was Newton Smith from the University of Oxford. He collaborated from 1978 until 1989 (the fall of communism). They used to come and give seminars in people's houses, cellars, or the open air."

Now he is trying to revolutionise teaching methods. "We want to offer an alternative programme, one that respects the traditional structure of specialised studies, such as has existed in our university since the 13th and 14th century, while giving the student a sound foundation of learning, sound in the architectural sense, in that we can lay one stone on top of another, without risk of knocking down the one below."

In order to lay such foundations and test their stability Pinc and his colleagues at the institute established several basic principles from the start. One principle was that each student was to have an individual study programme prepared with the help of his or her tutor.

The tutorial system is, in some ways, a copy of that of Oxbridg and did not exist elsewhere in Bohemia. There the German tradition, which does not recognise the idea, predominates.

"In this our institute has been a pioneer and the system is now being introduced in other faculties and institutions in the country, such as the University of Pilsen and the University of Usti nad Laben in northern Bohemia.

At present, the Humanities Institute has 500 students. "This year 180 new students enrolled which caused a problem. It was the same problem we have had since the first year: how to choose a tutor?" To solve this the institute runs an eight-day summer school before term starts. The university has agreed to subsidise the school. Attendance is voluntary but students have to pay Kr480 (Pounds 12).

Held in a former holiday camp in a wood, the summer school allows lecturers to give seminars to show off their talents. "Their idea is to establish an environment of co-operation and community between students and academics so that they can get to know one another better. By the end of the school students usually know which professor they are going to choose as a tutor."

The second basic principle is teaching in languages. Each student has to pick a foreign language, such as English, German, French, Spanish and Italian, in which they will do half of their studies.

"Our final exams guarantee that the students' linguistic ability is of such a standard that they will be able to further their studies in the country of the language-choice," says Professor Pinc. At present four-fifths of the students have chosen English. The institute runs a three-year bachelors degree, and masters and doctorate courses.

"We have only opened classes in subjects which we can cover with the ideal specialists, for example the socio-linguistics where we have Petr Zima, an expert in Africa and African languages and teaching.

Philosophy has always played a dominant role in society in central Europe and is one of the institute's strengths. However, in social sciences "we are nowhere near as good as the German universities".

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