In my last post, concerning the inadequacies of the debate around the Jedwabne atrocities, I highlighted the distance between the informed debate and the broad understanding of the population at large, especially people far from the major cities, uninvolved in and not comprehending elite cultural debates. I pointed out that the popular distrust of official rhetoric which made a great deal of sense during the Communist period was now being applied to the important discussion about the painful past, making the debate for much of the population counterproductive. The consequences of this are becoming tragically evident now in a cultural war, spreading like wild fire across Poland, a cultural war about educational reform.
Educational reform in Poland has been ongoing since 1999 – each of its stages stirring controversies of a different sort. The most recent protests could be labeled as the “Occupy” stage. The protests have been coalescing around some supposedly minor changes in school curriculum that aim to integrate middle school and high school programs and also allow students to choose, for the first time, a subject track in high school.
The core reason for these protests is a new way of offering and teaching history, in particular the introduction of the new “History and Society” course for students in the science track. This course will encompass overarching topics that the teacher will be able to develop together with students. Among the list of recommended topics provided by the Ministry of Education are the following: “Europe And The World,” “War and Military Systems,” “Woman, Man, Family,” and “Motherland’s Pantheon And Motherland’s Disputes.”
Proponents of the reform believe that it succeeds in finding solutions to two major problems: first, the new curriculum provides much better continuity between middle and high school, allowing students to cover a greater swath of history. Middle school students and first year high school students will follow a unified World and Polish history curriculum, after which they get to choose their track. Second, science track students will be able to build upon the history knowledge they acquired in earlier grades, but now they will learn to use critical thinking skills (as opposed to rote memorization) to deepen their understanding of history.
The opponents interpret the reform quite differently. The new reform is for them de facto the way to get rid of history lessons altogether from Polish high schools – students under the new reform will not be exposed to enough history, and there is a risk that students will not study Polish history at all. Their beliefs are based on their analysis that 95% of students will choose the science track, thus receiving only about one hour a week of history. Moreover, that one-hour offering is a “diluted” history course – “History and Society.” In addition, the opponents fear that there is no control over teacher choice of topics within “History and Society” – teachers will be able to choose topics that do not emphasize Polish history. Thus, the opponents believe, the new reforms will discourage the formation of students’ Polish identity.
Public protests against education reform began with hunger strikes initiated by groups of parents in eight Polish cities in February and March 2012. These protests were embraced (or fueled) by the right-wing “Law and Justice” and “United Poland” parties. The parties prepared an alternative education law assuring the focused study of history by all students, regardless of their chosen track. In their own words, the law would “bring history lessons back” to high schools. Most importantly, the parties are using a legislative procedure known as a “civic draft,” which requires the signatures of 100,000 citizens.
The hunger strikes have now evolved into the “Let’s Bring History Lessons Back To Schools” project, taking place in more than 100 cities where local coordinators are collecting signatures.
A group of hunger strikers, supported by academics and teachers, established an additional entity, “The Civic Commission for National Education.” The role of this group is vague. On their website, they emphasize the need for a more thorough reform of the entire educational system and declare that “they want to be everywhere where they are needed to be,” and that they feel “obliged and competent” to review school textbooks. They also encourage regional Civic Commissions to self-organize.
Both of the above-described initiatives demonstrate the urge to bring history back – not only by actions but also through symbols. The very name, the “Civic Commission for National Education” is a peculiar mix of “Civic Committees of Solidarity,” organized before the first free elections of June 4th 1989, and “The Commission for National Education, ” established in 18th century Poland to reform schools. The Commission’s website incorporates historical imagery: the use of the “Solidarity” font; bread – recalling a symbol of religion and folk traditions; and white-red elements, which recall the Polish flag.
The website of the project “Let’s Bring History Lessons Back to Schools” evokes similar reactions through its use of language. The website’s pamphlet reads:
We are bringing history lessons back to schools! Starting September 1, 2012, based on the Ministerial ordinance, history lessons will be eliminated from the Polish schools. Do not agree with this! You are a Pole! Sign the protest. Help to collect 100,000 signatures. It is your obligation to future generations!
A quotation by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, one of the most charismatic figures of the anti-Communist opposition, accompanies the pamphlet:
A nation without history, without the past, becomes a nation without land, homeless, and without a future. A nation, which does not believe in greatness and does not desire great individuals – ends.
* * *
It is hard to understand how such a gross misunderstanding of educational reform took hold. At least 20,000 signatures collected so far testify to the misguided belief that there is a need to bring back something that was never actually discarded. Furthermore, the actions of a right-wing party clearly using political manipulation earned the eventual embrace of a grassroots movement.
Hard to understand – unless, of course, one understands that the right-wing politicians were addressing the “silent majority,” – the “outside-the-center” part of Polish society, excluded from many public debates after 1989 and unable to adjust to the mainstream political discourse. The call to fight injustice matched all the needs and expectations of this group, making them the warriors of a culture war.
The heroic goal to defend the Motherland (through preserving history classes), and the even more important use of patriotic-religious vocabulary and imagery, serve successfully to excite the post-Romantic political imagination of many Poles. The Romantic notion included the belief in the unique mission of Polish suffering in the redemption of Europe, and in the unique role of the past to affect the identity formation of new generations. The anti-education reform movement buys into these romantic notions – reminding Poles of who they are and proving the importance of taking action.
This imagination continued throughout the Communist era and never found closure; the revolution of 1989 swept it under. The rush to modernize, to catch up with other democracies in Europe, and to adopt a pragmatic tone, marginalized a large population of Poles – not only economically, but also linguistically and culturally.
The need to discuss the past, unsatisfied so many times in public debates since 1989, became the fuel for resistance against mainstream politics. It exploded now due to the belief that educational reform would “annihilate” the past through its discarding of history classes. This is the symbolic dimension of the protests: for the protestors, defending history means defending their own existence in the political landscape of Poland.
In order to regain their position in the political discourse, the protestors believe that they must start anew – recreate a “second-chance 1989” in which their voices, their sensitivities, will be the leading vision in society. This explains the building of alternative institutions, furnished with bold symbols referring to the past.
The protests cannot be easily dismissed: they have grown into independent bottom-up organizations, locally grown, with a national network, and they address the concerns of a diverse and numerous crowd: parents, teachers, the “local intelligentia groups,” – all concerned about change. Of the curriculum and much more.
Thus, the cynical action of politicians has turned into a fast-growing grassroots initiative, with the potential to grow beyond the original focus on education reform.
If it does – it may become a sort of “Occupy Values” movement; but if it doesn’t, the frustration of the ones involved will not evaporate, fortified as it now is by the experience of common active engagement.
PS. A few weeks ago, the ministry confirmed that the topic from its recommended list that is exclusively devoted to Polish history, “Motherland’s Pantheon, Motherland’s Disputes,” will be compulsory within the “History and Society” class. The protestors welcomed the news as proof that “pressure brings results.” At this point, it is not clear whether this will inspire the protestors to escalate their demands, or to declare victory and retreat from politics.