A 'Wave of Nostalgia' in Eastern Europe

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The recent political changes in Eastern Europe interest everyone. Barriers that closed that region from the rest of the world are disappearing; walls dedicated to separating Easterners from Westerners are becoming historical monuments.

Those of us who come from the Eastern bloc, however, have more than one reason to watch these events eagerly. Our emotions include fear about the future as well as joy. For us, the recent developments are not simply fascinating historical episodes but our lives--perhaps our destinies.

To understand these occurrences, we must both examine the past and speculate about the future. Let me contribute to such discussions by briefly describing changes in education in Eastern Europe today.

The most common notion about the current developments is that they are leading to modernization. "Back to normal life" is a phrase used regularly by the political leaders of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and even Czechoslovakia. The meaning of "normal life," as they use the term, is varied. Some refer to a market economy and the recovery of industry and agriculture. Others may think of political pluralism and parliamentary democracy. "Normal life" in the ordinary sense would also cover free enterprise, free elections, free travel, and the like. In any case, "normalization" is meant to suggest a process of modernization.

But in addition to the push for modernization, a second trend can also be defined: a massive turn toward traditional values and historical institutions. Flags and shields are redefining the allegiances of thousands of people in Eastern Europe; national anthems and original alphabets are the focus of their political interests.

Old-fashioned and sometimes childish though these trends may be, the facts remain: The vision of rapid modernization goes hand in hand with the revival of traditionalism and conservatism. The same phenomenon holds true for changes in Eastern European education. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The most urgent need of education in these countries is to update the contents of the entire curriculum. The recent political changes deeply influence the interpretation of national history and the teaching of civics and political science. They also create a new understanding of the role of social sciences as well as arts and humanities in the Eastern European societies.

While curricular revisions are always necessary--in the light of modern research and study--what is now happening is much more than a simple updating. Teachers and experts are turning back to the old textbooks--they sometimes call them the "originals"--to discover historical realities. There is a growing emphasis on the original roles of the different nations in the region, on historical ways that have been lost, and on organic developments deteriorated by the Stalinist intervention.

Foreign-language teaching is one of the burning issues in Eastern Europe. After decades of requiring Russian as a second language, the governments of these nations must now confess an almost complete failure to maintain that important effort. The deeply needed economic ties would seem to call for English instead; traditions also suggest German as a second language.

The emphasis on modernization is so strong that it seems to overshadow the reality of a Russian-language majority of approximately 200 million near these nations' borders. The newly born interest in mother tongues and related skills and knowledge distracts those small countries from their key role in creating the bridge between the different parts of Europe.

In such ways, the ongoing updating of the contents of education can easily--and dangerously--turn into the resurrecting of old-fashioned notions about history, nationality, and local cultures.

The re-establishment of traditional educational institutions is another emerging trend in Eastern Europe. The decades of socialist education were characterized everywhere in the region by the organization of "general schools"--integrated elementary and middle schools aimed at the democratic education of all children--in the place of schools that served educational selection in early childhood. For almost four decades, the educational leadership of these countries boasted about the development of truly democratic public-school systems.

Today, however, the general schools are being attacked--sometimes with reason--for inefficiency, rigidity, and inhumanity. But with the new wave of nostalgia come renewed calls for the selectivity of the former system. Using human-rights arguments, the political opposition has initiated laws giving legitimacy to private schooling, including a role for churches, in education.

These demands can be seen as reactions to 40 years of bureaucratic indoctrination and ideological oppression. But few of them can be considered elements of a sound educational system for the 21st century.

The new emphasis on symbols of political freedom and national independence further contributes to the traditionalist wave. Eliminating mandatory Russian from the school schedule is more than a planner's decision: It is a national confirmation. Giving more time to the national poetry is more than a curricular choice: It is a confession. Using folk songs as an introduction to music education is not only methodologically advised but also socially initiated. The search for a new national identity characterizes almost every endeavor in education and culture.

Western experts may view these phenomena as childish. Yet the conservative trend in education is nothing else but a reaction to massive indoctrination, If Eastern European education today has a childish quality, it is rooted in the primitive nature of that indoctrination and the bureaucratization these countries have suffered until now.

That may be the explanation. But this new conservative wave must not be the future of Eastern Europe. A new educational vision and a relevant leadership are still needed.

Vol. 09, Issue 24, Page 27

Published in Print: March 7, 1990, as A 'Wave of Nostalgia' in Eastern Europe
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