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Teaching One History, Living Another

by Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai 16 October 2009

See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.

[As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted.]

VALERY KATSUNOV, 56, BULGARIA

Katsunov is a history professor at St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia and a member of the state committee for reviewing and releasing communist-era security files.

Generally, nothing has changed.

Professionally, many plans and discussions about new textbooks took place. At the end, no truly new textbook appeared. We repeat the old. Variations differ according to the authors. We neither evaluated socialism and the times of “comrade Zhivkov,” nor decided where to go further – with the EU and NATO being the notable exception.

Clichés didn’t change, nor did topics. Some pale attempts were made to have a nationally oriented history, to classify national problems, but this went nowhere. The historians who managed to grasp the new opportunities faster and in a pragmatic way were those who dealt with contemporary history. They understood quickly that their writings would determine people’s perceptions. So they started to describe “comrade” Zhivkov’s time as a period of wealth, forgetting that different stages of socialism had different levels of violence. And the younger generation’s opinions are shaped by their texts.

In the beginning students wanted something new. A group among them prevailed; it dealt predominantly with national (I do not say nationalistic) problems. Over the years this group started to disintegrate. Now students have easier curricula, but they study much less. There is a principle among professors: “Let’s give a higher mark, let’s not spoil his or her stipend.” I graduated in 1979 and from 100 people; only five had excellent marks. Nowadays 70 percent do. Unfortunately, we constantly go below world educational standards.

The financial status of history professors in universities has changed. There was a period after the changes when we received ridiculous salaries of about $8 to $10 [per month]. Nowadays, my colleagues get one, let’s say, average salary – below the country’s average, but nevertheless a better one. I hope they’ll get also good pensions, because today the retired historians don’t. Before 1989 just a very small portion of historians (and with the blessing of State Security) traveled around the world; few of us knew what a real library looked like – in Vienna, Paris, or the Vatican. Now everyone is free to travel, provided one finds the necessary finances.

Bulgarian historians were involved with politics even before the changes. Some of them were directly connected to “comrade” Zhivkov’s family and used that to make a real career in the discipline. In principle, the historian fits well everywhere. If one had studied his lessons, one could do well in various places and have balanced opinions on various topics. Everything in this world in centered on personal ambitions and on the will to prosper. I noticed that historians with bold ambitions achieved a lot scientifically through cooperating with State Security – sometimes at the expense of other colleagues. For many years history has been an ideological discipline. … History can be a terrible or a beautiful story. Eventually, every single one of us who deals with history wants, maybe unconsciously, to leave his name on it. I think this ambition provides the reason why many historians from the older generation cooperated with State Security.

The most unpleasant thing for me was to watch some of my colleagues: those who furiously defended socialist ideology before the changes – and then turned around. It suddenly appeared that they were “oppressed” – and at once they pretended to teach history in a democratic way. It didn’t work. First of all, we knew one another. And most importantly, the substance of their history lectures didn’t change. … Maybe that’s why the teaching of history didn’t improve.

DANA VEPRKOVA, 53, CZECH REPUBLIC

Veprkova, a high school vice principal, has been teaching since 1979.

Both before and after 1989, the content of history classes was dictated by a central educational institution. However, nowadays, we can use much more creativity in how to apply the prescribed teaching plan according to the abilities of each class.

Our teaching methods have changed dramatically. It’s no longer about the student sitting in a chair with hands behind his or her back and mouth shut. There is much more mutual cooperation between the teacher and his or her students, and we practice much more teamwork.

Technologies have changed the role of teachers a lot. Where we used to be the only source of information for our students, they can check what we’re telling them in many other sources these days. We can no longer claim to know the only truth, because students can very easily say, “Well, here it says something different!”

A lot of information used to be censored, so even we history teachers didn’t know about some historical events. For instance, I had never heard of the Katyn massacre before 1989. Further, numerous historical personalities were misinterpreted, such as [communist Czechoslovak journalist] Julius Fucik or [medieval Czech military commander] Jan Zizka. After 1989, I discovered a lot of missing knowledge myself. That’s why, shortly after the revolution, I attended a three-year extra study course at Charles University in order to learn about what had been hidden from us.

The Communist Party used to have tremendous influence over what was taught – they controlled the teaching plans and also organized various kinds of “training” for those who were not members of the party. We had to listen to a party representative reading from Rude Pravo [a party newspaper]. All teachers also had to make a yearly official declaration of what newspapers they subscribed to and if the party publication was not there, they were strongly recommended to subscribe to it.

I tried to find a balance between following the official teaching plan and not doing propaganda for the party. So I taught the medieval era in detail, for instance, but tried not to spend as much time on modern history. Sure, I could have refused to teach about [Gustav] Husak [the then-president and Communist Party leader], for example, but I would have lost my job.

I wasn’t in the Communist Party, but my options for an active fight against communism, in my classes as well, were rather limited. Nobody knew then that there would be something like 1989 and I was in the first place a mother of two children, who could have been affected by any actions of mine against the party.

 

A paradox is that there are still teachers who refuse to teach modern history for various reasons. Sure, it’s “safer,” and easier to teach about prehistory than about the ’50s or ’60s, because modern history is tied to many other areas, such as politics, so it requires a lot of extra study and work for the teachers. However, I believe it’s important to teach modern history as well, because only then can the students understand the world around them.

My students these days are very different from those before 1989. In general, they ask more questions, which is very good. They are more ambitious and self-confident, but sometimes too self-confident.

KATALIN FEDERMAYER, 54, HUNGARY

Federmayer has been teaching since 1977.

It’s in the last year of secondary school that we teach the most political material, the 20th century. I graduated from university and started to work in 1977. I knew that what the textbooks of those times were saying wasn’t true, but I have to admit that we had very little information at all about events. My parents told me about the 1956 revolution, but I couldn’t read about it anywhere. I knew only snapshots. All I could do was to try to make the kids sense which expressions in the textbook were too strong and imposed by the state – like “opportunistic” for the revolutionaries – and show them where information was incomplete. It was a so-called parody of styles. Some of them understood it, others didn’t.

Federmayer
I also used different methods. When I was teaching about the French Revolution, for example, I didn’t ask the children to learn dates or names but asked them to write revolutionary leaflets and talked about how to organize a revolution. I was never punished for any of this, not even unofficially, though once I did this even when an inspector was in my class. But usually if I closed the door of the classroom, I was alone and did whatever I wanted. I think the kids enjoyed it a lot.

It was an awkward situation. I felt really bad throughout this period because I couldn’t do my job properly, though I knew that it wasn’t my fault but that of the situation.

In the 1980s things changed a little, because we started to have more and more information about the [1956] revolution from the media. Textbooks started to look even more ridiculous than before. I tried to tell the children everything I knew, but when I asked them later, to check their knowledge, they told me just what they could have read in the textbook. I still don’t know whether they did this because they didn’t understand what I told them, whether they were scared, or if it was just the easier thing to do for them.

After the transition we had more and more information, but the textbooks became even worse. All political parties printed their own textbooks with their own agenda; it was very hard to remain politically neutral in the classroom. I had to rely on my own conscience and knowledge again. I got a scholarship to go to France in 1994, and I practically spent those four months in the library, reading about things that were published only much later in Hungary.

The problem of textbooks was solved in the second half of the 1990s, when the government regulated the market and set up guidelines for textbooks. Now they’re required to be politically neutral, and the basic differences between them are methodological.

Teaching methods and the attitudes of children have also changed a lot. Today a teacher’s primary task is not to give information to the pupils but to teach them how to process the information they have. Moreover, it’s the children, not politics, that cause the most concern today. After the transition the unequal relationship between the all-powerful teacher and the pupils had to be changed. But today they don’t respect the age and experience of the teacher anymore, and I think that this has gone too far.

DOROTA OCHAL, 62, POLAND

Ochal was in the first line of activists who organized opposition groups in Warsaw schools in the late 1970s. She is now retired.

In my teaching, I didn’t embrace the new times all that immediately after the June elections and the Mazowiecki government [Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a non-communist, became prime minister after the June 1989 elections]. That was because I had been teaching my pupils what the official history books kept quiet about long before 1989.

Much depended on who the principal was. I used to work under principals who were active members of the Communist Party, as well as those who were not, but I had the luck that they were decent people. And in the mid- to late 1980s, the schools weren’t as controlled by the regime as before.

Of course, the atmosphere of 1989 and after was so much different. Before 1989, I had to take care that my lesson plans were in line with the official curriculum, while I’d speak about forbidden topics to pupils. Come the new times, I’d still [speak about those topics], but there was now a record of that, in the register book and in pupils’ notebooks.

I used to tell my pupils about the events in Polish history that the regime presented in a completely corrupt way, or didn’t present them in any way at all. Now it seems funny, but somehow I didn’t talk about Solidarity much and all the then-current events that turned out to be historic. Sometimes you don’t see it when history is being made.

But the fundamental change in my job wasn’t even that I could teach openly what I had only been able to speak about unofficially before. It was that history ceased to have the taste of a forbidden fruit. It became just another lesson. It may sound strange from a history teacher, but I think that’s good. Things returned to their proper order.

 

VIOREL IRIMIA, 53, ROMANIA

Irimia teaches at two high schools. From 2001 until 2005 he sat on the National History Commission, which adopts curricula.

Before 1989, the aims of teaching history were strongly connected with implementing Marxist education.

One example: history as subject, as reconstituting the past, was presented according to socio-economic establishments: the primitive commune establishment, the slave establishment, the capitalist and socialist establishments. History was a reflection of class struggle, between those exploiting and those exploited, a transposition, from this point of view, of Marx and Engel’s writings.

Clearly, the biggest win after 1990 was depoliticizing the education system. This has been achieved gradually, although history teachers have had difficulty in letting go of old-school language. This was so deeply ingrained in their system that years later some teachers would involuntarily use terms such as primitive commune or capitalist and socialist establishments, etc.

Immediately after the revolution, it was obvious that communist textbooks had to be abandoned. The teaching syllabus was the same. For a few months, teachers were left without textbooks.

For Romanian history, both for 8th and 12th grades, they introduced a textbook dating back from before World War II. This was completely out-of-date and had certain mistakes, scientifically speaking.

Afterward, starting with 1990, new standard textbooks were written, approved, and introduced: 11th grade – ancient and medieval Romanian history, 12th grade – modern and contemporary history. Back then, Romanian history was taught over two years. These textbooks had valuable information, but they carried the disadvantage of offering too many details. They were almost like university compendiums. I once counted more than 200 dates given in one lesson. They also failed to mention certain historical facts and notions.

Gradually, afterward, alternative textbooks were introduced. Not all teachers agreed with [them] – especially in history, because the idea was that history had to be unique, therefore textbooks had to be unique. This [approach] was another Marxist-type throwback. Ultimately, you cannot pretend that you know all truth in history. Ultimately, history is an inventory of certain opinions on certain historic processes and events. From this point of view, alternative textbooks have the chance to particularize history. Alternative textbooks offer you the chance to make the lesson very creative and help students develop skills.

Each history department analyzes all alternative textbooks. Teachers have complete freedom to choose one or the other. Ideally we would also bring students along in this process – except that the textbook selection is made during summer vacation, and it’s more difficult to gather the students. … Ideally the choice would be made together – teachers, students, parents. Probably this is how it will be in the future.

Textbooks and school syllabuses from before 1989 reflected a certain way in which society was organized. Back then, the industrial age was in full swing in Romania. … Today, we’re in a post-industrial era. So today we no longer stress the importance of the quantity of information – even if these textbooks are still rather loaded, and shouldn’t be so. Today we stress the building of skills, values, and aptitudes that history can reflect. Skills are what matters: that [students] think critically, relate to other students, be able to interact with children of their age from other countries, peacefully resolve conflicts. … These are values and aptitudes that history can impart.

The first difficulty was to get my hands on all of [the alternative textbooks]. One example: there are seven different 12th grade [history] textbooks, which are all required in the entrance exam at the police academy. It took me two years to collect them all, because not all publishing houses sent all textbooks to all high schools. …

The second difficulty I had was to develop a catalogue of sources I could use in class. Which means a teacher has to read continuously and become informed. Many themes from before ’89 were abandoned, while many others are now included – some of which we didn’t even study in college, [for example] migrations in the contemporary age. We never used to talk about that before, other than just a side subject – for instance in World War I or World War II, when people had to migrate. Migrations are also determined by cataclysms. But migrations are an essential topic – for example, how many labor migrants we have today in Western Europe.

So we never studied this in college. In order to be able to teach it, you have to learn it first yourself. This was practically a second university, for those who respected themselves. We had to learn again as if we would have to take exams again – this time the examiners were the students.

I don’t miss anything from before 1989. However, I have respect for those times, because they shaped us. And our teachers, our excellent scholars, even if they lived in those times, they taught us well. I have a great respect for my professors in Iasi – without whom, even under those circumstances, we would not have become accomplished as human beings.

Even if the regime was the way it was, valuable people will always be at the top. The regime may have seen things a certain way, but that didn’t prevent us from doing our job correctly.

What I regret is that I am no longer as young and no longer have the resilience as back then. I do tell my students that I wish I was that age with today’s advantages – from the research point of view. In order to read a specialized book back in the day, you had to go though countless filters and receive numerous approvals … not to mention the [books] completely forbidden.

DANA MODROVICOVA, 54, SLOVAKIA

Modrovicova has taught history at public vocational schools in western Slovakia since 1978.

The situation in education has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Before the Velvet Revolution, history classes strictly followed syllabi. The teacher had no great space to interfere, adjust, or improvise. The program had to be broken down along a precise time line. Classes were controlled by peer teachers and inspections. The school program was fairly politicized with respect to the current regime. Today, we can teach history much more freely; around 30 percent of the program can be adjusted depending on students’ interest. Regarding the freedom from ideology, for example, the lectures on the [1944 anti-Nazi] Slovak National Uprising had to exclusively stress the Communist Party, as if it had been the only one to organize the uprising and as if civil resistance had not even existed. Today, the uprising is interpreted more objectively, civil resistance is included. The teacher-principal relationship has improved. The principal does not represent such an authority anymore, relationships are more collegial. Before, a principal could be only a member of the party and from this position he was also the authority on how to teach.

Modrovicova
On one hand, it is good that education has been humanized. On the other hand, the teacher-student relationship has changed – and not always for the benefit of the education process. Teachers’ authority has considerably weakened. Teachers’ overall social status, including social recognition and financial appreciation, is worse. That has affected students’ attitude toward school and teachers. Students are more impressed by people in more lucrative jobs. The previous regime needed teachers more to serve its interests and needs. Teachers’ pay back then was above the national average, today it is far below average. Teachers don’t drive nice cars and don’t wear designer clothes, which young people notice.

Rhetorically, education is still appreciated, but the reality is different. Before elections, the shortcomings of the education system are regularly criticized to rally teachers’ votes. But afterward, a lot of it is forgotten.

[The lack of funding] is mirrored in the quality of education – not solely in rewarding of teachers, but also in the school equipment. The job is unattractive for young people, which is a pity, because the new generation brings new energy. Today’s education system is mostly an older generation that has failed to figure out how else to make money. We had a lot of young people who loved the job, but they quit to go into business for financial reasons.

The constant turnover in teaching staffs impacts teaching quality. … In addition, people who teach do various other things for financial reasons. For example, my younger colleagues who feed their families have small businesses – economists do accounting, someone else has a video-rental shop, gives PC courses. Then they are not fully devoted to their vocation.

I’m definitely glad I experienced regime change, which I thought I would never experience. Until then I taught regime change only as a theory from textbooks.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television. Lucie Kavanova is a journalist in the Czech Republic. Anita Komuves is TOL's correspondent in Budapest. Wojciech Kosc is a TOL correspondent in Poland. Sinziana Demian is a writer for Formula AS magazine in Bucharest. Pavol Szalai covers foreign affairs for SME, a daily newspaper in Slovakia.
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