Dec 19 2011
Václav Havel “What will our schools be like post 1989?”
Following the death of Václav Havel many things have been flashing through my mind, recalling those monumental days in Olomouc and Prague in November and December 1989. Over the last 24 hours I’ve been in touch with several people who experienced that time together, some of them are teaching, some are in journalism but all of them were heavily influenced in their attitudes and values by what happened when they were involved in shaping the future of their country during the university strike.
Students on strike in 1989 in Czechoslovakia
During the revolution, although the students were on strike, the classrooms came alive. They drew and painted posters,produced a student newspaper almost every day and held meetings about the strike. In fact, the students were actually more active and involved when they were on strike than they had been before! I found myself thinking that the task of teachers after the revolution will be to try to harness the same kind of energy that was there in the making of the revolution for the purposes of English language learning and English studies in general. In those six weeks I learned a lot about what my role should be as a teacher afterwards and those events have informed my teaching methodologies ever since.
I felt that I had gained an enormous amount from the revolution and afterwards asked a group of students what they themselves had gained from the whole experience of taking part in the strike and this was one of the replies I got:
One personal anecdote from one of my students
“It was all very dramatic for us: the work at school, typing, painting, drawing posters, going to villages and towns in the whole of Moravia and talking to people, taking part in demonstrations and meetings at the theatre, in the hostel and in the sports hall. Every day nearly the same. But during the month I learned and got to understand a lot of things.
I understood the meaning of some phrases and words which had been empty for me until then. I think I have learned (a bit at least) to listen to people, to consider their opinions and mainly to tolerate other opinions. And generally we have learned how to discuss, thinking while speaking and hearing, not to be scared of voicing our own opinions. I am proud of being a student now.”
I know that those were very special conditions back in 1989 but the skills which were developed during that strike amongst students are the same kinds of skills and values that I think are central to teaching and teacher development today.
Linking the revolution with the English classroom
When I returned to Czechoslovakia in 1992 after doing an MA in ELT at Lancaster University and writing my dissertation on teacher development in Czechoslovakia there was one quote I always used to use and work with in both pre-service sessions and at conferences. It was a quote by Václav Havel and one we used to discuss at length. I think it is still relevant in teacher training today. I am convinced that English can be a subject which develops the kind of critical thinking and involvement in civil society which Václav Havel was trying to encourage.
” The most basic sphere of concern is schooling. Everything else depends on that. What will our schools be like? I think that in ten years they should be fully reformed and consolidated. The point, understandably, is not just the reconstruction of school buildings or the supply of computers and new textbooks. The most important thing is a new concept of education. At all levels schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students.
Schools will have to be humanised, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers, creating around them a “force field” of inspiration and example, and in the sense that technical and other specialised education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities.
The role of the schools is not to create “idiot-specialists” to fill the special needs of different sectors of the national economy, but to develop the individual capabilities of the students in a purposeful way, and to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical, and philosophical implications of their specialties.”
Václav Havel 1992
Two of my former students in Olomouc had this to say in the last 24 hours
” I was crying all day long yesterday because it all came back. If you haven’t been through it, if you haven’t felt the atmosphere penetrating your skin, you can’t understand as the experience was so unique, that’s for sure.” Lenka
And there was always a very special relationshiop between Havel and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. I still have the ticket of the Velvet Underground concert I went to in June 1993 on the wall of my flat that Havel also went to.