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The reform that never happened. The final proposal for education reform before the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia

10.6.2021 - Post-socialistická transformace základních škol – procesy, příběhy, dilemata (výzkum podporovaný GAČR, 2020-2022), Zprávy

Our presentation on ISCHE 42 virtual conference (The International Standing Conference for the History of Education).

Abstract

The events of 17 November 1989 in Czechoslovakia resulted in the rapid and peaceful fall of totalitarian power and at the same time started the process of building a pluralistic democratic system and forming civil society.

The development of education and schooling after 1989 became the subject matter for a whole range of studies and books, contributing toward reflection on the post-November changes, in Czechoslovakia and beyond. We can, for example, mention the studies conducted by von Kopp (1992) or Mitter (2003).

We already have plenty of knowledge when it comes to the transformation of schooling after 1989. What we know far less about, however, is what happened in schooling and in particular in education policy in the final years before the Velvet Revolution. Although the events of 17 November 1989 led to a fundamental change in all areas of life in society at that time, it cannot be said that schools, the thinking of teachers, textbooks, etc., were transformed from day to day. Current trends in historiographical research (Kopeček 2019) are built on the fact that it is not possible to fully understand changes unless we observe continuity. Major reworkings as the starting point for defining a study of the past could lead to overlooking the levels that existed beneath the surface of the narratives of change.

Criticism of the competencies of teachers, a lack of financing, outdated curricula, or overloading pupils at the time of late socialism in Czechoslovakia appears in the internal materials intended for the government and the highest-ranking representatives of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The opportunity for wider public discussion and more significant changes was, of course, extremely limited prior to 1989. Nonetheless, we can see a certain shift beneath the rhetoric of Gorbachev’s perestroika, for example, in the form of cautious measures for a partial reform of the system. These trends are reflected in the preparation of the new Education Act, Act No. 29/1984 Sb. This amendment was designed to, inter alia, strengthen the competencies of school self-administration or make it possible for schools to carry out their own gainful activity. In many respects, therefore, it incorporated the reformist elements that were implemented many years after the Velvet Revolution. However, the events of November preceded the legislative process and opened the way for far more significant changes, and new problems. The rigidity of normalisation was replaced by the spontaneity of post-socialist transformation.

Based on a study of archive sources, the paper introduces themes, problems, and proposals to emerge from the debate on the problems of the education system at the end of the 1980s in what was still Czechoslovakia. Observing the debates from the final days of the rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia might serve as one starting point for further study and for understanding the post-socialist transformation of primary schools, which the authors of the study are dealing with in the current project Post-socialist Transformation of Czech Primary Schools – Processes, Stories, Dilemmas (supported by the Czech Science Foundation; grant no. 20-11275S).

Bibliography

Kopeček, M. (ed.) (2019). Architekti dlouhé změny: expertní kořeny postsocialismu v Československu (The architects of long change: expert roots of post-socialism in Czechoslovakia). Argo.

Mitter, W. (2003). A Decade of Transformation: Educational Policies in Central and Eastern

Europe. International Review of Education, 49(1–2), 75–96.

von Kopp, B. (1992). The Eastern European Revolution and Education in Czechoslovakia. Comparative Education Review, (36),1, 101-113.