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Are We Afraid of Our Own Past? by Michal Komarek

Date: 13 Feb, 2007 at 8:50PM

We Czechs like to point out that we are a cultured nation, that in times of peril we always drew strength from our past, but now it appears that we are afraid of our own history. Or is it more that we do not know how to teach history in our schools? There is a project STORIES of INJUSTICE, constructed by the organization People in Need, addressing this very issue with an urgency. Yet, the Ministry of Education quickly refused to finance the project.

According to Mr. Karel Strachota from People in Need, the history curriculum at most Czech elementary and high schools end with the year 1945; the end of WWII. The post WWII history, including the communist takeover, is touched on very briefly. The result is obvious: most students learn next to nothing about the recent past.

That is the reason People in Need, with the cooperation of Czech television, added sixteen films this year including, documentaries about Milada Horakova (politician executed after a sham trial), Czech airmen imprisoned for fighting with the RAF during WWII, persecution of the clergy, and a legionnaire Helidor Pika, executed by the communist regime in 1949.

The People in Need project attracted over five hundred schools, and presented history subjects to almost fifty thousand pupils and students. Yet, this success failed to prompt financial support from the Ministry of Education for the second time. “The Ministry, once again, declined our grant proposal. I do not want to come across negatively; however, I am wondering whether the Ministry is afraid to teach our modern history? Do the officials prefer to leave that subject aside? By leaving it aside do they face less of a conflict? Is it just less uncomfortable,” points out Mr. Strachota? What is ironic, is that the same Ministry awarded financial support to an organization of Young Communists for their journal “The Young Truth.“

When I questioned the Ministry officials, I received typically bewildering answers.

During the first round, I learned that People in Need did indeed not receive the grant, that teaching modern history is problematic, and yet the Ministry does welcome the organization’s activities. During the second round, I received a detailed lecturing, confirming to me that the Ministry either does not know what it is talking about, or worse, does not wish to promote appropriate teaching of Czech history. “It is true, that the Czech history of the second half of the 20th century has not been well represented by teachers in some schools, however, the situation is improving,” wrote Ms. Karolina Svobodova from the Ministry of Education Department for Communication with Outside Sources in a letter to me.

What does “situation is improving“ mean in the Ministry’s lexicon? The yearly Czech Schools Report for 2003—2004 points out, “history curriculum often does not, as in previous years, leave out the subject of Czechoslovakia and the world in the second half of the 20th Century. However some schools persistently do not allocate sufficient time for teaching the subject.”

The question is whether the project of People in Need would not be the very assistance that is needed? No, according to the Ministry. Ms. Svobodová sent me a copy of the report issued by the commission that evaluates grant proposals. The commission admits the project [of People in Need] has strong points, but the weak points outweigh the former, therefore a grant is not recommended.

Obviously, I discussed the commission’s attitude with Mr. Karel Strachota and decided that someone is making fun of me. The People in Need received the same report form the commission. But theirs had one additional sentence. A significant sentence, added at the end of the report: “The week points notwithstanding, the commission recommends realization of the project.“

We questioned the Ministry about the last sentence. They admitted, the sentence was included in the review of the proposal, but it was an error. They sent out an old version. They insisted that confusing us was not their intent. “Although the original contained a recommendation, the commission eventually declined it,” states Mr. Ondrej Gabriel from their press office. Why?

The reviewing commission states: “The strongest point of this project is its universal idea and aim: its focus is on modernizing methods for teaching Czech history… “ Yet, according to the commission, there are also weak points: “It is not clear [to the commission} how did the People in Need come to the conclusion that their project would address 90, 000 students and 1,500 teachers; the numbers do not add up — the expenses are two million Crowns less than the amount requested. The seminars for teachers are not well described and, finally, the connection of the project with the school curriculum is a point for discussion.”

Judging by Mr. Karel Strachota’s reaction, it appears the commission was not inclined to read the People in Need proposal carefully and without bias. According to Mr. Strachota, the numbers are based on an educated estimate because People in Need, for the last five years, has been involved in an educational program One World with 1, 300 schools participating so far.

In the second year of the project Stories of Injustice, there were 560 schools involved. When it comes to the budget description, it is correct that the everyday expenses are lower than the overall budget indicates. This is because they do not include personal expenses, technical or the film directors’ expenses, but indeed they are included in the proposal on the same page and again two pages later.

The Ministry’s criticism that instructing the pedagogues is not sufficiently described, although the same received accreditation from the Ministry already, could be seen as a cause for entertainment. Request for accreditation already contains a detailed course description and a copy of the accreditation approval was attached to the grant request. There is also a discrepancy in the criticism because on the one hand the commission felt the strong point was the design for modern methods of teaching history and on the other hand criticizing the project wanting to aid schools with teaching of history.


From the Ministry’s answer, I also learned that the Ministry itself is developing many activities to improve the teaching of history. The information about seminars, courses, new text books etc. is listed on its web page www.msmt.cz

From the poll by People in Need, based on questionnaires to 250 elementary and high school teachers (mostly history educators) the skeptical attitude about methods of teaching modern history persists. The teachers evaluate the present methods as average at the best, and would unanimously welcome modernization of teaching tools, including the use of documentary films.

History teacher Peter Sokol belongs to local pioneers using modern methods based on the American program Face to Face History that addresses the issue of the Holocaust. Mr. Sokol taught three years at an elementary school, he was a member of Ministry commission on teaching history; he was involved in educational programs for teachers and now teaches in a private high school. In his opinion, presently there is only one way for history taught in our schools: “History is taught in an academic way, students are flooded with masses of unnecessary information; modern history is usually not taught at all. There is no interpretation, explanation of people’s motives, pondering about values that evolve or are crushed in a historical process.”

Teachers leave the least time for modern history and they teach it in a mechanized way — what battles took place, when and where the battles happened, when was a certain political party established and when did it win… “But how can you teach something like the Holocaust this way? So you just simply state that here some six million Jews died, and you go on because you don’t have time for more discussion anyway. It is similar when it comes to teaching communism. Teaching history in this manner means that the fundamental reason for teaching it is lost. The aim of teaching history is to change people, it is a way to make people realize their responsibility when it comes to our behavior, often based on prejudice and stereotyping. “People in Need with their project Stories of Injustice definitely fills a great gap,” states Mr. Peter Sokol. “It is a superb first step. It should also be the first link to systematic work with teachers, preparation of teaching materials and methods about how to teach modern history.” People in Need already prepared a plan for series of seminars and a proposal to finalize the project that would be a model how to teach about the recent past. Without the support of the Ministry of Education, however, the project cannot be accomplished.


“It is logical that when pupils and students are affected emotionally by a document or a discussion with a victim of the former regime, they will come home and say to their parents: The communists were swine, and what did you do?” says Mr. Karel Strachota.

Is that not a risk? Does showing of one documentary and one discussion not lead to forming a one sided judgmental view? “I don’t think so. An emotional experience could be a wonderful impulse to thinking and research. It could affect the sterility of the usual history presentation. Furthermore —parents that want to succeed with their children ought to be capable to discuss such issues. People in Need offers to schools films that present the recent past from different perspectives. We don’t have documents only about the fifties, but also about the Prague Spring 1968, about normalization [after the Soviet invasion in 1968], about the eighties. Part of the project is a film by Pavel Koutecky about the every day life under the former regime. That film shows that era differently; it shows it as a normal life. Thus it gives an opportunity for a discussion of different horizons and new possibilities on how to discuss the past between parents and children. Just like one could expect the threatening question ‘and what did you do’?, children may ask funny questions such as: ‘Did you also eat soap’?”

According to Mr. Strachota, it is good when pupils and students experience anger during a film showing or a discussion. Anger at what was happening here. Anger at their lack of knowledge and that it is not discussed here. “But that doesn’t mean that we want to evoke in them hatred or lead them to a one sided view and to being judgmental. It is a step towards addressing the problem. And it depends on the parents and teachers to give them a chance to deal with the anger.”

It appears that the Ministry of Education is refusing to give them that opportunity.

by Michal Komarek 2/07, Reflex.cz

translated from Czech by Jana Svehlova