Educational Challenges Facing Eastern Europe

Deborah M. De Simone

In traveling to the Czech Republic and Bulgaria two years ago to study the impact that the Revolution of 1989 had on the educational systems there, it struck me how little I knew of the educational traditions of the two countries. I had the impression that they would be modeled on the Soviet system, yet I knew little of that either. Although my ignorance did give me periodic shivers and feelings of incompetence, in hindsight this very ignorance allowed for an objectivity that perhaps otherwise would not have existed. The only hindrance or limiting factor clouding this objectivity was my own training in the history of education in the United States ... needless to say, an immersion in supposedly "democratic education" or at least education designed for democracy. It is from this inescapably biased perspective that I shall discuss my impressions of the state of education in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
There are three major educational problems these Eastern European countries perceive as crucial to their independence (though the Czechs are quite adamant about being Central, not Eastern Europeans). The development of a new philosophy of education is the most important problem facing the former Eastern bloc countries. A new educational philosophy must address the needs of the sociopolitical system they have now adopted. Subsequently, any new philosophy of education requires the development of new methodologies of education-those that will help students develop the knowledge, values, and skills required to meet the challenges of a democratic society. Finally, new methods of training teachers need to be developed-both in terms of retraining those presently in the field and in training those preparing to enter it.

Significantly, in both the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the direct correlation between education and democracy is recognized, valued, and pursued. This is despite the fact that the two countries have historically had differences of political structure: the Czech Republic has been a democracy in the past, unlike Bulgaria, and there is currently more private entrepreneurial initiative in Czech than in Bulgarian education. I was impressed by the very similar thinking among educators in each country about their educational challenges and needs.

The Burden of the Past
Both countries are emerging from a long period in which they faced similar constraints on their educational systems. Prior to 1989, education in the Soviet satellites had an industrial orientation. Because both countries were viewed as marketplaces for Soviet goods, Bulgarian and Czech goods were not truly competitive. Consequently, creativity, ingenuity, and pride in one's work were not valued in the educational philosophies of either country. In fact, the educational system did all it could to discourage individuality and independence as well as critical and analytical thought. The humanities and the arts were severely limited in schools of general education, and certain fields of study were simply banned (American studies naturally succumbed to this fate, but so too did art history). Conversely, the hard sciences were emphasized, reflecting the economic and industrial relationship between the satellites and Russia. The social sciences were approached along romantic ideological rather than empirical lines.
Today, Bulgarians and Czechs feel a need to reorient education away from the industrial and towards the democratic, in order to nurture the attitudes and abilities demanded by a democratic society. They recognize the importance of emphasizing the humanities and the social sciences in education along with the values associated with civics. Education is increasingly seen as a form of preparation for democratic citizenship that develops the attitudes, skill, and sensibilities required for a responsible, participatory, contributory, and most of all critical populace.

One of the biggest challenges for the former Eastern bloc countries is to develop an educational system that builds on their past, yet is oriented toward the present and future. Both the Czechs and the Bulgarians take tremendous pride in their educational traditions, sensing that their ability to compete in the world has always depended on their intellectual rather than military strength. Yet neither people feel that reactivating the traditional gymnasium system that existed prior to 1948 will suffice. Furthermore, a lack of common moral values due to generations of weak humanist training compounds the problem of developing an appropriate educational philosophy, one flexible enough to accommodate the transitions and changes that mark sociopolitical revolutions as well as democratic societies in general.

Interest in New Teaching Methods
In studying our own educational system, scholars have come to recognize that the factory model of schooling is no longer productive and that the future demands more creative and ingenious thinkers. Authoritarian methods of recitation and memorization do not lead to the development of the skills needed now and for the twenty-first century. This realization is one we share with the Czechs and Bulgarians. Although we have had the freedom to develop new methodologies to foster and nurture analytical and critical thinking, as well as metacognitive and interpersonal skills, such has not been the case in Eastern Europe. The freedom, support, and means have not existed in the East, and only recently have those in the East had access to the literature developed in the West.
Some areas identified for development are opinion formation, validation of personal preference on the basis of philosophical motives and foundations, the ability to distinguish between social and philosophical dimensions, and critical and analytical thinking in general. Both the Czech and Bulgarian people often suffer from a lack of individual confidence in expressing personal thoughts and opinions. The Soviet system inhibited self-worth and self-esteem to the point where many people did not value their own opinions, though they did not trust "officiaquot; statements either. Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of information, but mostly it grew within an educational system that deemphasized individuality and critical thought.

Methodologies for cooperative learning and small-group instruction are thus of great interest in Eastern Europe. The self-esteem and confidence that students gain through this type of teaching is seen as one way to nurture opinion formation and to create the type of learning environment where opinions are freely shared. Concomitant with cooperative learning is the discovery method in which the teacher acts as a facilitator of knowledge rather than as the dispenser of knowledge. This methodology is effective for developing analytical and metacognitive skills, for nurturing creativity and initiative, and for empowering the students and instilling within them a sense of responsibility for their own education.

The Czechs and Bulgarians also desire teaching methodologies for multimedia and computer instruction.

Although their resources are extremely limited, teachers recognize the important role technology plays in their societies and that students need to be exposed to and become familiar with these media in order to compete in the world economy. Although they may not have access to VCRs and computers, they are interested in preparing themselves to utilize these teaching tools in the event that resources are forthcoming. Furthermore, these teachers are masters of improvisation and feel they may be able to use the techniques associated with technology with whatever materials are available.

Also of great interest are methodologies for multicultural education. As immigration rises in the Czech Republic, and the Turkish community in Bulgaria and the Gypsy population in both countries demand more attention, the need for multicultural education becomes greater. Although socialization skills have always been important, the democratic values of tolerance, respect, and understanding for minorities are a part of socialization that the Eastern bloc countries have not emphasized for forty years. Here again lie the problems of civics education, nurturing of democratic values, and adapting and transforming appropriate methodologies for values instruction.

Teacher Education
The need for a new educational philosophy and new methodologies precedes yet foreshadows the need for reform in teacher education and teacher training. Once more democratic-oriented philosophies and the subsequent methodologies have been developed, present teacher education institutions will be outdated if they do not adopt and implement these innovations. The future of any educational system relies on the training of its future teachers. Furthermore, the education of the populace for its newly adopted sociopolitical system depends on the ability of its teachers to effectively transmit information about that system. Although both countries have an impressive tradition of teacher education, the problems of transition and transformation are enormous. Furthermore, the allure of materialism is in direct competition with the profession, and many young people, long denied the comforts afforded through wealth, are forsaking education in pursuit of more affluent positions.
The problems of teacher education are not solely institutional or economic. There is also a tremendous need for the retraining of in-service teachers. Workshops in the new methodologies or panel discussions on educational philosophy are greatly desired, and to a large extent depend on educators from the West. Such workshops reach a limited audience and are often beyond the means of many school districts. Educational institutions may need to consider continuing education or mandatory reeducation programs for teachers.

Although the problems of educational philosophy, methodology, and training are the most fundamental, the issues and interrelationship of academic freedom, finances, and the access to knowledge must also be considered. Academic freedom is something held sacred by most scholars and teachers. Academic freedom was, however, both limited and denied before 1989 by censorship and the dominance of Marxist-Leninist ideology. Research was altered in many instances to fit the ideology or the whims of the communist regime. Then, of course, scholars consciously neglected certain lines of study because they feared censorship or more forceful government action. Although ideology and the government no longer inhibit the work of Czech and Bulgarian scholars, there remain many unanswered questions about the literature produced between 1948 and 1989 as well as the authors of those works. Should all of those at the universities who were members of the Communist Party be permanently expelled? Does the influence of Marxist-Leninist ideology totally negate the worth of all scholarship of this period? If all former members of the Communist Party are expelled from the universities and the schools, who shall teach? One tragic result of the present debate on these issues is the "brain drain" evident in both the Czech Republic and Bulgaria; great numbers of the intelligentsia are migrating to the West in order to pursue their research peacefully and to earn larger salaries.

The problem of finances affects more than the individual teacher. Although many educators expressed the feeling that the revolution had not gone far enough in terms of salaries, the public educational institutions also feel the pinch. Schools now find themselves with a pittance for books and office supplies, let alone technology. Where departments used to receive money for journals and materials, now there is none. Naturally, limited resources make teaching a challenge, but in this situation, it makes the transformation of the educational system extremely difficult. The prevalence of financial problems means that teachers have limited access to knowledge-knowledge of new methodologies, of issues pertaining to education for democratic citizenship, and of scholarship in general. Problems of communication and technology prevent collaboration or even awareness of the work being done by fellow Eastern European colleagues as well as scholars within one's own country. Amazingly, there is more awareness of the work being done in the West than by fellow countrymen.

Although the problems presented sound somewhat ominous, the spirit in these countries is very positive and optimistic. In the Czech Republic, young visionaries are opening new independent schools that are progressive in both philosophy and methodology. In Bulgaria, private schools that existed prior to 1948 have reopened and are importing the Western educational tradition. If anything, it is a very exciting and interesting time for education in this area of the world. Educators throughout the world can participate in the experience through donating materials, writing to teachers there, or actually going there. The few short weeks of the trip made by myself and other Staten Island educators proved fruitful for all involved because of the topics we discussed, the barriers we broke down, and the professional relationships we established.

Deborah M. De Simone is an Assistant Professor of Education and Women's Studies at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.