Since the collapse of communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has initiated educational reforms aimed at supporting the transition to democracy. Reformers see the school system as playing a vital role in political and economic liberalization by creating an environment that fosters democratic attitudes and helps students develop the skills necessary for the exercise of democratic citizenship. If students experience a democratic culture in schools, they will be more capable of active democratic citizenship as adults.
Reforms have been enacted in two different stages. In the first, in the early 1990s, the primary concern was to purge curricula of Marxist-Leninist ideological indoctrination in history, philosophy, and the social sciences. A second wave of reforms focused on key competencies: critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving, and the development of skills in research and the use of information.
The development of thinking skills is often cited as one of the aims of social studies education. The term thinking skills, however, is a very broad one, for there are many different kinds of thinking skills, such as induction, deduction, value reasoning, reasoning to the best explanation, and reasoning by analogy. Although the communist educational system obstructed the development of thinking skills in general, some have been more difficult to develop than others in the post-communist era. On a recent visit to the Czech Republic, I conducted research aimed at seeing how schools were dealing with the challenge of helping students develop thinking skills, and at identifying the kinds of skills that students were developing.
Educational Legacies of Communism
It would be very naive to assume that the sudden change from a totalitarian system to a pluralistic one could magically repair the massive cognitive damage caused by the years of totalitarian control. (1) For forty years, communism sustained itself in the Czech Republic through authoritarian methods. Some of these depended on direct physical force: police surveillance, intimidation, spying, and brutality. Perhaps even more insidious were psychological techniques of indoctrination that pervaded formal and informal education, and the socialization process. A "socialist man" was rewarded for his low profile, avoidance of initiative, and avoidance of responsibility--in short, for thinking nothing until being told what to think and/or do. (2)
This detrimental culture gave birth to a wide spectrum of sociocultural traits that obstruct the development of independent thought and individual initiative. Four of these were the following. (3)
1. The loss of a sense of personal identity. While individual autonomy, action, and responsibility are the core of a democratic society, the communist ideology reinforced the exact opposite. People developed a sense of anonymity, which was linked to their belief that their personal ideas and values did not count.
2. The inability to make a distinction between reality and pretense. Under communism, people were constantly fed false information by the government about their society, asked to sign declarations supporting the government, or forced to march cheerfully every Labor Day to celebrate illusory achievements of socialism. They were taught how to lie and pretend. According to a Czech proverb, "Repeated lies will become the truth." Individuals eventually lost the ability to differentiate between public and private reality.
3. The third characteristic was skepticism--not the healthy skepticism that is a vital part of higher-order thinking, such as critical thinking, but the skepticism that results from apathy and alienation. The four decades of communism were marked by disappointing expectations. It became clear that the propagandistic goal of a prosperous communist society was no more than a utopian dream. The resultant distrust in political leadership led to an absence of political and community participation that is still visible today. …