AMERICAN educators are scrambling to answer a sweeping call for
help from their East European colleagues.
The task is awesome: to help transform totalitarian education
systems into much more democratic ones.
The American response has been swift and mixed. Enthusiastic
teachers and Peace Corps volunteers have rushed abroad this summer
to share their knowledge of English and teaching techniques. Other
educators are helping to revise history and government texts. Many
nonprofit groups and universities are aiding in similar ways under
agreements with specific universities.
Leaders of some of the newly formed independent teacher unions in
Eastern Europe made it clear at the recent American Federation of
Teachers (AFT) meeting here that the help is greatly appreciated and
that it could never amount to too much.
"We need much more than Americans are able to provide," insisted
Wiktor Kulerski, former leader of Teachers Solidarity in Poland and
now vice minister for education.
"Everything you send, including old textbooks, will be used as
much as possible," stressed Jaroslav Kalous, chairman of the schools
committee of the Civic Forum of Czechoslovakia, one of the groups
that helped spur free elections there last year.
Several East Europeans attending the AFT meeting and workshops
said that the experience gave them their most graphic lessons yet in
Pokorni Zoltan, a spokesman for the Democratic Teachers Union of
Hungary, said he was particularly impressed that the Massachusetts
Teachers Union volunteered to pick up the garbage after a group
picnic on the University of Massachusetts campus. He says he admires
this show of "moral capital," beyond any interest in power or money.
Only recently have both sides come to appreciate the extent of
the need for education reform in Eastern Europe.
"I think the degree to which the whole educational system really
needs to be revamped has even flabbergasted the East Europeans,"
says R. Bruce McColm, executive director of Freedom House, a group
that monitors global human rights and civil liberties progress
around the world. Freedom House has been working with the AFT to
develop and translate new teaching materials.
The demand for change includes everything from teaching methods -
such as the encouragement of student questions and critical thinking
- to the content of such subjects as math and science, once regarded
as free from ideology. …