Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Living by Numbers

Vaclav Pinkava

Few would disagree that today's education system should be a firm foundation, but also a springboard, a launchpad for independent thought. It should excite exploration. "The greater the island of knowledge, the longer the coastline of ignorance" that sort of thing. Not so much, 'what is the right answer', but what are the right questions, what other ways are there to arrive at an answer.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) put it like this: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." I see that, in today's world, mainly the latter is necessary. Working with information, knowing where to find it and how to use it, those are the skills we need to instil in our children. But they must be able to grasp what is the heart and what is the pulp.

The old-fashioned method of 'sit up, straighten up, and grow up' is still alive and well in Czech schools. At least it is free, whilst in England (in my day) we'd have had to pay a lot of money to subject our kids to it.

The Czech state school system does not encourage dissent or curiosity. It is there to impart some collective Truth, to create conformity. It is an idiot's guide to life. Memorise. Do it this way. Adopt these values. Trust me, I am a figure of authority. Look within the boundaries we set, do not attempt to climb out of the box.

This is a topic close to my heart, as I went through Czech schools until aged 10, then emigrated and continued in the English system, among the plebs, in a Comprehensive school. Thanks to my substandard English when required to take the 11+ exam, I failed to get into a Grammar school. (On the second attempt, 3 months later, my English had improved enough to understand the questions, and I scored 96%, but by then the Grammar school entrance was closed.) Despite my school offering no preparatory schooling, I did manage to go on to Oxford, at that time becoming the only Oxford entrant in the school's history. So you could say I've seen the ordinary kind of English education close up, and survived. My wife is a product of the 'better sort' of British education, having gone from exemplary Grammar School in the outer reaches of the Commonwealth, then on to 6th form college in Darkest England, on to Oxford. Our kids aged 13, 11, 8 and 4 are, at their various age levels, guineapigs in present day Czech schools, in Darkest Moravia.

Mon Dieu

The French daily Le Monde recently published a scathing analysis of the Czech education system. To paraphrase, their criticism is this: 'The Czech education system is old-fashioned, regimented and oriented toward rote memorisation of useless facts. It produces a nation of stereotyped thinkers, not the information workers Europe needs for the 21st century.'

It is more than a shame to see this in the Czech Lands, which spawned Jan Amos Komensky (1592-1670), better known as Comenius, the father of modern education. He was against corporal punishment. He proposed radical reforms like learning through playing and using illustrations and examples to help get the message across. He was the first to teach classical languages by use of parallel passages of the ancient and modern languages; and his Orbis Pictus, the World in Pictures (1658), a Latin primer, is believed to be the first illustrated textbook for children.

But, however disappointing, I do not consider rote learning a critical failure at the first levels of the Czech education system. Outside school, most certainly. Moreover, in my never humble opinion, Le Monde should concentrate on education closer to home. My knowledge of French schools is (equally) second-hand, but I might say that French schools have no discipline, and that I am glad my kids are not subjected to smoking in the classroom.

"By their fruits shall ye know them" says the Bible, but relativism is not a good way to judge education systems. We need to aspire to the right sort of system, not just be better than somebody else on some sort of arbitrary scorecard. Like IQ tests, the scores are only useful if they correlate with success in life.

So, leaving the knowledge-level of French school-leavers aside, what are the fruits of Czech education, in the widest sense? And what will they be, in the times to come?

Czech schoolchildren do very well in knowledge competitons, the international school-level equivalent of University challenge. Yet, if my own children are anything to go by, the thinking caps are on a bit too tight. These children are not being prepared for a life where they use their knowledge, only a life where they have qualifications. To get on you have to get in, and the title is your password. You don't need to know anything at all, you just need the letters after your name. That is why there is a market in fake degrees, and why the admissions process is corrupt, as recently demonstrated.

Orbis Pictus

There is parable to hand, speaking of Orbis Pictus. Not everyone can draw, or paint. Most people can copy a ready-drawn picture though, and many like to 'paint' at least like decorators, if not like artists. People like to create the impression of art, to produce replicas of a motif, and receive praise for it. Most folk-art is of this type, the more-or-less rote reproduction of the symbols of a cultural tradition, with minor individual embellishment.

In the Czech Republic, any stationer's shop has on sale a wide range of 'omalovanky', colouring books where every picture has a line drawing copy on a facing page for you to colour in. You are, of course, at liberty to colour it in differently, or to cross over the lines, but only babies do that. In Britain, the principle has been creatively applied to all agegroups. You can buy an art kit consisting of brushes, oilpaints, instruction manual, linseed oil and turpentine, and some pre-drawn canvasses, marked with numbers, where each part of the drawing has a number printed, identifying the colour to be used. Or buy a collage kit, a paint-on-glass kit, batik, candlemaking moulds or a cake decoration set, with illustrated guides and stencils. In your computer lurks an impressive range of ready-made stylesheets for everything from reports to presentations. Impress your friends by looking like a true professional. In a society which claims to encourage creativity, creativity comes packaged, off-the-peg, for all who can afford it. (At a price within the reach of professionals, with well paid jobs because they had the right schooling.)

The only real creativity on show in the above examples is creative marketing. Increasingly, we are all living by other people's numbers.

Meanwhile in the West, literacy is getting worryingly low, and general knowledge practically nonexistent.


I remember not so long ago, all the encouraging talk about how the Internet was improving kids' literacy in the USA, because of e-mail, webchats and discussion groups. On the web, people have to be able to read and write, at least in English. They do not have to speak other languages any more, the search engines do a credible job of pidgin translation in real time. But there is a sting. It has become evident that the Internet has brought a pseudo literacy, an illusory improvement. In a world where we know where to find everything out, we know less and less about what we have found out when we have found it, and not at all what we should be looking for. The illusion of understanding has become a packaged off-the-peg product. Students are writing essays by cut-and paste methods, stealing whole paragraphs from web-based encyclopaedias. You can probably guess how I got the biographical details about Comenius, but one of my sentences is almost literally lifted from some website I hit upon. I dare you to find it.

These days, if a text is computer-typed, you cannot trust the content to be original. Once upon a time, it was considered a good thing to learn tidy writing, preferably to type, preferably on an electric typewriter, better still on a computer, block justified, desktop published. When the junk mail started arriving, beautifully typeset, people started throwing anything tidy straight in the bin. So it was back to courier typeface, ragged right margin, no pictures. Now, in the USA, people looking for work are mailshotting potential employers with two hundred hand-written resumes. Hand written by an agency, of course, in the kind of practiced handwriting that beats the corporate graphologists. Don't be unconventional, be superconventional. Like, get more degrees. Stack them high.

Replicated vs complicated

Looking around the Czech Republic you see a lot of similar houses, built under the communists. As designs, they have no soul, and are in fact like small blocks of flats with sloping roofs. Three floors, each exactly alike. A multiple-generation house for the extended family. These are do-it-yourself constructions, derived from books of approved architectural 'projects'. Do it like this. Live by numbers. Ask no questions. But still, the gardens are nice. Conventional, but nice. As different as folk-design decorated plates. No more than that. You won't find the beautiful ramshackled English cottage garden here.

These days, the nouveaux riches hire builders to put up original houses for them. Every house is different, each uglier than the next. A motley assortment of kitsch, complete with swimming pools, arched windows, turrets and coach lanterns. Just as the ignoramus with his internet essay, you cannot substitute variety of sources for not having a cohesive idea of your own. Postmodern individuality is a retail product. Without an overall picture, you are living by numbers that don't add up.

Most people can handle the colouring book approach to life. For many, a blank piece of paper is not a useful starting point. It just makes you realise you cannot draw as well as the next person. So you find the one thing you are reasonably good at, and stick to it. Is that education? Discover yourself. Get real. This is vocational training. Become a narrow professional, with a toiletroll tube view of the world.

Don't get me wrong if I say that Czech schools are not bad. They are, but only if you take their approach too far, untampered with outside influences. Schools are meant for everyone, for the lowest common denominator, and are compulsory, worst luck.

The same should never be said of universities.

Defenestration from the Ivory Tower

We are born equal in terms of rights, we assure each other, but no one actually has the right to be smart, do they? So why should anyone have the right to go to university?

In the Czech Republic, there are far too many people with letters after their names. Judging by their fruits, universities seem to produce schoolchildren with a larger database of memorised facts. The university degree has been devalued to an entry ticket to a good job. It has become a necessary prop without which you are a complete nobody. Paradoxically, this is no different from the USA, where you can get a BSc in joinery, or frying hamburgers. In either country, without a PhD you are not on the starting line in academic circles.

The difference there is that you need an academic title to be taken seriously in anything, however irrelevant. In politics, or business, even.

Thanks to global competition for high powered jobs and the chips on the shoulders of many self-made millionaires in the US, the business qualification 'creep' has begun worldwide. Get ahead, get an MBA.

A British friend of mine based in the US decided to play the game and got some letters after his name, then some more, then some more. He ended up with a business card with his name on one side, and the entire reverse covered with fancy titles, (all of them real). That allowed him to act the British eccentric, wear jeans and a turtleneck jumper to work, and still be asked for advice by the GMs of multinationals. It works in America, in Singapore, or the Czech Republic. But is that education, or vocational collecting of titles?

For the 21st century we need adults who dare challenge conventional wisdom, even the great holy grail of free-range schooling. The boy is the father of the man, as the saying goes, but I see no merit in a school system that acts like a kindergarten version of a philosophy faculty. Equally, I see no merit in schooling that automatically builds in the expectation of university - as a way to get a title, as a way to get a job, as a place which stuffs your head with an irrelevant curriculum. University should not be serving time, standing in a queue for the degree that awaits you.

If you want to be pragmatic, get a fake title off the Internet. Take some advice from Samuel Johnson.

If you want an education, learn to think for yourself. But schools can't teach you that without teachers and parents who think for themselves.


Vaclav Pinkava, 4 October 1999




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