Contemporary Polish education is at an ideological crossroads, attempting to construct new ways of thinking, and new concepts of education and teaching in line with contemporary understanding of young people’s development.
Since gaining independence in 1989, Poland has been reforming its education system to help young people adapt to the new world order. The changes in pedagogical sciences triggered by the political transformation in Poland have raised many questions, including the issue of character education. For example, do schools have the authority to teach character and impose a system of values on pupils?
An important cause of the difficulties faced by Polish teachers is the lack of unified view on the essence of the human person and educational ideologies. There is some influence from liberalism, moral relativism, hedonism, and utilitarianism on the nature of education. However, without taking a coherent position on understanding the essence of the human person and critiquing the accepted view of the education system, we cannot meaningfully analyse problems of contemporary education.
In order to better understand the potential for character education in Poland, I have identified some pluralistic and competing educational ideologies:
- Conservative ideologies. According to these ideologies, educational processes are understood as cultural transmission. In this vision, high positions in the hierarchy of values are taken by tradition, religion, a specific ethical attitude, obedience and a sense of belonging (patriotism). In Poland, a symptom of the domination of this ideology was the introduction of religious education to schools in 1989.
- 2. Liberal ideologies. The agent’s subjectivism in making, among other things, free moral choices, dominates in this option. In this ideology, we have to endorse anti-fundamentalism and openness to distinctiveness. Freedom in this ideology is only limited by the agreement not to disturb one another’s freedom. In Poland, such a form of thinking in terms of emancipatory pedagogic is present after the change of the social system.
- Social and Postmodern Ideologies. This is basically anti-pedagogy, in which the teacher is an observer, and does not interfere with a student’s self-development; there is no reason why he should interfere with it, if he does not know what is good or bad – this is the main exemplification of this ideology. In the Polish culture, such a form of thinking in education is partly present, particularly in pedagogical and sociological narrations.
Every education reform in Poland has emphasised the consolidation of values at all stages of education. Character education is understood in Poland as the endorsement of learning about nature, culture and society as well as participation in their transformations. It helps pupils achieve comprehensive physical and mental development, the development of their abilities, interests, attitudes and beliefs, as well as the acquisition of relevant professional qualifications. The aim of character education is to prepare a child, and then a young person, for autonomous functioning in the world of values.
Poland has a rich tradition of teaching, and at the centre of the learning process is always the person who, as part of the education process, is taught to distinguish good from evil, and thus enrich his or her experience.
Unfortunately, education reforms in Poland are often purely political. Educational issues and curriculum changes are not consulted with teachers and parents, and are not supported by existing research. An example is the newest education reform, prepared in unnecessary haste, which takes effect in September 2017. The assumptions of the reform are not fully known, and very important decisions have been taken by small teams of educators, commissioned by the National Ministry of Education. What can be seen is that the reform of the education system is geared to conservative ideologies where a pupil needs an authority (a teacher) to show the individual what is good and what is wrong, according to the acknowledged standards, because alone a pupil would stray.
This interpretation might appear to be an educational vision at its most natural, as it appeals to what happened and what turned out to be successful. The school is represented as the institution of fundamentalist thinking, in which teachers are applicators of top-down assumptions. That is why the absolutisation of values dominates in this conception – an assumption that seems to grate with the very idea of character education, at least along the Aristotelian lines suggested by the Jubilee Centre.
We will have to wait a few years to see whether the changes will be for the benefit of young people and affect their character and value system. As a teacher, I remain full of optimism and trust in other teachers and their positive impact on the student. However, there is no sign of a coherent policy of character education making its way into the Polish educational system. Moreover, the recently-introduced curriculum lacks content that would stress the importance of tolerance and acceptance of other nations and cultures – for example, the school literary canon is based on works that promote national values where “the other option” is shown as an anthropological curiosity.
I believe that education should help young people develop a sense of responsibility and patriotism. A school, as an institution, should provide pupils with every opportunity for their development and prepare them to fulfill the obligations of family and civic life in accordance with the principles of solidarity, democracy, tolerance, justice and freedom.
At the same time, the school ought to make pupils understand the importance of being open to the values of Europe and the rest of the world.
Marcin Gierczyk, Doctor of Social Science in Pedagogy, is a visiting Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues