For the past few years, on behalf of Polish Council of Youth Organizations I have been coordinating the Systematized Dialogue project – the Polish edition of a European initiative aimed at launching a dialogue between the youth and decision-makers. In practice (and in a nutshell), I was in charge of civics education among the youth.
During this time, we have managed to provide consultations to over 2,000 young people, whereas 300 individuals took part in meetings with decision-makers (members of local councils, mayors, etc.).
Moreover, 150 representatives of various youth organizations, Youth Commune Councils, and a number of schools from all over the country attended Polish Nation-Wide Congress, organized to commemorate the centenary anniversary of regaining Polish independence, and resulting in identifying 100 recommendations for bringing about a change in Poland in the next years.
Being a part of this project made me realize, however, that all these ventures are still not enough. Yes, there are some young people who are energetic and active, but at the same time there are far too many that remain passive.
Introducing the project in schools made me also realize how many of these “passive youngsters” have simply either never had a chance to get involved in any worth-wile initiative, or that the options available to them were obsolete and unappealing. Most of them have never had any contact with informal education. When given a chance and encouraged, the same young people often chose to get even more involved than during their first project.
I often see them on Facebook, participating in various events, becoming active members of our community. This is true also for those people who did not become civil activists after the end of the project; after all, not everyone has to be one, and so, they were able to identify their needs and express their opinions. Most of them are perfectly aware of the fact that next to no one cares about being an active citizen.
However, their strong opinions and the fact that their attitudes are similar across all regions in Poland, various cities and towns, has opened my eyes to the reality in which they grow up.
All of them want a more practically oriented education, almost all want a more objective and fact-based sexual education, all (even though they must sometimes first get more familiar with the subject) demand taking radical steps in terms of environmental protection, almost all dream of a society that is inclusive and does not discriminate or provide unequal opportunities for boys and girls.
Most of them have no clue about politics – as such, their opinions and demands do not take the form of a political manifesto that would be close to any party platform. They simply describe what should their world look like.
What is astonishing, however, is that their world is fundamentally different from the one that the politicians serve us every morning with our cup of coffee. Let us, then, take a look at the relations between politicians and the youth.
Expectations Vs. Reality
We are getting an increasing number of inquiries from people interested in starting a dialogue with young decision-makers at the local level; alas, at the national level not many people show interest in what the youth has to say.
Out of several hundreds of invitations to our Congress that we had sent out to ministries and official bodies in Poland (including Parliamentary Council for Education, Science, and Youth) only a few RSVP’d.
Only one of the said institutions, a long-time partner of the project, attended the event. Let me add at this point that after the completion of the project, it seems to me that there are only a few MPs who are truly interested in the youth in Poland. Literally. And there are 460 MPs in total in the Polish Parliament.
In light of the abovementioned facts, the situation looks rather grim. Yet, one cannot simply say “Oh, well, let’s leave politicians to themselves, people can always organize grass-roots initiatives!”. Well, of course, there are those who try to engage the youth – be it teachers, or educators (just like me). However, both these groups lack funds – and this lack is dramatic, even disgusting, let me tell you. Which – as we all know – may be rather inconvenient.
In Poland, however, in both groups there may be found individuals who are delegated to perform their duties – and I’m not sure that it’s a good idea. What is equally important is the fact that both groups often must perform their tasks in a systemically hostile working environment.
Systemically being the key word in this context as it is not that employers exhibit hostile behaviors towards their employees, but that the work is structured in such a manner that leads to abuse.
We work overtime for free, on weekends, often also at night. Teachers are required to check tests and essays, they devote their free time to prepare competitions and university letters of recommendation, plan school outings and trips at the expense of their personal and family life.
Educators face a similar fate – it’s not uncommon for them to leave home at 4:55 am to conduct a workshop in the far corner of Poland only to avoid additional costs of hotel accommodation.
We never keep track of time, because we work on a project basis and so some things simply must be done. The lack of a sufficient number of employees in a project means that if you won’t step in, something doesn’t get done. If you’re sick, no one will take over your responsibilities to meet the set deadline. If you’re spending your weekend with your boyfriend in the mountains or having dinner with your grandma, your phone can’t be switched off because you’re the one who’s in charge of the project.
At the same time, institutional partners expect that NGOs will operate, behave, and react as if they were well-oiled mechanisms – a prosperous enterprise with a huge number of employees. Meanwhile, quite often the board of an NGO works for free, as volunteers, after they leave the offices in their day jobs (as they must earn a living somehow).
And so, an office of a nation-wide organization may employ, for instance, only two part-time staff members. This is a real strain.
Similarly, if you are a teacher, constant emotional engagement is yet another requirement. When a student comes to you with their personal or psychological issues, you cannot simply walk away. Most likely, such a teenager may have real problems with their peers or at home, and so you must show empathy and take care of their emotional well-being.
You are a teacher and that’s what’s expected of you.
After all, if you wanted to be free to be insensitive or simply be an individual who leaves their work at the office at the end of the day and upon their arrival at home has supper with their family, then you would probably choose work as a bureaucrat, right? Or in a supermarket. It pays better, does not require an MA, and on top of that they add private healthcare and a free membership card to the gym.
All this leads to a very frustrating form of cooperation (or, rather, lack thereof) between the two groups. Teachers have no chance for a sensible cooperation with NGOs because they must follow school curricula and prepare students for exams. They should also probably cease to take students out of the school on trips as in this way they “waste” valuable time – they also do not want to take on additional responsibilities.
Coordinating the cooperation with an external institution – which may, indeed, be appealing to students – will take up much of their own free time, which they could spend with their families (and that’s the time they will be in no way reimbursed for).
Meanwhile, NGOs are permanently frustrated because they are fully aware that even though they have prepared a great project (which had cost them a lot of time and effort to prepare, collecting funds to introduce it into schools) and yet, as it turns out, noone is interested in it.
Even though as educators we understand how much energy is created by informal education, we cannot introduce it into a number of schools – their principals simply do not see in them any advantages, only organizational difficulties.
And so, both educators and teachers, all on their own, try to do even more and better. Teachers devote even more of their time to make their lessons more attractive, whereas NGOs attempt to find other ways of reaching out to the youth.
As a result, both groups achieve far worse results and outreach than it would be possible by joining their efforts.
In order to enable a successful cooperation it is not enough, however, if every time we point our finger at the same obstacles (such as lack of enthusiasm of the school principal or finding the time in an already busy day’s agenda). We would have to finally face the challenges posed by the system itself and put forward a set of recommended changes, and convince decision-makers and our own community to consider it.
Unfortunately, when having to deal with the abovementioned frustration on a daily basis, none of the said agents has any energy left to do that.
Moreover, a flaunty lack of interest in our demands displayed by the Polish government makes our attempts to challenge the system (not to mention to revise it entirely) even more difficult.
In a system designed in such a manner, defeat should not be surprising to anyone. Yet, nowadays, when the fall is not spectacular and widely acknowledged, is it still considered a fall? Schools continue to educate, students still pass the matura exam. Every year thousands of people graduate from high schools while teachers do not resign on a mass scale in a protest.
And so, day by day, we produce passive, poorly educated young adults – nineteen-year-olds who are incapable of preparing a good CV, who have never filled out their tax return on their own. People who throughout the entire course of their education have never heard anything about contraception. Media illiterates who will most likely not cast their votes in any elections.
I wouldn’t really count on the fact that in the forthcoming years modernizing education or listening to the young people will become a priority for Polish politicians. It would go against reason, actually.
After all, it’s common knowledge that it’s easier to manipulate a society that consists of uneducated citizens.
I do hope, however, that more people from the outside of the “teacher-student” bubble – starting with the parents – will realize that we face a fundamental problem with education in Poland. And that if we fail to start discussing the matter soon and don’t address this issue together, then we will simply continue on the path of forming socially uninvolved, ill-equipped, and unaware young citizens.
A path that has already been doomed to failure.
The article was originally published in Polish at: https://liberte.pl/edukacja-w-polsce-czyli-kilka-slow-o-maszynce-do-produkowania-biernych-obywateli/
Translated by Olga Łabendowicz