The fight for hearts and minds in Poland
Guest article by MARK WEGIERSKI
You can tell a lot about a country’s past, present and future through examining its universities and other institutions of higher learning, and Poland is no exception. Careful examination of trends in Polish higher education reveals a worrying trend towards internationalism and political correctness.
In 2003, I first became aware of the annual rankings of Polish universities and colleges put out jointly by the mass-circulation newspaper Rzeczpospolita and the student/education magazine, Perspektywy (perspektywy.pl). Of course, there are a number of college rankings in Poland put out by different publications and institutions, but this one seemed to be among the weightiest and most prestigious.
I perused the Perspektywy website frequently during the summer of 2003, as well as in the autumn of that year, when I visited Poland. Returning to Poland in the summer of 2004, I noticed that the 2003 rankings had remained up on the website for an inordinately long time. In 2005, an acquaintance sent me a print copy of the annual rankings issue. I have continued to receive the annual rankings issue since that year (except for 2008). In contrast to the situation in 2004, most of the rankings information was available on the website shortly after the appearance of the print issue.
In 2010, I obtained three other Perspektywy Press publications: one on MA-level studies; one on doctoral, MBA, and “post-degree” studies; and one on “first-degree” studies. The latter publication claimed to list every institution of post-secondary learning in Poland.
In 2011, I had publications on M.A. and doctoral-level studies; on MBA and “post-degree” studies; and on “first-degree” studies, delivered to me. Apart from the 2011 annual rankings issue, I also obtained the June-August 2011 issue of Perspektywy – which included a Report on Non-public Colleges, on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the first fully non-public college in Poland — as well as a ranking of MBA programmes in Poland. So far this year, I have received the annual rankings issue (May 2012), as well as a publication on MBA and “post-degree” studies – which also included a ranking of MBA programmes in Poland.
My main impressions from all this material were largely positive; these professionally produced publications showed a colorful, vibrant Polish educational sector that had gone light-years beyond the achievements of the People’s Republic. Nevertheless, I also saw plenty of evidence of ‘political correctness’ seeping in at many points. The emphases on “internationalization” of universities and colleges, of conforming to EU regulations, of the aggressive promotion of multiculturalism, and so forth, were easy to discern.
I remember some very pleasant college-level studies on Polish Ethnography I attended in the summer of 1975 in Poland, in Kielce (in south-central Poland), when I was in my mid-teens. These types of initiative were part of Edward Gierek’s huge outreach to Polonia – that is, communities of persons of Polish descent living abroad. There was an especially intensive effort towards American and Canadian Polonia. This coincided with a brief “ethnic studies” movement in America and Canada at the time – when, for the first and probably last time, so-called “white ethnics” like Polish-Americans were somewhat popular. I remember a 1970s television series, Banacek, with a suave Polish detective – although it was marred by bad research. (The name Banacek, for example, is typically Czech, not Polish.) There was also the iconic (at least to Polish-Americans) figure of Bobby Vinton, one of whose hit songs included major passages in Polish. The American television mini-series Roots was also referred to as representing a search for rootedness which Polish-Americans should also undertake, in respect of their Polish origins. There was also a major emphasis on folk- and peasant-culture and native Slavic elements in Poland at that time – for example in widely-circulated art.
I never visited Poland during the 1980s, disgusted by the declaration of martial law by General Jaruzelski on 13 December 1981. Finally, the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 resulted in the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and I thought of visiting Poland again. However, for a multiplicity of reasons I only managed to get out to Poland in the spring of 2002, twenty-five years since my last visit. I went with great expectations, and returned in 2002, 2003 and 2004. These were probably the three happiest years of my adult life. The beauty of the Polish landscape and architecture and, especially, the wonderful ambience of the countryside and smaller towns, were significant elements of these moments of joy.
But today the country is in the throes of massive change. Young Poles are being enchanted into new lifestyles – so-called “international” or “North American” modes of life – where genuine patriotism and religious faith are playing less and less of a role. It is ironic to report that after all the Communist attempts to undermine free academic inquiry in Poland, there appear to be new waves of attempts to set the higher education system in particular ideological directions.
Nevertheless, there is still a definite presence in at least some of the higher-education sector of patriotic and religious themes and elements. One thinks of such institutions as the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (kul.pl), which has a hybrid public-private status, and was once the only independent university between the Elbe and the Pacific.
Two prominent Catholic universities are the Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw (uksw.edu.pl), and the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow (upjp2.edu.pl). The Akademia Polonijna (Polonia University) in Czestochowa (ap.edu.pl) has taken on a special mission to maintain contacts with the various Polish communities abroad. The very conservative Father Rydzyk (founder of Radio Maryja and TV Trwam) has established a college in Torun (wsksim.edu.pl) which has ranked in the top thirty of non-public institutions offering a master’s degree.
As far as the rankings themselves, it’s not surprising that the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and the University of Warsaw, have always been ranked first or second. (In 2012, the Jagiellonian University was first.) Perennially in a strong third place is the Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU) in Poznan. In the interwar period, the university in Poznan, and the city and countryside around it, were bastions of the right-wing Polish National Democracy movement. Today, however, AMU seems to be one of the most politically correct universities in Poland, with a special focus on “internationalization”.
The Second World War and its aftermath caused enormous, virtually incalculable losses in the Polish academy. Huge numbers of Polish intelligentsia were massacred by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. For example, in late 1939, the professors and research workers of the Jagiellonian University were treacherously invited to a meeting by the German occupation authorities, where they were brutally set upon and sent to the concentration camps. Many of them died of ill treatment. Many of the Polish reserve officers who died at Katyn were prominent professors and scientists. With the loss of Wilno and Lwow, the two centuries-old Polish universities in those cities ceased to exist, although some of the scholars tried to resume work at Torun and Wroclaw respectively (in the new People’s Republic). The Stalinist period, which lasted until 1956, was mostly an era of darkness. It was only when Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power in 1956, and initiated the period of “the Thaw” – that the regime was essentially “Polonized”.
Nevertheless, the general level of most people’s education in the People’s Republic doubtless improved, although it was also mixed in with propaganda. Illiteracy virtually disappeared. Birthrates in Poland until the 1980s were also actually considerably higher than they are today, when they have fallen drastically.
Even these annual ranking issues have mentioned the fact that a “demographic low” is overwhelming Poland – which is clearly expected to have an impact on college attendance numbers. The only “solution” that is being suggested is “internationalization” of the student body. What is interesting, however, is that after all these strenuous efforts, most of the foreign students are from Ukraine and other Slavic and Eastern European countries – some of whom may in fact be of Polish origins.
The main ranking is “the ranking of academic institutions” (88 in 2012). Another ranking is of non-public institutions that offer master’s degrees (93 in 2012). A third ranking is of non-public trade-school institutions (that usually offer licentiates — which are roughly the equivalent of an Anglo-American BA) as well as state trade-schools of higher learning (75 in 2012).
Despite the large number of colleges included in the rankings, it’s clear to me (from the separate publications on “first degree” studies) that a considerable number of colleges have been left off the ranking lists, which, of course, is just as it should be.
It is of interest whether there might soon be assessments of Polish universities and colleges in a style similar to those put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (isi.org) in the United States about American – and a few Canadian – colleges. The moderately traditionalist ISI publishes a Guide to Universities and Colleges which emphasizes the colleges which uphold humane learning and resist the excesses of political correctness. The time may be coming in Poland where such a Guide to Polish universities might in fact be helpful to some students. Perhaps some think-tank in Poland could take up the task.
While the situation as far as the impositions of political correctness is less pronounced in Poland, than in Canada and America, dangers clearly lie ahead for Polish higher education. It would be a great tragedy if Poland threw away its magnificent heritage, for the sake of being considered “fashionable” in the salons of Western Europe.
MARK WEGIERSKI was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents