Review of Socialism Realised

Several months ago, a reader left a comment on my post (“Teaching Corroboration in the Age of Information Overload”) about teaching students to evaluate sources, interpret bias, etc. In his comment, this reader made reference to several sources from the website Socialism Realised, which I had not seen before. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by someone affiliated with the website and asked to write a review, which—after spending more time exploring the site—I was happy to do.

Socialism Realised is an educational outreach project of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ISTR), an agency funded by the Czech government. According to the website, the ISTR was “founded in 2007 as part of the [Czech Republic’s] process of coming to terms with the past,” and Socialism Realised is designed to “present content aimed at a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in these regimes and a comparison of these experiences to the present.”

This last point caught my attention. Although drawing comparisons between past and present always carries some risk (a topic I hope to expand on here in future posts, as it is one I have been contemplating a lot recently), I generally believe the benefits outweigh the costs, especially for teachers of secondary students. Though uncritical “presentism” may lead students toward a distorted, ahistorical understanding of the past, I believe that before we can teach students to think like historians, we must actually capture their attention. For too many students (as it was for me at their age), history is a dry and dusty discipline, and they can’t imagine why they should have to learn it. By helping them first see its potential relevance in their own lives, teachers can spark students’ curiosity and help them begin to ask questions about the past. From there, the ahistorical comparisons can be corrected as students are guided toward more sophisticated historical thinking.

History teachers who visit Socialism Realised will immediately note its emphasis on video sources, and on visual sources more generally. Of the 38 resources available, 27 are videos. Of the remaining 11, five are images, leaving only six text-based sources on the site. Perhaps this is to be expected of an English-language site about the history of Czechoslovakia, and it is certainly not a fatal flaw. The videos and images are likely to be more engaging for students, though as a teacher who stresses close and careful reading of text, I must say that I would like to see additional texts to complement the visual sources.

One element of Socialism Realised that I very much appreciate, however, is its flexibility. There are a variety of ways to explore the site, organized by “Eras,” “Perspectives,” and “Pathways.” Eras, not surprisingly, organize the material chronologically, and “Perspectives” offer visitors the opportunity to “Choose the angle from which you’d like to look at a given era”: ideology, memory, oppression, or personal stories.

“Pathways,” meanwhile, are thematic groupings of resources in which “Experts and teachers have prepared their own choices out of the material on the portal.” At present, there are only three (“The Basics of Communism,” “The Life and Times of Milan Kundera,” and “Women During Socialism”), but this would seem to be an area ripe for future development. I, for one, would love to see an interactive element of the site which allows teachers—or even students—to develop their own “Pathways,” even if those were subject to editorial review prior to publication.

It is worth noting here that the site could be more user friendly. Though the design is clean and visually appealing, it offers little direction for the visitor with limited time to explore. It is akin to walking into a museum consisting of a single large room with many artifacts. For visitors familiar with the site’s resources, there are a variety of ways to reach what they seek. For the first-time visitor, it might be a bit overwhelming. In this sense, the site’s flexibility is also a potential downside, especially for harried teachers who are looking for more direction or a ready-to-use “packaged” set of materials. More prominent placement of the “Pathways” could be helpful for those types of visitors by serving as a more structured “gateway” into the site and all it has to offer.

Those who do take the time to explore Socialism Realised, however, will be rewarded with a rich and coherent set of resources. More or less at random, I selected three sources to examine, but I quickly realized how interconnected they were—an opportunity for a thoughtful teacher to guide students toward historical thinking.

“Class Cleansing” offers an excerpt from a 1952 document titled, “A recommendation on how to ‘cleanse’ agricultural high schools.” The commentary provided below the source (a seemingly minor point, but one which will encourage students to read the source itself before having someone else explain it to them) explains that “The children of people who originally owned a large farm or disagreed with collectivisation – referred to in the document as the ‘village rich’ – were unable to attend secondary agricultural schools during the collectivisation era. The regime was therefore not content with just forced collectivisation; the purpose of this measure was to overturn the agriculture system as a whole and limit the career prospects (even in the cooperatives) of the potentially disloyal descendants of big farmers and landowners.” Students will need some background knowledge in order to make sense of this document, but it is a rich source illustrating the point that schooling in a socialist society served political ends. (Of course, one might argue that schooling in any society serves political ends.)

“Rewriting History” is a clip from the 1990 film Lenin, the Lord and Mother, in which a teacher in the 1950s instructs her students to physically remove an image of Rudolf Slánský from their textbooks in the wake of his 1952 show trial. Again, to extract the most meaning from the document, students will need some background knowledge, but the source itself is intriguing enough to create questions among even younger students: Why is the teacher making them tear apart their textbooks? Who is the man whose photo they are tearing out? (Also, I love the bit at the end where one student accidentally tears out the photo of Stalin…) This would make an excellent source for a standalone “inquiry” lesson centered on question development and research, and once students understand the context, it would pair well with the source described above to illustrate the ways in which schools reinforced the existing political structure.

Finally, “Education for All” is a 1987 “documentary” touting the benefits of the Czechoslovakian education system, which supposedly provided high-quality education for all citizens from nursery school through university. According to the commentary, “This clip is from a film that was meant to prove that Czechoslovakia upholds human rights as set out in the Helsinki Accords. In regards to the right to education, knowing the period context allows to uncover a large degree of manipulation in the film.”

Though I did not select these three sources with such a goal in mind, I could see them forming the basis for a “Pathway” on the role of education in a socialist society—not only its “official” role according to the party line, but also the ways in which particular education policies reflect a particular vision for society. In my experience, students are always fascinated when teachers “peel the onion” around educational policy and practice, helping them understand the larger system in which their day-to-day existence unfolds. I could see this sort of exploration serving as a launchpad for a wider consideration of education policy, both historically and today.

The sources, of course, are the cornerstone of the site, but the authors of Socialism Realised are not content to be merely a “web archive.” Rather, they have carefully considered pedagogy in their curation of historical materials, stating boldly on the site’s “Pedagogical Approach” page:

The dominant image of the Eastern bloc is focused on conflict and political history. . . . To overcome the established dichotomic image, we offer a more complex look at the period through innovative kinds of sources and how we enable users to think about diverse and even contradictory interpretations of the past and the perspectives of different actors. At the same time, we’ve tried to lessen the amount of raw information, taking emphasis away from names and dates and instead focusing on key general phenomena, like the relationship of people to power and societal transformations. . . . For us, the fundamental principle of cognition is the analysis of historical sources, and the accompanying questions and texts guide this cognition process. [emphases mine]

This ambitious vision for history education largely matches my own, so it is not surprising that I find Socialism Realised a valuable resource. Furthermore, we should not be surprised that the site rejects a traditional view of history in which the important “facts” are handed down from on high.

Some teachers and students might be frustrated by a sense that Socialism Realised is long on questions and short on answers, but I suspect that this is a function of its authors’ anti-totalitarian vision. Unlike the subjects of the three sources described above, the site does not seek to define the terms of the past or circumscribe the inputs and outputs of the educational process. Good history, as Socialism Realised elegantly demonstrates, requires critical thought about complex issues, considered from varying perspectives. Those, not coincidentally, are the hallmarks of democratic societies, and often the first targets of nascent totalitarian regimes.

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