Polish children have now finished the first week of the 2017-2018 academic year, and we can start to assess the impact of the “reforms” introduced by the PiS government. This story is a microcosm of the broader process of dismantling liberal democracy and building a nationalist one-party state. It is also a story about how resistance to that state is taking shape.
From the outside, the aspect of the PiS program might seem puzzling. The biggest change introduced by Education Minister Anna Zalewska was structural. The system in place since 1999 consisted of six years of elementary school, three years of middle school, and 2-4 years of high school (with different options depending on a child’s career goals). Zalewska abolished this, rolling the structure back to what it was during the communist era. Henceforth there will once again be eight years of elementary school, followed by 2-5 years of secondary school. Beginning with this academic year, no new students will be admitted to middle schools, and by 2019 they will cease to exist.
There are arguments to be made for and against both structures, but on the surface the whole debate seems arcane when set alongside more obviously urgent issues like last summer’s dismantling of the independent judiciary or the government’s upcoming attempt to break up the opposition media (promised for this fall). Of all the issues determining the quality of an education, whether middle school is separated from elementary school seems rather far down the list.
But this does matter, because the changes have ramifications that might not be evident to the casual observer. According to Poland’s largest teacher’s union, so far this year 9,389 teachers have lost their jobs, and 22,087 teachers have been reduced to part-time work. Minister Zalewska rejects these statistics, insisting that there are thousands of jobs currently being advertised for teachers, and that at least 10,000 new ones will open up in the next year or two. Whether her promise comes true is beside the point, because even under her rosiest scenario, the main accomplishment of the changes will have been realized: school administrators (subordinated to her Ministry) will make the hiring decisions. One can only imagine what it must be like for a teacher in Poland today, even those in elementary or high schools not directly threatened by this round of reforms. Like the employees in public administration or the state media in 2016, or judges earlier this year, the teachers now understand that their continued employment depends on their loyalty.
This does not mean that everyone is being tightly monitored, nor that Poland is becoming some sort of totalitarian state. In fact, the revised textbooks for this school year suggest that authors and publishers are trying to minimize ideological baggage and mitigate the worst aspects of the regime’s worldview. For example, in one popular history textbook, Lech Wałęsa is still praised as the leader of the Solidarity movement, despite the fact that the government wants to erase him from public memory. The new guidelines for history teaching include references to only three women: Dobrawa (who, as the wife of Mieszko I, helped bring Christianity to Poland), St. Jadwiga, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie. The masculinization of Poland’s story is accompanied by an almost exclusive emphasis on military and political history, with topics like science, culture, and everyday life marginalized. Yet this new textbook, while ostensibly adjusting to these demands, has found ways to push back. For example, a discussion of Józef Piłsudski is supplemented by extensive coverage of the professional accomplishments of his daughters, and the presentation of Skłodowska-Curie is expanded with details about her public service work. The overwhelming majority of the material remains unchanged from last year, even if much of it no longer has an obvious relevance to the Ministry’s guidelines.
Minister Zalewska has said that her priority is to return “the history and literature of the fatherland” to the educational system (as if they weren’t there already). To accomplish this, the list of required literary works has been expanded, with particular attention to the 19th century classics. It is going to be a lot harder to cover all the mandatory material, and critical literary analysis will inevitably be curtailed. Nonetheless, there will be abundant material that could potentially challenge the nationalist worldview of the current government. Just as during the communist era, literature will provide openings for resistance, at least for those students who aren’t bored to passivity by archaic and difficult prose. But perhaps that’s the point: the cultural elites can enjoy the thrill of oppositional readings, while accessible popular culture remains under the control of the state authorities.
For years, historians in the US have been debunking the concept of totalitarianism, even as many of our colleagues in Poland continued to use the concept. Now, with an authoritarian party pushing an all-encompassing vision of national homogeneity, it might seem like we should repent. Perhaps I’m just stubborn, but I’m not ready for any mea culpas yet. If we set up totalitarianism as our fear, then it is easy to dismiss concerns about what is happening in Poland. There is and will continue to be dissent and diverse viewpoints in Poland, even if our worst nightmares about the future of the PiS government come true. It will always be possible to teach against the grain, even as the Ministry of Education grows increasingly powerful. It will always be possible to live autonomous private lives, even as public displays of tendentious nationalism grow more pervasive. The danger is not an oppressive thought-police, or even the transformation of the schools and the media into channels of indoctrination. I’m frustrated that this is what they are becoming, but not because I fear that they will effectively fulfil their mission. In fact, they almost certainly won’t, and future historians will doubtlessly study the cracks, tensions, and contradictions within the actual workings of the propaganda apparatus. The state PiS is building is not one in which dissent will become impossible, much less unthinkable. The state they are building is one in which dissent will be pointless. In this regard, Jarosław Kaczyński shares the same goals as his predecessors from the Polish People’s Republic, but he is far more crafty in implementing those goals. He isn’t creating any new martyrs for democracy, nor is he going to violently silent opposition voices. He is just building a system in which those voices will talk only to each other. As in Hungary or Russia today, Poland is becoming a country where you can say what you want, as long as you accept that no one with real power cares what you think.
The pictures below, which I took on August 10, are the perfect illustration for life in Poland today. In preparation for yet another commemoration of the Smolensk plane crash—an event that in any other contexts would be a public ceremony—the government brought thousands of police into Warsaw to create a cordon beyond which only approved Party members could go. Outside the barriers, the opposition could protest, or people could simply decide to ignore what the Party loyalists were doing. But only events inside the cordon would appear on the state media, and only the people there would have any power.
As the school year begins in Poland, teachers now understand that these cordons are firmly in place. It isn’t required that they all join the Party loyalists inside the barricades. They can even stand aside and mutter their dissatisfaction to their friends. But their continued employment depends on their acknowledgment that the lines exist, and cannot be crossed.