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Velvet Revolution fails to fire student interest

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In a room at the Secondary Grammar School on Varšavská Street in Žilina, a group of 11 teenagers are talking about the 1989 Velvet Revolution which brought down the communist regime in then Czechoslovakia.

The students, all aged between 16 and 18, recently took part in a project talking to people who lived through the revolution and the communist regime that preceded it - often someone imprisoned or oppressed for their opinions, religion or political beliefs - and recording their stories.

Organised by the Nenápadní Hrdinovia (Inconspicuous Heroes) civic association, the project has helped students like Miriam Bandíková gain a greater understanding of one of the pivotal events in Slovak history.

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“The stories we worked on have broadened our horizons more than history lessons alone,” she says.

But while she and the other students agree they have learnt more about what life was like before the Velvet Revolution, their interest in the revolution and the country’s communist past is more an exception than the norm among their peers.

Many Slovak teenagers see the communist past and Velvet Revolution as “events which are part of the school history curriculum” says Tatiana Drevená, one of the students. The other teenagers in the room nod in agreement.

No interest

Their teacher, Alica Virdzeková, has been teaching history for 41 years, 20 of those at the Žilina school.

She told The Slovak Spectator it was not always easy to get kids interested in the subject. “There is little space in the curriculum for important events of 20th century [like the Velvet Revolution] which help form [students’] opinions,” she said.

She added that students often know by fifth or sixth grade at grammar school what they want to study in the future and they often say that they have no interest in history.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to four of Virdzeková’s fellow teachers who were also involved in the Nenápadní Hrdinovia project and all of them said they shared Virdzeková’s opinions about students’ interest in history and the lack of time dedicated to certain major historical events in the school curriculum.

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Virdzeková said that she tried to use such projects as a way to get students to explore the past in greater detail.

“They don’t just get to learn how to write about these events, but they also get a different view of the [communist] era and meet interesting people,” she told The Slovak Spectator, adding that she had seen a change in attitude among the students towards the Velvet Revolution and communist era after they had finished the project.

Generation gap

Social experts point out that there is a noticeable generational gap between younger and older people when it comes to talking about the Velvet Revolution.

Zora Bútorová, sociologist at the Institute for Public Affairs NGO, said that the revolution is a generally rare topic of debate among young people and that older people discuss it much more frequently. However, older people often evaluate the revolution itself more negatively than younger generations who see it as a positive milestone in modern Slovak history, she added.

This is not true in all cases though, as Bútorová pointed out. Nostalgia for socialism, which is more common among older people, she explained, can sometimes feed through into younger people’s opinions.

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“In families where there are these myths that everything was better in the past – even though we know from statistics that it was not – and there is a lack of critical thinking, young people tend to adopt that same biased opinion, too,” she told The Slovak Spectator.

But some younger people are informed enough to know that while some things may have appeared good under communism, such as full employment, cheap goods because they were heavily subsidised, freedoms were also heavily curtailed.

She gave an example of research she had done into the matter in which a young respondent was asked about how he viewed the communist era. The person said: ‘My grandpa always tells me how fantastic it was to live under communism, that milk was really cheap. But I know that things like this, cheap goods, blinded people to everything else about that regime, and that people had no freedom.’

Bandíková said that in her own family there are different views of the revolution among its different generations. She also said that many older people often offer the “argument” to younger people when discussing the revolution and communist regime that “you weren’t alive then, you have no right to judge it.”

Value of freedom

Bútorová said that when talking to high school students about the changes brought about by the revolution, she has noticed that many of them find it difficult to conceive of life under a regime where they would be denied certain basic freedoms.

She added that when talking to young people about what freedoms they value most, they often need help explaining the question because they sometimes struggle to grasp the concept that some things they take for granted are actually freedoms which some people never enjoyed under communism.

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“Even when talking about democracy, young people often do not know what its main characteristics are and in what ways it was lacking before [the Velvet Revolution],” Bútorová explained.

Kristína Paľová, another student at the Žilina secondary grammar school, warned that although young people enjoy many important freedoms, such as being able to choose their own path of education or freedom to travel, they often do not fully appreciate them, adding that her grandparents constantly remind her that Slovakia had not always enjoyed such freedoms.

“Young people have a major problem in that they just cannot imagine living without those freedoms,” she said.

But Nina Mališová, another student at the school, did not agree. “Maybe we cannot imagine living without some freedoms, but I think young people value them greatly. We are aware that Slovaks did not always have those freedoms and that we are lucky that we do,” she said.

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