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Unacknowledged failure. Liberal education in Poland

Europe (Central and Eastern)
Knowledge
Qualitative
Education
Daniel Kontowski
University of Warsaw
Daniel Kontowski
University of Warsaw

Abstract

During the recent two decades, the idea of ‘liberal (arts) education’ has seen a revival in Europe (van der Wende 2011; Godwin 2013; Godwin 2015a). Founders of higher education experiments in eleven European countries used the language of liberal education to label their new increasingly interdisciplinary, US-inspired higher education programs. The most discussed success story is that of Dutch university colleges (van der Wende 2012; Adriaansens 2014), which secured a distinct status. The developments in recently democratized countries in Eastern Europe, if they were mentioned, have been described with superficial enthusiasm (Darvas 1995; Dahrendorf 2000; Cohen 2000; Gillespie 2001; Woodard 2002; Redden 2010; Kowalski 2012), adding to a non-existent critical discourse on the issue (Godwin 2015b). Leaders tend to present their institutions as success stories of overcoming the systemic limitations to a freer, more democratic, and more modern education. This is especially the case in Poland, where liberal education movement spanned over more than ten research universities and at its heyday influenced creation of similar institutions in Belarus, Ukraine and Southern Russia (Sucharski 2013). However, Polish liberal education stems from failure. International accounts completely miss the fact that in its current form, the provision of broad interdisciplinary curricula is much more limited than it was initially intended. The first reform of transforming University of Warsaw in 1989-1990 into an American-style liberal arts college and specialist graduate programs is nowhere to be credited. When state policy was temporary non-existent, the ambitious plan has been halted by a lack of faculty support in a collegiate management. The second failed attempt was to create four to five schools, with common undergraduate provision (Wróblewski 2015; Detweiler and Axer 2012; Norgaard 2014). Only the third implemented idea was a success and a compromise: individual, interdisciplinary studies for several students across one area of knowledge. Their initial ambition was to provide a small-scale example of the benefits of liberal education so as to initiate an organisational change; in this respect they utterly failed. This failure to transform the university precedes incremental change guided by the same principles, but scaled down to a workable solution that spread over other institutions during the next 15 years. After that, bureaucratization and neo-liberal reforms, falling enrolments, departmental opposition and non-existent leadership together brought Polish liberal education to its current stagnation. My presentation uses qualitative analysis of data from internal documents and semi-structured interviews with key informants in five Polish liberal education institutions. My claim is that in the Polish case the learning opportunities from failure were not used, and the ambition for institutional change shrank over time. I would argue that now that the “big plan” have been forgotten, we cannot learn from the past in terms of academic strategy in post-Communist setting. This lesson can be crucial for discussions on academic performance, mergers and reorganization to create flagship/World-Class universities at the peripheries. Faculty attitudes, structural scaffoldings and academic cultures can all be traced to debates about liberal education in Poland, even where the label was not directly used.