Intolerant Czech Students
Czech Students: Economically Liberal, but Intellectually Illiberal?
Steven Saxonberg, Department of Government, Uppsala University, currently in Prague for the academic year on a scholarship from the Swedish Institute
This article was published in the August issue of The New Presence monthly.
In the April issue of The New Presence, Jiří Musil notes that compared to other Central Europeans, Czechs are "more skeptical, selective, and serious - they tend to weigh different aspects of an issue." Except for the question of seriousness, I would agree with this characterization of Czechs from the 1980s. During my many visits to former Czechoslovakia as a student in West Berlin in that decade, just this combination of refreshing skepticism and a willingness to weigh the different aspects of an issue made me conclude that the Czechs were an extremely democratic people living under an undemocratic regime. Their intellectual liberalism, combined with the famous Czech satirical humor provided a healthy pause for me from the overly serious and sometimes dogmatic German students.
Unfortunately, my experience during the 1990s is that many of the Czech youth have substituted the intellectual liberalism of the previous generation for a combination of extremely doctrinal economic liberalism and intellectual illiberalism.
Below I will briefly discuss some of my experiences with illiberal Czech students in order to show that illiberalism is a serious problem. However, the purpose of this article is not to criticize this group of young people, whom I personally find quite likeable. Rather, it is to explore the reasons for this development, so that I can help open a debate about what can be done about the situation.
Until recently, very little has been written about the question of whether today's Czech students are intolerant. This has changed somewhat after Miloš Zeman's appearance on the TV show Na hraně and the shockingly disrespectful manner in which the students treated the Czech Social Demoratic leader.
My previous stays in Prague in 1992, 1993 and 1995 gave me plenty of experience in intolerance. I still remember the absolute horror that some young adults displayed when I dared to say anything negative about Klaus. Their facial expressions said, "How could you criticize God himself?" In my acadless dogmatic in their market liberalism and more open to other possible policies. Finally, since this was to be a master's level course, I expected the students to be used to the kind of critical and analytical thinking that forms the cornerstone of intellectual liberalism. I was soon to be disappointed.
Since this was to be a master's course, I made a point of avoiding normative discussions of what is "good" and "bad" in Sweden. Instead, I wanted the students to think theoretically about the logic of the system and the reasons why such a system developed. I believe that it is necessary to understand these points, before one can form normative opinions. I also knew that it is impossible to discuss Swedish politics without discussing its controversial welfare policies. I realized, though, that I had to be extremely careful in bringing up this topic. In order to avoid controversy, I chose a book that is a modern classic on welfare policy. The book discusses the reasons why different countries have different welfare regimes and focuses in particular on Sweden, the USA and Germany as the model social democratic, liberal and Christian democratic states respectively. In my introduction to the topic, I brought up the common point that literature on welfare often makes: both social democratic and many liberal reformers originally started with the same goal of using targeted programs to eliminate poverty. They installed means-tested programs to help the poor live above subsistence levels. As the social democrats saw it, these programs had failed. The poor never received enough help to overcome their poverty. The reason being that as long as most programs target the poor, the middle class is unwilling to pay the bill. The poor become stigmatized, because the middle class believes that those less well off are completely to blame for their situation. The social democrats concluded that the only way to gain middle class support for helping the poor is to co-opt the middle class by including it in universalist welfare policies. Once the middle class joins the welfare state, it becomes willing to finance the poor. So even though theoretically it would be much cheaper to only target the poor, the social democrats concluded that in reality they had to help the middle class in order to be able to help the poor.
I never stated whether I favored universalist or means-tested programs or if I supported some other type of system. I only asked the students if they understood the logic of this argument. One could, of course, understand this logic and just as well be against universalist policies. One can reasonably conclude that the costs of eliminating poverty are higher than the benefits. Or one can believe that eliminating poverty should not be the main goal of social policy. Many other possible goals exist. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the logic of stigmatization if one is to understand the reasons why Scandinavian social democratic parties (and even some of the Scandinavian liberal parties) have supported universalist policies. By introducing this issue to Czech students, I opened a Pandora's box.
The Czech students refused to discuss the main question of whether the social democrats have made the correct conclusions that means-tested welfare policies really have failed to eliminate poverty. Instead, they became emotional in denouncing the idea of giving money to the "lazy" poor. They began angrily shouting free-market slogans the way Communist students several decades earlier shouted Leninist slogans.
I tried to get them to move away from normative arguments about what social policy should have as its main goal and stick to the question of whether countries with means-tested programs have been able to eliminate poverty. When I mentioned, for example, that in the model liberal country, the USA, officially around 15% of the population lives below subsistence levels, I knew I was doomed. I could see it in their faces that I was already written off as a hopeless Communist.
The damage was done. I would no longer have their respect. At the next seminar, only two of the seven students arrived. Most of the seminar consisted of a student hysterically screaming at me. She was filled with insulting accusations, such as "Did you even read the book?" and she explained that she had called her parents several times on the phone to complain about my course. I was in such shock and so unprepared mentally for such a situation, that I did not tell her to leave the room and come back when she had cooled off.
I could give many more examples from the course, but the main point is that the students were completely unprepared for understanding analytical literature. They were intellectually unprepared to think in terms of "A causes B." Rather than trying to understand why do we have "B," they were intent on sticking to the issue that "B" must be bad if it is not market liberalism.
I should emphasize that despite my shock over the course, not all of the students were that dogmatic, only the ones who spoke the loudest were. Nevertheless, since these students of the Institute of International Relations are going to become the next generation of Czech politicians and diplomats, I still find the situation alarming. The point of writing this article, however, is not to denounce the students. All of them were very likeable people, as long as one avoided discussing social science with them. Therefore, I believe it is more important to examine the reasons for this development. I believe there are two basic causes of this problem: political developments and the university system.
When the Communist regime fell, there was one generation in the Czech lands that had experienced both the democratic First Republic and the liberal era of the Prague Spring. The next generation experienced the Prague Spring and was well informed about the First Republic from its parents. In contrast, Czech university students of the 1990s only know the stagnation of the HusŠk era and the embarrassment of the Jakeö era. Todayís students and perspective students have less experience with tolerant regimes that the two older generations.
Although the first period after the revolution was filled with openness and euphoria, the rise of Václav Klaus quickly changed the atmosphere. Within a short time, he became perhaps the most charismatic leader in Central Europe. A typical characteristic of charismatic leaders is that they evoke unusually strong emotions both for and against them. They also tend to gain a larger following among the idealistic youth than older, more cynical generations. Klaus was no exception to this tendency.
Klaus and his troupe also brought about a new style to Czech politics. He was full of a self-assurance that neither the discredited communist regime nor the self-critical intellectual dissidents possessed. The back side of his self-confidence was his certainty that his political opponents must be wrong. Anyone who dared disagree with Klaus had to fear being labelled a Communist. Klaus' style not only led to an atmosphere of intolerance against different political viewpoints, it also led to intolerance against the other Visegrad countries and arrogance towards Brussels. Klaus' politics of arrogance has encouraged an entire generation of Czech students to say to Westerners, "We have nothing to learn from you, we are the best!"
Liberalizing the University
Even though a more tolerant political atmosphere would help create more tolerant students, the greatest blame for student illiberalism falls on the universities. Regardless of the general political situation, liberal universities could have great potential for creating intellectually liberal students.
During this academic year in Prague and during previous visits, I have had the opportunity to speak to many students about their situation. At least among the students whom I have met, it appears that the social science students receive very little training in critical, analytical thought and absolutely no training in theory or methodology. Instead, most of their courses are based on passively listening to lectures and then memorizing facts to spit out during an exam. Even students from third world countries complain about the low level of critical thinking at the university.
I must admit that I was a little bit prepared for this situation from my previous trips here. For example, in 1995 I was shocked to hear a professor tell his student that he should not use any analysis in his graduate thesis. Instead, the student should concentrate on giving the facts. In Sweden I would not even accept such a paper from a first semester student.
Despite my previous experiences, I had expected that by now the situation might have improved enough so that at least the students at the masters' level could handle some basic social scientific literature. I tailored the course to the level of second semester political science students in Sweden, but I reduced the workload by around 80%. Nevertheless, all the students found the course extremely difficult.
Since students have no experience in critical thinking, it is not surprising that they have not learned to think in causal terms and to ask such questions as why does Sweden have a different social system than the USA. If they do not have any experience in writing term papers, it is not surprising that they have trouble formulating their arguments clearly. If they do not get any practice in analyzing texts, it is not surprising that they have trouble thinking critically and analytically. And if they have not taken part in seminars where they have to discuss each other's papers, it is not surprising that they have not learned to respect each others arguments and discuss them in a calm, non-ideological manner.
If many of the teachers would change their style of teaching and the departments would alter their curricula, then the university could help create a more tolerant and democratic society.