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Czechoslovakia Table of Contents



Czechoslovakia has a tradition of academic and scholarly endeavor in the mainstream of European thought and a history of higher education dating from the Middle Ages. Charles University was founded in Prague in 1348, and the Academia Istropolitana was founded in Bratislava in 1465. In the First Republic, education was the chief instrument for dealing with ethnic diversity. Perhaps in no other aspect of public life did Czechoslovakia more effectively address the disparities among Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Germans. Eight years of compulsory education in the native language of each ethnic minority did much to raise literacy rates, particularly among Slovaks and Ukrainians. An expanded program of vocational education increased the technical skills of the country's growing industrial labor force. Some disparities remained, however. Germans and Czechs predominated disproportionately in secondary schools and universities. In the Czech lands compulsory education, even in rural areas, had begun nearly half a century before the advent of the republic. Prosperous farmers and even cottagers and tenants had a long history of boarding their children in towns or cities for secondary, vocational, and higher education. Despite regional and ethnic imbalances, Czechoslovakia entered the socialist era with a literate, even highly educated, populace.

Education under KSC rule has a history of periodic reforms (often attempting to fit the Soviet model) and efforts to maintain ideological purity within schools. At the same time, higher education has been a reward for political compliance. By the mid-1970s, the historical disparity in educational resources between the Czech lands and Slovakia had been largely redressed. A certain equity in educational opportunity was achieved, partly through the concerted efforts of policy makers and partly through the vicissitudes of normalization.

The Czechoslovak education system has four basic levels: nursery and kindergarten; a compulsory, nine-year primary cycle; various kinds of secondary schools; and a variety of institutions of higher education. Education is compulsory between the ages of six and sixteen. In 1974-75 planners began an education reform, shortening the primary cycle from nine to eight years and standardizing curricula within the secondary- school system. The state financed education, and all textbooks and instructional material below the university level were free.

Secondary schools included gymnasiums, stressing general education and preparation for higher education, and vocational schools, which emphasized technical training; both were four-year programs. A highly developed apprenticeship program and a system of secondary vocational/professional programs were attached to specific industries or industrial plants. In both secondary and higher education, provision was made for workers to attend evening study in combination with work-release time.

In 1985 there were 36 universities or university-level institutions of higher education, comprising 110 faculties; 23 were located in the Czech Socialist Republic, and 13 were located in the Slovak Socialist Republic. The mid-1970s reform shortened the course of study in most fields from five to four years. A 1980 law on higher education increased the control of the Czech and Slovak ministries of education over universities and technical colleges. Postgraduate study involved three to six years of study. Faculties could exist within a university system or as independent entities (as in the case of the six theological faculties under the direction of both republics' ministries of culture, or educational faculties sometimes administered directly by the republics' ministries of education). Educational enrollment and admissions have been delicate matters during the socialist era. Virtually everyone attended primary school, and a majority of those of secondary-school age attended some kind of specialized training or a gymnasium (see table 6, Appendix A). Beyond this, however, the questions surrounding university admissions (and who attends secondary schools and who becomes an apprentice) took on political overtones. In the 1950s the children of political prisoners, well-to-do farmers, or known adherents of one or another religion were victims of the party's discriminatory admissions policies.

Youngsters of working-class or peasant background ostensibly had preference over those of other socioeconomic groups. However, a look at students' backgrounds during the 1950s and 1960s reveals that in no year did children of workers or peasants constitute a majority of those in institutions of higher education. Precise estimates vary, but through the mid-1960s workers' families gained an average of one-third of the admission slots, peasants a mere 10 percent, and "others" nearly 60 percent. The proletariat fared better in Slovakia, where nearly half of those with secondary school or university degrees came from workers' or peasants' families.

The regime made intensive efforts to improve the educational status of women in the 1970s. The number of women who completed a course of higher education jumped by 93 percent between 1970 and 1980 (for men the increase was 48 percent). Although women continued to cluster in such traditionally female areas of employment as health and teaching, their enrollment in many secondary schools outstripped that of men. Women have accounted for 40 percent of university enrollment since the mid-1960s. In the 1985-86 school year, this figure was 43 percent.

In 1971 the regime announced that "The selection of applicants must clearly be political in character. . . . We make no secret of the fact that we want to do this at the schools in a manner that will guarantee that future graduates will be supporters of socialism and that they will place their knowledge at the service of socialist society." This was the "principled class approach," a complex set of criteria that purportedly refected a student's "talent, interest in the chosen field, class origins, civic and moral considerations, social and political activism of the parents, and the result of the admission examination." In practice, class background and parents' political activities outweighed all other factors. Children of dissidents, of those in political disfavor, or of open adherents of a religious sect were denied admission to higher education in favor of children whose parents were party members or who were of proletarian origin.

Amnesty International reported in 1980 that institutions ranked applicants according to the following criteria: students whose parents were both KSC members, children of farmers or workers, and those with one parent a KSC member. Students who failed to meet any of these conditions were considered last. Children of dissidents were effectively disqualified. The system allowed for some manipulation; a member of the intelligentsia without a political blot on his or her record might have taken a job as a worker temporarily to permit his child a claim to proletarian status. There were charges as well of bribes and corruption surrounding university admissions. Whatever the mechanism involved, the social composition of the student body shifted in the mid-1970s; roughly half of all students in higher education were from workers' or farmers' families.

Charter 77 protested discrimination in educational admissions based on parents' political activity; there was some indication by the late 1970s that, if parental sins could still be visited on the children, at least questions concerning their parents' past and present political affiliations would be less blatant. Whether or not politicizing university admissions ensured that graduates would be "supporters of socialism" could be debated. However, it is evident that in controlling university admissions the regime knew how to ensure acquiescence on the part of most Czechoslovak citizens. If a moderately secure livelihood and a reasonable standard of living were the regime's "carrots," excluding children of dissidents from higher education was one of its more formidable "sticks."

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English-language material on contemporary Czechoslovak society is limited. The Czechoslovak government periodically publishes the Statistical Survey of Czechoslovakia, a summary of the annual Statisticka rocenka CSSR, which contains a wide variety of statistical information. It also publishes a glossy monthly, Czechoslovak Life, available in several languages, which offers a view of life in the republic, albeit through rose-colored glasses.

Roy E.H. Mellor's Eastern Europe provides good background information, as does Joseph Rothschild's East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars. Robert W. Dean's Nationalism and Political Change in Eastern Europe and Stanislav J. Kirschbaum's "Slovak Nationalism in Socialist Czechoslovakia" both provide insight into Czech-Slovak relations in the 1970s. Jaroslav Krejci's Social Change and Stratification in Postwar Czechoslovakia assesses socioeconomic relations between the two republics from early in the post-World War II era until the mid-1970s.

The eventful late 1960s and the 1970s are reviewed by Vladimir V. Kusine in Political Groupings in the Czechoslovak Reform Movement, From Dubcek to Charter 77, and "Challenge to Normalcy: Political Opposition in Czechoslovakia, 1968-77," and also by Otto Ulc, in Politics in Czechoslovakia and "Some Aspects of Czechoslovak Society since 1968." Ota Sik's Czechoslovakia: The Bureaucratic Economy and Radoslav Selucky's Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe: Political Background and Economic Significance, both works by former Czechoslovak officials purged during "normalization," offer analyses of the problems that gave impetus to the reform movement. Women under Communism, by Barbara Wolfe Jancar, "Women in East European Socialist Countries" by Jarmila L.A. Horna, and "Women's Labour Participation in Czechoslovakia since World War II" by Alena Heitlinger describe the role of women in Czechoslovak society.

Developments affecting Czechoslovakia's dissidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s are reviewed by O. Sojka in "The Bounds of Silence," H. Gordon Skilling in "Charter 77 and the Musical Underground," and Charles Sawyer in "Writing on the Party's Terms." Jiri Otava's "Religious Freedom in Czechoslovakia" and Peter A. Toma and Milan J. Reban's "Church- State Schism in Czechoslovakia," review church-state relations and detail some of the difficulties that believers face in communist Czechoslovakia. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of August 1987

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Czechoslovakia Table of Contents