Czech media maverick Bohumil “Bob” Kartous asks, can steam engines carry us into the virtual world?
For nearly 30 years, The Czech and Slovak Republics have been a big part of my life. First as a year-long exchange student in Bardejov, Slovakia in 1992, and then on with further experiences in college, graduate school, and in my professional work.
As a student at a traditional gymnázium (college prep, upper secondary school), I got a glimpse of a young democracy that was just starting to recover from oppressive, Soviet-dominated rule. The Velvet Revolution toppled the communist government in Czechoslovakia in fewer than three years before I arrived. And, in the eastern part of the country, changes took place slower than elsewhere.
I learned that in the exploration of other cultures, the invisible portions of my own culture became more visible—including in how we educate. In a way, the education I received in Slovakia seemed like a caricature of everything dysfunctional in the U.S. system at the time, with exaggerated power dynamics between teachers and students, disinterested teachers, unrealistic expectations, and a growing divide between what is taught in schools and what is relevant in society.
Last November, I spent a few weeks in Brno, Czech Republic as a visiting scholar at Masaryk University. My visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and there were many symposia and other events that reflected on the country’s ambitious transition to a functioning, liberal democracy. At the same time, Bob Kartous released a new book, No future, which redirects the review of the past to the past with a glimpse of the future.
What Kartous argues is a warning: If we don’t make serious efforts to invest in and modernize education, we are headed for a future with massive socioeconomic inequity, where citizens will be placated through what he calls sugars and cybersugars, and where the fabric of our democracies may be destroyed by disengagement and weaponized postmodernism. To readers outside of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Kartous also presents a caricature of what could happen if we ignore change and underinvest in education. Reading his text from a comparative perspective, we can also gain insights into ourselves.
I was fortunate to meet up with Kartous at a joint event, and he agreed to an interview. Is there “no future” for us?
JM: What provoked you to write No future?
BK: Good question. No future is exactly a provocative text about where we came from, where we are, and where we are heading toward. It is a probe of current society through the prism of education. More simply and precisely, I try to show and analyze from a specific point of view of what a giant leap human society made during a few decades defined by the digital era. I try to explain to readers we are living through a historically unique age which is not comparable to anything human society has experienced before. I use stories of my family members, from the youth of my grandparents to the present childhood of my two sons.
While my grandma grew up in conditions more or less similar to a centuries-long stable state of civilization, and while my parents and I experienced a world where parents and teachers could reuse old models and methods of education, we are now facing a new configuration: all generations are exposed to new challenges in which we have to find solutions together. The evolutionary principle of “wisdom” and experience transfer from older generations to younger ones does not apply anymore. Older people, even middle aged people, are often confused by the high pace of dynamic change triggered by technological development which intrusively enters our intimate zones, our community life, national discourse, and global phenomenons.
Parents and teachers try desperately to find the key to the childhood of a new humankind, one that is emerging into the world more, interconnecting physical and virtual dimensions. Those who are expected to be in charge as parents and teachers, those who should hold keys to the world, and those who are expected to hand over important know-how to the next generation, are struggling with the simple task of not being left behind. And they often fail. They often try to look back into the past and praise it as a “golden age” when the world was more understandable and when they felt more secure and felt they had an “upper hand.”
In the world of uncertainty, retrotopia flourishes. This is a term coined by Zygmunt Bauman. People are turning to the past in an attempt to find a solution to the future. A bizzare but a palpable reality. It does not mean that there is a coming generation of young people who will simply take over and rule the world. Absolutely not.
I try to show how vulnerable today’s young generation is. I use the offensive term snowflakes, often serving to alt-right populists. The term, itself, is not wrong and I know millennials who identify themselves with it. This term describes people who have emerged into a world of historically unprecedented wellbeing, into a world of incredibly high living standards, and into a world overloaded with what I label sugars and cybersugars—a world which immediately satisfies their needs and most of their desires. This poison of luxury is dangerous because it strictly limits motivation and an ambition to overcome the status quo to reach toward something better. Moreover, this generation cannot rely on the previous one, cannot rely on older people to show them direction and help them understand what today’s world is about. As I previously stated, they are confused and not able to lead.
In No future, I try to depict (skeptically) the current situation and ultimately provide readers with a glimpse of a solution. I hope to provide readers with a more optimistic text in a future book.
JM: One of the points that I opened with in Emerging Education Futures is that schools today function very little different than they did in the past, and, as we look toward the future, we really can’t seem to imagine anything different. What is the Czech and Slovak experience in education from the totalitarian era before the 1989 revolution and today?
BK: Yes, this is the same issue I tried to confront in not only in the book No future but in my writings and speeches for many years. The situation in Central Europe is more delicate just because we still bear burdens from totalitarianism. It is difficult to root out a totalitarian mindset and a deeply-set system of values (especially regarding that a totalitarianism mindset disvalues more than it values). The philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf suggested that it takes 60 years to change the value of some coherent society. But Dahrendorf is an intellectual personality from the age before the dawn of the digital world. Actually, looking at the impact of discourse melted under heavy attacks coming from a blurry environment of information chaos, I am not sure if we are heading in the right direction or if we are losing the momentum gained after 1989 in favor of retrotopianism and a so-called “conservative” wave.
Czech schools could serve as a perfect example of the “old is good” conservation mindset. The average age of Czech teachers is close to 50 years old, and it is constantly rising. This means that the population of teachers has grown and matured in a totalitarian society. They started their careers in school before 1989 or during the first years of transitions, equipped with education and training designed around totalitarian rationales.
Schools in totalitarian systems serve as propaganda tools, suited to recycle indoctrination. This is not only in the curriculum but mainly the values and rules that are intended to be seeded in the heads of the next generation. Neither the new constitution nor the new economic rules cannot change something that shaped your thinking for decades—something that is settled deeply inside your memetic DNA. Moreover, after the change of the social contract in 1989, schools and teachers gave up on their role of educators in social, civic issues. It was caused just because teachers would avoid the role of propaganda delivery tools. They mistakenly thought (and many of them still insist on it) that political topics do not have a place in schools.
Teachers are often not able to recognize the borderline between civic education that is so important in today’s world with political or ideological manipulation. That’s why they decided to get rid of it at all. It is so paradoxical that some teachers and education system representatives complained against education that is in perfect harmony with the constitution. By the way, last year on the Meltingpot stage, at the biggest Czech music festival “Colors of Ostrava,” I asked an audience who among them was exposed to the text of the constitution in school. Nobody from more than 100 people raised a hand…
The preservation of the old times in Czech schools is palpable in many respects. It has been 15 years since the Czech education system reformed its curriculum. Up until today, in the majority of schools, principals and teachers did not support it. The majority of them continue with methods and content they are used to teaching for decades. Two years ago, I was invited as a speaker at the celebration of Teachers’ Day in one of the national regional centers. The audience, packed with teachers, gave a standing ovation to a former principal and person who profoundly influenced the design of math education in the Czech Republic and who openly diminished curricular reform, saying “I never cared about it; it could not bother me; I continue in my way.” That’s where we still are.
The resistance of underpaid teachers in an under-invested education system is a key factor of weak progress. Look at the structure of the Czech high school system. It is still copying the economic structure from 1989 when 70% of people were employed in the industrial sector. But it does not apply anymore. But those who are responsible, political decision-makers and economic influencers, still try to repair this “steam machine” instead of attempting to rebuild it into something that suits current needs. By the way, the subtitle of my book asks readers, “do we carry our children on a steam-powered machine into the virtual reality?” I am convinced we do it…
JM: …and does the future look any different to you?
BK: My book starts with the sentence, “some ideas must be spoken to prevent them from fulfillment.” I am not sure if No future is only a warning or if it is a plausible prediction.
Look at Czech society: According to an annual survey by a credible Czech public opinion research agency, CVVM (Centrum pro výzkum veřejného mínění, Center for Public Opinion Research), over 70% of Czech adults are satisfied with the quality of Czech schools. You can be sure that Czech voters will not demand from their political representatives to make significant progress in favor of education. The majority is satisfied. Simultaneously, among OECD states, the Czech Republic is the country that invests one of the lowest amount of public spending in education as a portion of GDP. People here are simply not aware of it. The national investment plan, introduced in January 2020, estimates roughly 1.5% of investment from the plan will be placed into the education sector in the long-term.
What does this say about the future? What does it say about awareness of social and economic priorities, or about our ability to judge them? Sure, we can see growing consent among political leaders on the fact that Czech Republic should not be a country with nearly the lowest teachers’ salary in the OECD, compared to other university graduates, but it is not enough. It is something that we should have resolved decades ago. We are bitterly backward.
JM: In No future, you discuss many social changes and challenges brought on by new technologies. What knowledge or skills does one need to navigate life successfully as we move deeper into the 21st century?
BK: At the end of the book, I offer a list of qualities and skills which are, in my opinion, crucial for current and future individual, social, and economic human existence. At first, the most important thing is to start with self-consciousness based on self-knowledge. All we know about the world that surrounds us and our unique constructions of reality depends on how we can understand ourselves. As long as we are not ready to recognize the true nature of our mind, psyche, and identity, we will repeatedly fail to understand the rest. Nevertheless, the curriculum is full of information about the outer world but pays little attention to this “conditio sine qua non”—something unconditional for cognition, learning, and education. Let’s ask why? Our world is full of people who struggle, often since their childhood, with the question, “actually, who am I?” I am almost sure this fact causes many of the serious problems we face. In fact, people are confused by themselves.
Next are new skills needed to resist the challenges of a digitally transformed reality. One of them is a simple ability to make decisions in an environment supersaturated with choices. Psychological research shows that too many choices cause so-called “decision paralysis.” This is where we are nowadays. Daily, we are exposed to hundreds and thousands of pushy choices asking us to make decisions and asking us what we would like. This is extremely exhausting. Educated people in the 21st century should know what is worthy to deliberate about, what is so important that deserves their time and energy to make a mindful decision, and—in contrast—what constitutes a futile and complete waste of time.
One of the most important capabilities is the art of concentration. In a world which permanently tries to distract us with a never-ending stream of notifications coming from our digital devices, it is increasingly complicated to maintain attention and devote time and energy to something that demands our cognitive capability for a long period. And many tasks, many projects, many complicated situations in our lives require more than quick responses or some ease solution.
Besides this, in a world managed by a constant stream of changes and black swans resulting from them, we should lead children to keep their minds open and growing. Especially in post-totalitarian countries, you can see a residual (but still strong) impact of thinking that adheres precisely to prescribed rules and inner fear to NOT do something different. This is because thinking differently is something unacceptable under totalitarian rule. Sure, new generations grow in the world of freedom but parents and teachers are partly affected. And, particularly, schools often help to conserve this hidden curriculum which has deep roots in a totalitarian past.
What we can see is a struggle of many parents and teachers when it comes to working with failure. While failure is a desired “learning machine” in the world of permanent change when people are forced to constantly search for more scenarios and new solutions, in Czech schools, we still apply a system of “failure leads to punishment.” And it is pretty hard to convince people, especially parents, how the traditional way of assessment (grades) supports this obsolete and dysfunctional method which left a big portion of children behind as “losers” damaged by “education.” The historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in a recently published article that, in the future, we will need to reinvent ourselves again and again. We should encourage young people to learn reinvention and work with failure is an inseparable part of it.
I would like to point out resilience, too. A luxury environment full of sugars and cybersugars strips people not only from their reach to become something more ambitious, but instead manipulates them into the role of fed animals, waiting for the next portion of sweetness. I do warmly recommend scenes from the movie WALL-E where the future of humankind is depicted in a pretty marvelous way: cognitively and physically disabled beings who are degenerated and steered by technology. It is a serious concern that is based on facts. We, as human beings, are obese from sugars and lack of movement. And new research evidence shows that the influence of the digital world has been leading toward cognitive slowdown—dumbing us down. Originally, I was a teacher of physical education. And I had proved to myself over 20 years of my career that physical movement not only enhances your physical fitness, but is also a tool that works perfectly in favor of human will and mental endurance. One well-known Czech psychiatrist recently said, in answer to the question, “what are the natural sources of prevention of depression,” “People who are not able to find half an hour to move and perspire are stupid.”
And, last but not at least, we desperately need to be digitally smart. Ten years ago, I remember techno-optimists enthusiastically point to the fact that children are “digital natives” and that it is fine that they are able to move intuitively in virtual spaces which can help them educate and develop themselves via games and other tools. Ten years later, we can see growing cases of digital addiction and a looming crisis caused by digital interventions into our lives. And, this impacts not only young people. It traps people throughout generations in a strange, interdimensional world resembling The matrix. Older people are often worse off than children. My friend told me a few months ago that her daughter drew a picture of her father. He is standing and looking into his smartphone. Sad? Yes, and alarming…
JM: In your opinion, what is the social role of schools?
BK: The social role of schools is irreplaceable. School is often the last place where children can meet their friends from different social backgrounds. That’s why Scandinavians try to use the public education system as a key tool for strengthening social cohesion. In Finland, it doesn’t matter if your parents are members of the elite or if they are “ordinary” laborers. All of them are in the same school. My friend Susanna Bäckman, a former Finnish teacher and principal living in Prague, told me a story about one Finnish politician who tried to move his child from one public school to another. This act caused huge and angry reaction among the public and media. In Finland, it is considered a break of ethical standards if you seek privileges in education. This is because they value equality and social cohesion.
In the Czech Republic, most children are enrolled in public schools, but it doesn’t mean that it prevents inequality. On the contrary, Czechs created eight and six-years long gymnasiums in the 1990s, schools that were initially established and opened for gifted children but quickly became prey for parents with higher socioeconomic status. They vacuum children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds after 5th grade and route them to “special” schools for the privileged. Sure, those schools are legally affordable for everyone, but they concentrate children from the upper-middle class and elite. Research published in 2018 provided evidence for this. In other words, some countries are cementing, via the education system, social cohesion, and some countries reliably reproduces the socioeconomic background of the family. According to OECD education at a glance, in the Czech Republic, only 4% of children whose parents finished basic or apprenticeship education achieved an educational level beyond high school. This number is many times lower than countries who deliberately care about the social role of schools. It is worse than in Anglo-Saxon countries where inequality in educational achievement is also a serious problem. For countries like the Czech Republic, this is a trap. Those who gain from privilege are not motivated to change it. Those who don’t gain from it are not aware enough. They don’t care. It results in political ignorance. In terms of social cohesion, societies that are not aware of the importance of the education system should be concerned about the “no future” scenario…
In No future, I try to point out three social skills that are highly important in the turbelence of the 21st century: democratic participation, respect for human rights, and the “ordinary heroism” of simple openness and a helping hand stretched to people they need it at the moments of everyday life. This is how you can build basic trust in society and increase the level of nature responsibility to others. These are factors for the future.
JM: In No future, you describe technology as a disruptor in schools. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
BK: Digital technology has a growing impact regarding economic, social, and individual life, and is the biggest disruptor that ever existed in human history. Let’s say that education should serve as a toolkit that allows incoming generations to adapt to the challenges of the future. But it supposes that this toolkit is updated and ready to use. In the world of rapid change, schools remain to some extent metaphorically services for the age of steam machines, while around them hyperloops speed around, heading unstoppably through the swiftly growing capacities of AI and VR toward a Technological Singularity. And, in many respects, people involved in education, from policymakers to teachers and parents, pretend that “old school” is the right place where children can learn about this brand new and perpetually-evolving reality.
Schools are losing their touch with the reality of the present and we cannot trust that their curriculum or principles are something that will help people embrace the future. It is hard to imagine that teachers trained more or less in the same way as they were 40 years ago, nurturing children with more or less the same content, will somehow help them understand what is important in the 21st century. In my book, I point out a funny story which perfectly shows how the sometimes desperate attempts of schools update themselves. About four years my older son entered a new school year in a brand new school building. The municipality allowed the installation of interactive whiteboards into all classrooms and teachers received a couple days of instruction on how to use them. But the interactive part of the whiteboard remained switched off almost all year and teachers used mostly side wings designed for handwriting…
I am pretty far from the assertion that we have to cram schools with technologies and digitalize all educational content. No, in many respects we don’t need technologies in education, but we need teachers who are up-to-date and know when it is reasonable to use them, when they are optional and when they are counterproductive. Anyway, teacher training in the Czech Republic almost completely ignores this crucial skill and graduates step in the schools “unkissed” by the technology-driven reality. This is unimaginable in the corporate sector, in medicine, in architecture, or other fields we can imagine. To avoid a “no future” scenario, we need to bring into schools brave and potent teachers with personalities mixing archetypes of “hero,” “rebel,” and “sage”—not “caregivers” or “orphans.” But the archetypes of caregivers and orphans prevail among teachers, at least in the Czech Republic. Countries with “junior league” teachers will play in the junior league of the future.
JM: Does the future need schools?
BK: I am convinced that the future can proceed according to many different scenarios. In some countries, and not only in the Czech Republic, if no measures will be undertaken to counter a widening gap between obsolete schools and a high speed, black swans-dominated reality, I can see the gradual evolution of parallel, two-tier education systems. Generally, the first will be for those who are capable to provide their children education tailored to their needs and potential, using the best teachers on the labor market and cutting-edge digital tools. A second one will be for the rest. This scenario would threaten liberal democratic societies and help to recreate a new, postmodern caste system that paralyzes vertical social mobility. It is a phenomenon that creates palpable risk to every society. Education is related to social status everywhere, but liberal democracies built up their potential on the positive exploitation of human resources. They are also built on the principle of making higher education affordable for those who are coming from a less-educated background. An equal distribution of education results in a more equal distribution of power, which is inevitable for the future of democracy.
In the world melting down original structures of nation states in favor of global corporations (and in favor of their revenues), we can see in the digital dimension where few companies rule the world without control over the collateral damage they can cause. We urgently need to strengthen a common value framework together with critical thinking, participation, resilience, art of decision-making and prioritizing. Therefore, we need radically change assignments for teachers and schools and try to redesign it in a way described above. I can see “schools” as a result of wise, farsighted policy, based on evidence, research, and public investment. Schools will not associate with “buildings” but with cognitive concepts aiming primarily on individual and social existence in a materially-saturated environment, leveraging this “surplus” into sustainability in a multilateral way. Those schools can easily combine flipped classrooms, flexischooling, AI-driven learning, whatever. But it is entirely obvious that we need to mature to some point when the majority will say “we got it.”
JM: Can schools save society?
BK: Sure. Honestly, I can’t see anything better than “pro futuro” oriented schools. In my humble opinion, mass human societies at this stage of evolution are not able to replace schools with something better. Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. School is the worst form of social reproduction, except for all the others.
JM: Anything else?
BK: Let’s make this happen as soon as possible. There is no reason to wait. The countdown is over. We are consuming the future of our children.