New Publication: Normal life in not so normal times

15 Mar 2018

Zounek, J., Šimáně, M., & Knotová, D. (2017). Normal life in not so normal times: Primary schools and their teachers (not only) during the so-called normalization period. Praha: Wolters Kluwer.

The volume is one of the main outcomes of a research project called “Everyday life of a primary school in the Normalization period as viewed by teachers. Using oral history in studying contemporary history of formal education”, supported by the Czech Science Foundation (project no. GA14-05926S).

The first chapter of the book focuses on methodology of historical-pedagogical research. In its first part, the authors discuss one of the possible approaches to researching general history, presenting the so-called history of the everyday and microhistory. Then they show how adopting this approach may influence research in contemporary history of pedagogy (educational sciences) and education.

The following chapter deals with sources of knowledge about the past. The authors focus primarily on the history of primary education in the former South Moravia region (one of the administrative regions of former Czechoslovakia) in 1969–1989. They ask the question what sources a historian of pedagogy can draw on when studying contemporary history of primary education.

The next chapter describes and explains the methodology of the research undertaken, which combines two approaches to studying contemporary history – macrohistory and microhistory – in order to achieve a more complex understanding of the topic.
Another important part of the book is the historical framework containing a brief history of socialist education.

The following chapters of the volume present the main findings of the research. They vary not only by their focus but also by their approach to the topic, guided by the contents of the interviews as well as available archival sources or available specialized literature.
The results show that becoming and working as a teacher in socialist Czechoslovakia was not necessarily simple. The teaching profession reflected ideological influences and it was affected by organizational and institutional change, many times chaotic and lacking a professional basis.

Orators’ experience of teaching, teaching aids or school meetings was varied. The situation seems to have been very complicated in some schools while it was relatively peaceful in others.

Pastime activities of teachers are hardly a typical topic of historical studies, let alone those focusing on socialist education. It is however quite natural for teachers’ lives to reach far beyond school and their profession. The data capture both the enthusiasm of building something new (new socialist society) and some scepticism. This research, too, reflects phenomenon of spending weekends at cottages in the countryside, so typical of the period in the Czech Republic. Gardening, various cultural interest or sports were not exceptions.
The communist regime regarded schools and teachers as a tool to reach its many (political) goals. One specific example is the chapter on religious faith and secularization.

A broader context of the Prague Spring is presented in the last chapter. The topic resonated through the memories of the orators relatively strongly.

The interviews also revealed a possible reason why this topic remains a challenge for historical-pedagogical research. It turns out that even more than 25 years after the fall of communism, respondents are still afraid to speak openly on some topics.

Despite all the limitations of the method we used (population size and sampling, selective memories of the orators, impossibility to generalize) it turns out that the approach we selected can provide considerable help in understanding socialist education. This is not only due to its connection with the macrohistorical understanding of the subject but also in the sense of penetrating the nature of the period including its everyday life, which can be (un)surprising in many respects.

As a part of this research, the authors have also published a volume called Socialist Primary School as Seen by Period Witnesses. A Probe into the Lives of Teachers in the South Moravia Region. This is a specific volume as it brings transcripts of several interviews made by the research team as a part of the research. The book also contains a number of documents including documents of personal nature, which illustrate work and lives of teachers before 1989. They are highly original sources. This is the first time some other (archival) documents are being published, bringing their unique testimony of socialist educational system and the life of schools and teachers.

The authors will be happy if both volumes provide inspiration for further research based on similar methodologies as time is passing by fast and witnesses are becoming scarcer.

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