Schools Are Lacking Courses on Civic Competence

According to Julian Gerhart, schools are in serious need of courses on civic competence. Five years ago, he founded, an educational website, along with his friends, and has since received the Aspen CE Madeleine K. Albright Leadership Award in 2023.

Robert Schuster discusses with Julian Gerhart the project –  a platform of short educational videos – and its reception by teachers in Slovakia, along with his views on the importance of continuing education and personal growth.

What led you to the creation of

It was born out of frustration shared by six young people who wanted to bring about a change in Slovakia’s education system. What we wanted was to create content that would be relatable and useful to young people, providing information that could have a tangible impact on their lives. We were under no illusions that we could reform the entire education system, but we also didn’t want to be complacent and simply voice our dissatisfaction without offering solutions as is so often done. So an idea was born to create educational clips for young people that speak in their language, are visually appealing and cover topics that are important for them. For example, how to write a resume, how to cope with stress, how not to get lost in the jungle of social media and feel actually safe there – along with many other topics that young people might not consider of great importance, yet which can truly change their life.

Have you been involved in education before or did you study pedagogy?

None of us studied pedagogy. We were simply frustrated and decided to do something about it. Although we are not experts in the educational field, we come from diverse walks of life and are able to bring relevant experience to the table. Some of us know how to code and then are able to maintain our web presence, others are able to edit videos and ensure the content is put together in a professional way. We do consult educational experts and all the content is created with their guidance to assure its quality and validity.

Have you been inspired by any similar projects from around the world?

American Khan Academy is probably our biggest influence. Simply put, it is a platform that contains hundreds of videos, mostly focused on science, mathematics and so forth. It differs from in terms of its topics, but the guiding principle is very similar – light, entertaining videos that broach somewhat difficult subjects and make them accessible. So that is where we drew our inspiration from and then tried to tailor its methods to the reality of Slovakia.

How has your portal been received?

I dare say the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. The teachers are grateful for obtaining access to engaging content that they can genuinely work with in the classroom. It frequently happens to be the case that our videos deal with current real world subject matter for which there are no textbooks, for example, the Covid pandemic or the war in Ukraine. Of course there are people who criticize us for the very fact that we introduce current affairs, controversial for some, into the classroom despite us doing everything we can to remain impartial and apolitical. There are some who offer constructive criticism, and then there are others who only leave negative comments. What we try to do is learnhow to improve from the feedback and at the same time protect our mental health.

Are there any topics that  you have come to deem especially relevant?

It’s the overarching theme of media literacy that we have come to regard as extremely important and relevant. Starting with fake news, disinformation campaigns and hoaxes and leading to civic competence in general.

It is a new concept for all of us; we have to overcome the schematic thinking of the past when ‘civics’ was something way below all important math or English, a class when one could take a nap and a passing grade was all but guaranteed. This does not apply only to the students, by the way, but to the teachers as well. The change I would like to bring about is to shake things up quite radically and start with civic competence as the most important subject. It does not really matter if we have a highly STEM competent populace if they go to the elections and vote for the first populist they happen to come across.

Civic competence and literacy do not feature prominently in our schools, on the contrary, they do not feature at all. That is what I would like to change – that it is seen as being as important as other subjects.

What is, in your opinion, the biggest problem of education in Slovakia?

Where to start? If I had to pick one, then it would be the further education of our teachers, or rethinking the whole concept of teachers’ growth. They are the ones who can bring about change. It does not really matter if they have notebooks, tablets or other fancy technologies. If the teacher is really good, then he or she can really inspire the kids. We can go down the memory lane ourselves and pinpoint which lessons we liked and which teacher changed our life for the better, or the worse. And If I ever had a good chemistry teacher then it might have been him who made me pursue chemistry further. So it is teachers then who are the fundamental driving force of quality education, and if we do not value them sufficiently, be it monetarily or psychologically, if we do not motivate them, then stagnation is inevitable and the quality of education suffers.

Do teachers view your project differently based on their age or whether they are in cities or rural areas?

We do not gather data for an exact analysis but I do have to say that there does not seem to be a simple formula, be it demographic or otherwise. We are often pleasantly surprised that it is in some quite remote areas where our project is accepted very well by the teachers. Maybe it is due to the fact that there are fewer options available. It does not depend on age either. We often have positive feedback from the older generation of teachers, so I would say it really goes case by case.

Slovakia formed a new government this past Fall. What are your expectations when it comes to its educational policies?

Our expectations are not modest, and we believe a quality education should be a priority of any government.

Education will only improve if all the stakeholders are present and active; not only from grass root initiatives similar to ours, but from the top as well. It does need time though, Rome was not built in a day.

There is a pronounced tendency in the current government coalition to view the NGO sector rather suspiciously, namely due to financing, possible foreign influence and so on. Aren’t you afraid it might negatively impact your future plans?

It certainly is something we actively discuss at the moment, yet rhetoric is one thing, reality another. Most of the time we try to filter out noise, focus on our work and simultaneously look after our mental health. If there will be new legislation that would attempt to limit our activities in any way, we will adapt.

What we say to ourselves is that if teachers see an added value in what we do, and use our site in their classrooms, then they will continue to do so in the future irregardless of a new government.

That might change if some new restrictive rules are enacted which would limit  the use of our materials – we will deal with that only if it really happens. Our job remains the same, to produce an added value that enriches the classroom experience.

So far your project has been focused solely on Slovakia. Do you plan to expand to other countries of Central Europe, be it Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic?

That is a secret dream of mine. We have had some offers and opportunities, yet we feel there is still a lot of work to be done, that we have not got far enough. We do often find ourselves going down a rabbit hole, in the sense that the further we dig the more problems and opportunities we see – either on our end, or in general. So unless we feel that we have put enough work in then it does not really make much sense to go somewhere else. There must be some sort of a “mission accomplished” consensus.

You are currently studying at Oxford University in the UK, and your colleagues are based in Slovakia. What is your take on education over there – are there any lessons for Central Europe?

There are lessons and inspirations for sure. It needs to be said that the amount of investment into education in the UK does not bear comparison with Slovakia. In that regard, it is another world. We cannot build another Slovak Oxford with the budget we have. On the other hand, the main thing I hear from my colleagues who have studied in Slovakia is that their professors seem somewhat detached from reality, as they typically spend their active professional life solely in academia. This is different from what I have experienced at universities in Denmark, Canada or the UK. Maybe that is what we need to start doing in Slovak academia – bring in people with wider life experiences.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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