Polish schools and nationalism

These are our comments on an article we find misleading. We submitted it to Nationalities Paper. Initially, they seemed to be interested. But ultimatetly they decided not to publish it, so we post it here. We think that every journal should have regular comment section. There is no science without debate and criticism.

Krzysztof Jaskułowski, Piotr Majewski, Comments on the article by Piotr Żuk (2018) Nation, National Remembrance, and Education – Polish Schools as Factories of Nationalism and Prejudice, Nationalities Papers DOI: 10.1080/00905992.2017.1381079

The author of the article “describes and attempts to explain to the conservative and nationalist character of Polish schools.” (Żuk 2018, 1) His aim is to show the mechanisms of “using the educational system to legitimize and political order” in Poland (Żuk 2018, 1). He focuses on governing the far-right Law and Justice Party and its educational policy, claiming that it revives 19th century nationalism. He also sees similarities between the inter-war Polish educational policy (1918-1939) and communist indoctrination (1944-1989) on the one hand, and the policy of Law and Justice on the other. According to him, both the inter-war Polish nation-state and the communist Polish People’s Republic drew on nationalist mythology to enhance their power. In his opinion, Law and Justice, by imposing a top-down reform, transforms Polish schools into “factories of nationalims and prejudice.” He argues that Polish schools “are steeped in the spirit of ethnocentrism and nationalism, and thus strengthen national myths.” (Żuk 2018, 1) He further claims that Polish schools produce “xenophobia and nationalism.” (Żuk 2018, 15) The author warns that “the combination of nationalism, conservatism, and religious fundamentalism that prevails in Polish schools can produce individuals who will be fearful of new ideas, reluctant to cultural differences and above all, which cope poorly with the challenges of modernity.” (Żuk 2018, 13).

We share the author’s fears and aversion to the policy of Law and Justice. The academic article, however, should be more than just an expression of opposition and contempt. In other words, outrage toward Law and Justice’s policy should not replace its analysis. Unfortunately, the article presents a very cursory and superficial analysis and does not say much about what is actually going on in Polish schools. On the one hand, the article exaggerates nationalism in Polish schools; on the other, it diminishes the issue because it does not show the context of Law and Justice policy. The weakness of the article is attributable to a lack of clear methodological and theoretical foundations.

First of all, the author provides no analysis of actual school practices. He says nothing about what is really happening in Polish classrooms. The author cites only anecdotal cases, such as press articles describing particular cases of racism and nationalism in schools. In one example of anecdotal evidence, the author writes that a large percentage of priests support pre-war-like Polish nationalism, without any empirical research to support this view. Instead, he quotes excerpts from an article authored by a nationalist priest, published in a niche regional Catholic magazine. Although the author makes a number of comments about schools, his article focuses mainly on the statements by some Law and Justice politicians. The reasoning behind his selection of the analyzed statements is unclear. For example, why does his analysis exclude statements by the Ministry of National Education? Why does the analysis reject new core curriculum for primary schools, the first version of which was published in December 2016? The author refers to public opinion surveys concerning the perceived role of schools, but again makes no mention of actual school practices. For example, the survey showed that 62% of respondents said that schools teach patriotism, but we cannot infer from this fact that the schools actually teach patriotism or, if they do, what kind of patriotism they teach.

In principle, the article focuses not on what is happening in Polish schools, but what Law and Justice politicians would like to have happen. However, there is a large divide between politicians’ declarations and school practice. It is difficult to discuss how school education looks in practice by drawing on politicians’ statements, since it would imply a very simplified model of school education. It would imply that school education is akin to a “conveyor belt” for directives from the top of the state, as if the ideas formulated by politicians are neatly translated into school practice. From a theoretical point of view, this perspective is naive since it overlooks the active role of teachers, who may interpret core curriculum in various ways. For example, teachers use state-commissioned textbooks to varying extents in the classroom and can also introduce extra curriculum material. The article also fails to take into account recent research into Polish education, which demonstrates that teachers are capable of modifying the curriculum or textbooks according to their own needs, identities, and interests. One cannot assume that they are passive textbook users, not to mention the passive executors of the politicians’ will (Jaskulowski and Surmiak 2017; Jaskulowski, Majewski, and Surmiak 2018). Sometimes, as in the case of some teachers in Upper Silesian schools, teachers deliberately undermine and reject the dominant polonocentric nationalist narratives – not to mention students’ reception of school teaching (Jaskulowski and Majewski 2017).

The author’s analysis lacks a nuanced context and is unsupported by literature researching nationalism in the Polish education system. The author does not present his own systematic empirical research on schools. He also does not draw on existing empirical studies dealing with textbooks, atlases, curricula, and teacher practices and attitudes in the context of nationalism (e. g. Ambrosiewicz-Jacobs and Szuchta 2014; Gross 2011; Kamusella 2010; Kania 2015; Kowalski 2008; Popow 2015). As mentioned previously the author does not analyze the new core curriculum and does not compare it with the old curricula that were in force before Law and Justice came to power.

The article seems to suggest that the Law and Justice policy is a revolution in educational policy. While the reconstruction of the school structure (restoration of the 8-year-old primary school) has actually met with teacher protests, the changes in the core curriculum (for example more focus on the Polish nation) have been welcomed by some teachers, as some previous studies suggest (e.g. Jaskulowski and Surmiak 2017; Jaskulowski, Majewski, and Surmiak 2018). Thus, the author overestimates the power of nationalism in Polish schools by ignoring the agency of teachers who do not always follow the instructions and ideological demands of politicians. While doing this, the author simultaneously underestimates the continuity in Polish educational policy between 1989 and 2015 (the year Law and Justice gained power). With regard to the Institute of National Remembrances, it mentions only the school chambers of national remembrance and some student competitions organized by this institution. But, the analysis is rather superficial. It mentions nothing about the number of schools participating in these programs, the attitudes of teachers, nor the reception among pupils. The article suggests that Law and Justice policy is a break of continuity. In other words, it suggests that the party is trying to force nationalism into schools as a new policy. Previous research, however, suggests that nationalism was constantly present in Polish schools after 1989, although it did not always have the form that Law and Justice prefers, i.e. ethnic and authoritarian (e.g. Popow 2015). In light of relevant literature, it would be more reasonable to claim that PiS policy is a radicalization of already-existing tendencies.

Additionally, although the author criticizes methodological nationalism – a term coined not by Ulrich Beck, but by Herminio Martins (1974; Smith 1983) – he himself is not free from looking at history through the nationalist lens. For example, he writes that Poland “regained independence” (Żuk 2018, 2) in 1918 and that Poland was “deprived of statehood for 123 years.” (Żuk 2018, 14). However, in this way he unreflectively reproduces the conventional and ideologically-driven narrative about continuity in Polish history (Kamusella 2012; 2017; Snyder 2003). This taken-for-granted narrative uncritically assumes a continuation between two very different political entities: early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the modern Polish nation-state, the Second Polish Republic (Snyder 2003). This approach ignores such forms of Polish statehood as the Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Poland in the first half of the 19th century. In other words, it was not Poland that lost independence, but the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. We are not talking here about different names but, more importantly, about different realities that stand behinds these names, i.e. a pre-modern political entity and a modern one.

The pre-modern nobleman Commonwealth was something like a “federation of folwarks” (Zajączkowski 1993). It was ruled by multiethnic nobility who defined themselves in terms of social and legal status, not in terms of common ethnicity or cultural identity. The nobility thought that it had different ethnic origins from – as we would say today – “ethnically Polish” peasants. The nobility identified themselves as “Sarmatians” who invaded the ethnically-different local population and turned them into serfs (Kizwalter 1999). The peasants generally did not consider themselves to be Poles; instead, they defined themselves in terms of locality, religion, and occupation (i.e. as local Catholic peasants) (Łuczewski 2012). Even at the beginning of the 20th century, many peasants did not want independence because they were afraid that serfdom would return (Molenda 1999). The conventional narrative overlooks these differences and uncritically assumes continuity between the pre-modern, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Second Polish Republic. At the same time, it fails to notice the significance of the Duchy of Warsaw and the first modern Polish state – the Kingdom of Poland (Mażewski 2011).

It is also difficult to agree with the claim that “Polish nationalism is not political.” (Żuk 2018, 13). Let us note that the author seems to identify Polish nationalism with Law and Justice’s nationalism. There are, however, many different versions of Polish nationalism, as Andrzej Walicki (1991) has researched and analyzed. More importantly, however, the author seems to confuse political and civic nationalism. Law and Justice’s nationalism is not civic, but it is political.

Some of the main elements of Law and Justice’s ideology are independence and sovereignty. In other words, Law and Justice’s ideology is about the nation being a sovereign political community. However, this community is not understood as a community of free and equal citizens who hold certain inalienable rights. Law and Justice locate the source of sovereignty in a reified nation united by common culture, ethnicity, and religion. This is an authoritarian ideology resting on the reified notion of community, which introduces inherent inequality between a few members of the nation who speak on the behalf on the nation (its tradition, will, or interest) and the rest who must obey or will be disciplined (Jaskulowski and Kilias 2016).

To sum up, contrary to its title and objectives, the article does not say much about Polish schools. The paper focuses mainly on the declarations of politicians. It says almost nothing about how these declarations are translated into school practice. Moreover, there is no systematic analysis of politicians’ statements, which appear to be randomly selected. There are only a few anecdotal examples of nationalism and racism in schools, supported by superficial analysis. The article makes no mention of previous research on Polish education. As a consequence, its analysis lacks context. It wrongly suggests that Law and Justice policy is revolutionary and ignores the problem of continuity with previous governments’ policies. The author seems to reduce nationalism mainly to Law and Justice politics, while this party presents only one of many types of Polish nationalism. The article lacks clear methodological and theoretical foundations. We mainly learn from the paper that the author is opposed to Law and Justice. So are we. This alone, however, is insufficient for an academic article.


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Gross, Magdalena. 2011. “Rewriting the Nation: World War II Narratives in Polish History Textbooks.” International Perspectives on Education and Society 14: 213–245.

Jaskulowski, Krzysztof, and Jaroslaw Kilias. 2016. Polityka nacjonalistycznej rewolucji [The Politics of Nationalist Revolution]. Studio Opinii. Accessed 3 April 2018. http://studioopinii.pl/archiwa/164532.

Jaskulowski, Krzysztof, and Piotr Majewski.2017 “Politics of Memory in Upper Silesian Schools: Between Polish Homogenous Nationalism and Its Silesian Discontents.” Memory Studies. Advance online publication.doi: 10.1177/1750698017741933.

Jaskulowski, Krzysztof, and Adrianna Surmiak. 2017. “Teaching History, Teaching Nationalism: A Qualitative Study of History Teachers in a Polish Post-Industrial Town.” Critical Studies in Education 58 (1): 36–51.

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