The History of the Civic Education Project

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“In the summer of 1990, six months after the fall of the Berlin wall and the revolutions that swept Central and Eastern Europe, I was in Prague where I met with some professors from Charles University and the Prague School of Economics. Most had been newly designated as professors of economics or political science. “You’re an American social scientist?” one asked me . “From Harvard? Would you be willing to come teach next semester?” It was an unusual request for a 60-year-old professor to ask of a 26-year-old graduate student. I politely declined, citing my own research plans, but promised to try to find a friend who could.

Some weeks later, I met a friend from my undergraduate years, Bill Antholis. I shared with Bill the request I had received. He, too, had made commitments for the next semester, so could not come. However, the more we talked, the more we realized that there was a real need for outside assistance as universities throughout the region sought to transform former departments of Marxism-Leninism into modern political science, economics and sociology departments. As we talked, gradually the outlines of what is now the Civic Education Project took shape. Bill returned shortly thereafter to Yale University, where he was a graduate student, with the mission of securing Yale’s sponsorship for the initiative. I returned to Washington, D.C., for a few brief months that fall, with the aim of securing financial backing for a Civic Education Project. At the time, though there was in the United States great interest in and excitement about Central and Eastern Europe, few foundations or other organizations were prepared to make major commitments in the region. I made dozens of phone calls, but though I received many kind words of encouragement, I was miserably unsuccessful.

I remember vividly my frustration and despair. Why was I wasting my time on such an unrealistic and quixotic idea? My then fiancée (now wife) and her roommates with whom I was living, would get dressed every morning and go off to work, while I sat alone at home making my phone calls. Why hadn’t I instead worked these couple of months and earned some money to help pay for the upcoming year of research in Prague? It was a period of great self-doubt.

A few days before I returned to Prague, I had a meeting in New York that changed everything. A woman named Wendy Luers, who ran an organization that was then called the Charter 77 Foundation listened intently to what I had to say and instantly liked the idea. She recognized the great need for such a project. She arranged a meeting for me with George Soros,
the financier and philanthropist.

On the eve of my return to Czechoslovakia, Bill and I met with Mr. Soros in his Manhattan office located in a very elegant office building overlooking Central Park. He was at first quite skeptical about the idea, but offered to provide a few thousand dollars to get the project started.

In academic year 1991–92, the first year of the project’s operation, CEP brought over 15 American lecturers to teach at eight universities. With George Soros’s encouragement and funding, the project was then expanded to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine the following year with 75 lecturers teaching in all. At the outset we conceived CEP’s mission to be to provide Central and Eastern European University students with western-style introductory courses in economics, political science, sociology and law until local teachers emerged to fill the gap.

We were a bit surprised then by the reactions of students to the first classes taught by CEP lecturers. We had focused on the materials to be taught – the importance of exposing students to the Western canon of thought that begins with Plato and Aristotle and runs through Dewey, Rawls and Focault – without thinking about the revolutionary nature of the method of teaching that these western-trained lecturers would bring with them. I remember sitting in on one of CEP’s very first classes and watching students’ awestruck reaction as their CEP lecturer, a young woman not more than five years older than they, sat down casually at a desk in front of them and began to ask them their views regarding the day’s topic. Her informal style, her lack of pretense, and her interest in them and their views flabbergasted the students. Other CEP lecturers soon reported much the same reactions from their students. It was clear that many students had never been asked their opinions before. Similarly, few had had the experience of being assigned projects before, where they had to take responsibility for putting something together themselves, from start to finish.

The institutions that Stalin imposed upon Central and Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union transformed these societies, in that they became authoritarian in the extreme. The central committee of the communist party took decisions large and small and little dissent was tolerated. Individuals who dared to express their own views found themselves blacklisted and even imprisoned, their children prevented from attending university, and their actions closely watched by the secret police and an extensive network of informers.

The enduring legacy of these years is populaces who are distrustful of others, unaccustomed to and even fearful of expressing their own opinions, and habituated to having life decisions large and small dictated by others – in essence, societies permeated by vertical social relations. This mentality, I would argue, remains the greatest obstacle to democratic development and economic growth in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. To flourish, democracies require a spirit of reciprocity among individuals, free debate and collective rather than directive decision-making. Likewise, these same characteristics are the prerequisites for economic success in a highly competitive, knowledge-based global economy. As the rise in lean manufacturing over the last two decades demonstrates, the marketplace rewards companies and countries where decisions percolate from the bottom up rather than the top down.

This has been the most overlooked aspect of the transitions underway in post-communist societies. Much attention has been paid to the institutional framework of reform. The United States and West European governments have spent billions of dollars to send western advisors to the region to advise governments on how to liberalize markets, rewrite constitutions and legal codes, and privatize state-owned firms. Much less attention has been paid to civic education or education more generally. In fact, throughout the region, education budgets have been slashed significantly., University salaries have not kept up with those of other professionals.

In the last few years, there has been a rediscovery of the importance of civil society and some attention and resources devoted to ensuring its development. However, these efforts have been informed by a rather formalistic or mechanistic view of civil society. It is important that associations of various kinds – from environmental groups to boys’ clubs – be allowed to grow and prosper. They can serve as an important counterweight to government and thereby be a bulwark against tyranny.

But what is most critical to the long-term health of a democracy is the development of individuals who can think and act independently, individuals who are capable of processing the wealth of information that exists in this information age and arriving at informed judgements, with the skills and self-confidence to act upon these judgements. Ultimately, the critical intellectual, the social activist and the informed citizens constitute the most effective guarantors of a prosperous democracy.

I believe that the cultivation of such individuals should be the true mission of the Civic Education Project.”

Excerpts from Dr. Stephen R. Grand’s
keynote address at the Local Faculty Fellows
Roundtable, Ukraine, May 1999.

CEP started in 1991 with
15 Visiting Faculty Fellows in Czechoslovakia.
In 1998, CEP supported over 200 Fellows
in 19 countries.

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