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Shakespeare Abroad: Building Educational Reform In Europe

by Matt Barron

In an attempt to expose students in Central and Eastern Europe to a broader liberal arts education, the University of Warsaw has invited the University of Saskatchewan to participate in the �Great Books' series, a new international partnership that sees U of S English professors teaching classic literature abroad.

The gifted students sat in a Warsaw classroom and, in various states of disbelief, stared at the assignment papers Judith Rice Henderson had just returned to them.

During this two-week seminar last April, a small assignment was designed to help these Central and Eastern European students find trustworthy Shakespeare sources online, since after this seminar, some of the students would be returning to universities with scant, under-funded library resources. The assignment would also show just how closely Henderson, a U of S English professor and Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences, would be marking the major research paper she expected them to email her after the seminar. And this it did; comments burst from almost every paragraph of every emailed page.

Instead of taking offense, many of the students-ranging from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates, from Poland and East Germany to Belarus and Ukraine-were grateful, Henderson says.

Henderson's Shakespeare seminar was one of the many offerings aimed at gifted students as part of a university-driven movement-not only within Poland, but also in Central and Eastern European countries-to reform post-secondary education in their respective countries. Throughout the 1990s, networks of the best universities in these countries were strung together to give gifted students the opportunity to break out of the confines of the current system. By dipping into other disciplines, gifted students can work to avoid narrow specializations-a hangover from a time when the shadow of the Iron Curtain lay over the region.

Judith Henderson in Old Town Warsaw's Castle Square

Judith Henderson in Old Town Warsaw's Castle Square

In countries now fractured from the former Soviet Union, and Poland to a lesser extent, independent thinking in the educational system proved quite constrained, especially prior to the 1980s. This lack of free thinking was a product of the system itself, points out Jerzy Axer, a University of Warsaw classics scholar.

In Poland, bureaucrats rather than academics oversaw the organization of the academy and, therefore, the quality of education. Although there was some freedom of research, "freedom of teaching and freedom of organizing the academy was very limited," Axer says. "And east from Poland, in the Ukraine and Belarus, it was much worse. It was a very difficult situation for independent thinking."

In the 1970s, Axer practiced as a classics scholar, specializing in what he calls the very conservative field of Roman literature. Figuring he'd spend the rest of his academic days "in the ivory towers isolated from reality," as he puts it, he was made a dean in 1980. "I then realized just how bad the educational system was," he says.

By 1989, Axer had become a research fellow, and decided to use his authority to erect a self-governing organization within the University of Warsaw, one free to select its own staff, its own foreign university partners, and organize its own research. As the director of The Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition in Poland and East-Central Europe, Axer called on the best universities in the region to splice themselves into a network. Universities would strengthen the web and in return, themselves, by pooling their strengths. Created were programs that concentrate on forging interdisciplinary links, both within and between Polish universities-and among Polish and Eastern and Central European countries. The University of Saskatchewan is one of the few universities outside the region that Axer is working to weave into this network; Harvard University has also expressed interest in joining.

Dr. Jerzy Axer speaking at a conference as President of the International Society for the History of Rhetoric

As part of their Ukrainian studies program, both the U of S and St. Thomas More College are sending students to the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. The U of S has also wound a new Eastern European study stream into its international studies program, and is working to set up student exchanges with universities in the region. Axer says that he's considering sending students from the University of Warsaw to the U of S; perhaps, he says, a student studying native peoples in Europe looking to broaden her study to include Canadian First Nations.

Next year, U of S professors David Parkinson, and the following year Camille and William Slights, will travel to Poland to teach Shakespeare's histories and comedies respectively.

All this intellectual cross-pollination is part of an experiment, a "gamble for changing the educational system," as Axer puts it. He is quick to admit the difficulty of helping gifted students shrug off the mentality for specialization for a more interdisciplinary approach-and of helping students, especially those in the former Soviet Union, shrug off "group think" for independent thought. Like old ghosts, vestiges of the thought prevalent in the former educational system sometimes emerge in classes, no matter how intellectually gifted the students are.

Fifteen years after The Wall fell, Poland entered another chapter of its history on May 1, 2004: its long-awaited entrance into the European Union. This entrance coincided with the European Summit, triggering the descent of thousands of police into the streets of Warsaw. There was concern about riots-the Polish government hoped to prevent what it most feared upon entering the EU; that is, clashes between those sympathetic to the EU and those sympathetic to the former Communist regime.

And this just happened to be the week of Henderson's seminar.

Because of its proximity to the summit's venue, the University of Warsaw shut its doors tight for four days. This meant that Henderson's seminar had to be moved to the Hotel Hera, located in the diplomatic district where the students were staying. One day, as she finished a class at the hotel, an administrator at the University of Warsaw phoned her and said, "Get to your car right away because they're closing the road!" Fortunately, Henderson managed to make it before the road was closed.

German, Ukranian, Hungarian, and Polish students discussing Hamlet during a seminar at Hotel Hera

German, Ukranian, Hungarian, and Polish students discussing Hamlet during a seminar at Hotel Hera

The protests in Warsaw that week were largely peaceful, but they showed how history is still very much a force in the region. Its force was also felt in Henderson's makeshift classroom at the Hotel Hera. Henderson expected her students to write a paper on one of the three tragedies she had time to teach: Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet.

One student wrote an argument that Hamlet was fighting bourgeoisie values, but Henderson says she had been showing the students all along that Hamlet had been working to "find his way in a corrupt court." In her comments on the student's paper, Henderson pointed out that she couldn't think of any characters in the play who could be called bourgeois or middle class. The student had been "drawing on some Soviet criticism," she says.

A psychology student interpreted Iago, the villain in Othello, as a psychopath. "What I liked about these students-and I didn't bring it to them, they brought it to the seminar-was the way they were themselves bringing together ideas from their various courses and that's what [the educational reform] is encouraging them to do."

Axer also noted the students' ability to do this. But he points out that students' grasp of history-a major part of Soviet-era education-has suffered dramatically since The Wall fell and independent thinking arose. This was one of the reasons Henderson was asked to couch her teaching of Shakespeare in the historical era in which the plays were set. But, Axer says, despite Henderson's cogent attempts to get the students to appreciate the 16th and 17th-century history that informs the plays, during the first week the students kept resisting.

The current lack of interest in history is, to some extent, Axer concedes, a global phenomenon. But it's also a regional crisis of historical identity, where students express their freedom by ignoring history.

"In Canada, it may be different because it's a society of so many different elements," he says. "But in countries like Poland and Russia, historical memory was a very important reference point, especially in countries which were under occupation. So when the country became free, it became free from history, also. So for a teacher, it's a very interesting situation. In my generation, history was one of the most beloved and important things."

In the case of Henderson's seminar, Axer said he was pleased with the students' grades on their research papers. Despite the comments sprawling over each page, only one of the 24 students in the seminar failed, and the marks were in the higher range. And Henderson says the students were operating at what would be called the honours level in the Canadian system, despite working in a language not their own.

But most important, Axer stresses, was the fact that the students were engaging the text closely, carefully; were considering historical context; were receiving the benefit of Henderson's meticulous scrutiny.

"Normally in our traditional education in this post-Soviet space, professors devote insufficient time to students," he says. "They are giving marks without explaining anything. Only very rarely do they work with the student to make the essay better." This stems from the tradition of placing more emphasis on writing examinations than on writing research papers.

One tradition proved a bit of a shock for Henderson: the students were extremely eager to engage in class discussions, a stark contrast to many of her students at the U of S who, she says, sit back and too often try to hide under the perch of their ball caps once discussion sessions start. And when it was time for these seminar students to divide themselves into smaller groups for discussion, "they brilliantly organized themselves, with the skill of people who are used to being in board rooms. I've never seen the like of the leadership of these students."