Ludek Novak, Executive Director, New School Foundation

Ludek NovakExecutive DirectorNadace Nova Skola/New School Foundation
Stories Exchange Project 2000: Workshop IEastWest InstitutePrague6 December 1999
I would like to talk about people’s ability to learn. I will be very conservative and start with a story. Why not? This is the Stories Exchange Project.
Three stories, in fact. One happened to me; the second comes from the American president Harry Truman; the third is a story of a man who made himself.
Until 1997 I was a clerk in the financial office in Nymbur, later in Prague 4. And then I had an experience that turned my life around.
One day I found in Mlada Fronta or Lidove Noviny a short annoucement by an organization called Volunteers for the United Nations. They were looking forpeople to monitor the elections in Bosnia, people who had experience with Czech elections – which I had – and an active knowledge of English: this was more problematic but I believed that I could do it.
I had good luck, and was chosen to do two two-week missions as an election commissioner.
So then I was learning, first to overcome my fear of flying: I had never been in a plane before. And in Zagreb I had to speak English all the time.
All the training was in English. We were connected by this language. But the volunteers were from many countries. I counted: there were representatives of twenty-two countries in Europe, and North America. So there were many other languages. I didn’t speak them, but the other people did. What was important was that I was meeting people with different ways of seeing the world and what was happening in Bosnia.
For the first time in my life I realized that that I am not alone in this world, that there are many other people and that I should respect them and learn how to live with them. That was important, because I didn’t agree with some of them.
And I had to learn to be responsible – for things I do, and for things I don’t do.
That was what I learned in Bosnia.
The second thing I would like to talk about is something President Truman said. I think it was in 1946. The Cold War had not gone very far yet, but it was clear that the US and the USSR could not keep the fragile friendship they had been forced into by the Second World War. So Harry Truman said: “we have to learn how to live together if we don’t want to die.”
I am telling you this story to show that we can’t lock up education in schools. Education is very complex: it’s the process of our whole lives. I think that this is important because here, in the Czech Republic, we talk a lot about education, about institutional, official education, official education: we talk about schools. Schools which suffered for fifty years during Communism, and before that Nazism. Schools which weren’t perfect during the First Republic either – and absolutely not during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
We cannot destroy schools, but we can change them by developing alternative programs.
I found this way of working at Nova Skola: I didn’t know it before. We look into problems and try to develop solutions, find information, work with the Internet – and learn other foreign languages besides English. Because English isn’t enough: we have to find ways of communicating and working in teams with other people.
For me that means that we talk about initiative. If we do not take the initiative, we may want to change the schools but we can do nothing and the schools will never change.
Fnially, I would like to tell you a short progressive, positive story about a Czech journalist. He had never been in an English-speaking country before and he did not study journalism, but today he is a reporter for Newsweek. He is someone who set a goal for himself and achieved it. He has drive and initiative and that is how he got where he is today. I admire him: he is an example for me.
His story is also an example of something that could be called experiential education: learning by experience.
This includes drama therapy.
None of these alternative educational strategies are widely known in the Czech Republic. All the information which you can find on the Internet is in English or German. But these methods are becoming part of the curriculum of many universities in Great Britain, the U.S., Switzerland, and Germany.
Experiential education emphasizes individual initiative, independence, and responsibility. I am convinced that these principles are the bases of free and democratic society, that they will enable us to become free citizens of free societies. Politicians have talked a lot about freedom during the last ten years, but behind their words there was none of the activity which I am proposing.
As a start in this direction, I can recommend the New York University Website. It focuses on intercultural communication, a subject which is, I think, very important for the Romani community. The National Center of Romani Press in Budapest is one of the participants.
Another is the Robert Kennedy project at the University of Zurich. This is an on-line form of studying. You communicate with your professors via the Internet, and do not have to go to Zurich.
Some of you may know too the Open University in Great Britain, which works in a similar way.
No one gave me this information. I just sat down and found it on the Internet.
Education is the only solution for the so-called Romani problem – which is not a problem at all – and for the whole society. And education is not only about getting information: it is also about finding a way to yourself, about understanding yourself, discovering your identity. If education goes in this direction it can benefit the whole society. It is all about individual initiative. It’s not about someone at the top saying that something has to be this way or that: it’s about people wanting something themselves – and doing it.