June 22, 2012
It’s a bit of a misnomer that Slovakia is a small country. Sure, it doesn’t have the land mass of Russia, the population of China, or the natural resources of Canada, but Slovaks like to underestimate themselves and use wealth, population, and geographic area as an excuse.
In my opinion the wisest words spoken by American President George W. Bush were when he coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” (here, here, and in many other speeches) Merely holding low expectations for someone indicates that you have a bigoted opinion of that person. Having low expectations implies that a person is something less.
Slovaks tend to place low expectations on themselves. Some like to call Slovakia poor, lamenting that if only it were bigger it would be a better, more successful place. This is despite the fact that approximately 160+ countries in the world are poorer than Slovakia. Additionally, the Bratislava area has one of the 10 highest incomes (in terms of purchasing power) of any other area in Europe, including rural areas of much richer and more well-established countries. Bratislava is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe according to GDP per capita measured in terms of purchasing power for locally produced goods. By this measure, Bratislava and Prague are richer than ANY PART of Austria, Greece, Finland, Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, or Italy.
The International Monetary Fund considers Slovakia to be the 42nd richest country in the world according to per capita GDP (PPP), which it measures as 23, 304. The World Bank considers Slovakia to be the 40th richest country in the world according to per capita GDP (PPP) 23, 303. The CIA considers Slovakia to be the 45th richest country in the world with per capita GDP (PPP) of 23,400. Slovakia’s in the upper 20% of wealthiest countries, with gigantic wealth disparities that make it much, much richer than many other countries in the world.
Some like to make excuses that Slovakia is small, and if only it were bigger, it would be a better, more successful place. It’s worth pointing out that Slovakia (18,932 square miles) is bigger geographically than quite a few “world class” countries – Switzerland (15, 942 square miles), Belgium (11,787 sq mi) (often ridiculed by the French for its tiny size, Belgium is the home to Brussels, the de facto administrative the capital of Europe), Denmark (16, 639 sq mi), the Netherlands (16,033 sq mi), Israel (8,019 sq mi), and Hong Kong (422 sq mi) (I know – not really a country), not to mention much smaller places that have developed considerable success for themselves, such as Taiwan (13, 892 sq mi), Luxembourg (998 sq mi), and Singapore (267 sq mi).
Some like to point out that Slovakia has so few people, and if only there were more, then it would be a better, more successful place. It’s worth pointing out that quite a few well-regarded countries have fewer people than Slovakia such as Denmark (5,432,335), Finland (5,223,442), Ireland (4,015,676), New Zealand (4,035,461), Norway (4,593,041), and Singapore (4,425,720).
Croatia (4,495,904), Jordan (5,759,732), Estonia (1,332,893), Latvia (2,290,237), Libya (5,765,563), Lithuania (3,596,617), Nicaragua (5,465,100), Panama (3,140, 232), and New Guinea (5,545,268) also have smaller populations than Slovakia. There are many more statistics that can be added in support of any of these three points.
So, Slovakia is richer, bigger, and more populous than quite a few well-off countries out there, meaning that none of these issues should be reasons that individual Slovaks should feel held back in life. Plenty of insignificant arguments and statistics can be thrown at me that help excuse failure, help encourage that soft bigotry of low expectations.
We each have our own crosses to bear. Everyone has their own adversities in life, crying about your own adversity is called self-pity, a unique trait of humans, according to the British poet D.H. Lawrence in his very short poem “Self-Pity,” on 52 Weeks in Slovakia . Those who handle adversity with grace are those who we laud. The difference between self-pity and grace is nothing but a simple, self-imposed change of mindset, a simple change of perspective.
It bugs me how often Slovaks tend to underestimate themselves. It’s common for Slovaks to underestimate all things Slovaks. It’s common for Slovaks to underestimate all people Slovak. It’s common for a Slovak to underestimate himself, just because he is Slovak or lives in Slovakia. There’s a strange negative fatalism, a combination of fate and doom commonly present in Slovakia, and it seems much more present in the capital city than anywhere else.
A common question and one asked to quite a few foreigners living in Slovakia daily goes something like this “Why did you come to Slovakia? Because if I lived in American, I definitely wouldn’t come to little Slovakia. I probably wouldn’t even know it exists.” That, by the way, is a direct quotation.
Look at the front cover of the most popular, intellectual-leaning magazine in Slovakia – Tyzden (it is perhaps akin to a TIME or Newsweek of Slovakia) a year ago, one year before the Slovak hockey team stormed ahead and captured the silver medal. “Is Slovak Hockey Dead?” it pessimistically asks, as explained in this article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia.
If that underestimating of oneself were simply an unusual hobby with no affect on the lives of individuals, then there would be nothing wrong with this. However, it is detrimental to anyone involved in and surrounded by such thinking. Having disappointingly low goals ensures only disappointingly low success.
Usually, at this point, I’d come up with some positive advantage of such behavior, but I can’t. I know that during communism it was sometimes the case that metaphorically that the tallest, most successful blades of grass were the ones “cut down” by the metaphorical lawn mowers. So perhaps it can be argued that mediocrity ensured survival. Survival, as argued by Kirschbaum in his 1995 book on the topic, is a unifying theme in Slovak history.
A Role Played By Slovak Universities
Sometimes Americans, having seen too many movies about Eastern Bloc nations, and not really understanding how things work, ask me about the strength of the military in Slovakia and whether the military runs the country. That couldn’t be further from the truth in Slovakia. There are no soldiers on street corners with machine guns, something that would be more likely to be seen in countries West of here. Arguably, the Slovak police might be described as a piece of society that looks like it’s still stuck in the bullying habits of a communist country. There’s an even worse segment though and a very powerful one. A segment of society stuck in the past. It’s the Slovak educational system, with the biggest offenders being Slovak universities. Of any oppressive institution in Slovakia, these are the institutions that are most responsible for preventing individual Slovaks from achieving their full potential in life.
It gets very tiring to get to know really good kids in Slovakia and to see the psychological sabotage that is committed against them by the educational system and by many members of society. By the time many, many Slovaks (especially in Bratislava) graduate from university at the advanced age of 24, 25, or even 26, they have had much of the hope already dashed from them as they spent some of their most vital years jumping through “academic” hoops at bureaucratic institutions. And really, academia in Slovakia is so full of tiring hoops and roadblocks. It’s as if one of the goals of higher education in Slovakia is to simply be more difficult for a student as opposed to being more effective at educating a student.
Nine years of watching that happen is probably starting to have an effect on me, the viewer. It’s among the greatest injustices a country can do to itself to sabotage the plans of its youth. The Slovak educational system, especially at the highest levels, seems to be a method of weeding people out instead of a method of giving people the tools to be more prosperous in their life’s goals.
Yes, academia in Slovakia is a near total mess. If there were but one thing that I believe would drastically improve life today in Slovakia and the future of Slovakia, it is this – the best thing that could be done for the Slovak people would be to cut government funding of all universities. Their screwy function in society – a function that I’m about to describe – would not likely be able to continue in the absence of government support.
Literally every single day in Slovakia, I hear another horror story on the street from some random student of my hundreds of former students and am filled with a new hatred of higher education in Slovakia. Having known and spoken to so many university professors, I recognize what a joke it is to even suggest that reform will work in such an entrenched and unchanging system that has such a chokehold on the decision of who will advance in life and who won’t. There was a time in Slovak society where having one degree or many degrees behind one’s name was a mark of distinction. In fact, one is officially supposed to connect his academic title to his name – on official documents, in signatures, on business cards, on credit cards, on name plates, when running for office, and in many other situations.
Today, those titles are increasingly losing their significance. The importance of these titles and the societal influence conferred on those granting those titles was a tradition from Austro-Hungary that the communists gladly adopted, as it allowed the communists to automatically have greater control of society. If you controlled the university system, then you could instill in it a restrictive, jealous, and petty atmosphere, and simultaneously attract to it the brightest of youth. Once the youth are convinced that they needed to pass through your institution to do anything of meaning in life, you are capable of having a strong hold over the brightest in society and can easily control whether they advance or fail. As the brightest in society were the ones perceived to be the most threatening to the powers that be, this control of universities conveniently allowed for an easy way to monitor and break the independent spirit of talented individuals. That atmosphere, as far as I can tell, continues today 22 years after the fall of the communist government on this land.
Slovak universities are an instrument of subjugation that have outlived the oppressive regimes that gave birth to them and now find themselves trying their best to pretend that they exist to educate. That they generally fail at this, and instead achieve the opposite of educating should be of no shock to anyone in Slovak society. However, nearly everyone treats this information as if it is some kind of impossibility and the academics whisper among themselves “If we admit these universities all suck and are direly in need of reform, then we admit that all of our coveted titles all suck as well, since they were earned under a broken system. We can’t really do that.”
Thankfully, the year is 2012 and there are other options, whether or not the titled and wizened old professors approve. Success in Slovakia, after all, is no longer dependent on the blessings of academic gatekeepers. Young Slovaks are increasingly growing up and wondering if there’s really a point to working all those years jumping through hoops just to have some silly title behind your name. At the same time, foreign institutions annually come into Slovakia and point out how terribly inept the quality of higher education is. Yes, higher education in Slovakia can be very, very difficult. I have no doubt about that. The more important issue is this – is the goal of education to be difficult or to be effective at educating? Difficult does not necessarily have anything to do with the act of educating.
After living in Slovakia long enough and being around enough young Slovaks, you’ll come to realize things like “Wow, that’s the fourth time this week that I heard about a student having to collect the proper paperwork to give to a secretary, only to have the secretary tell that student to get another document, then another, never really helping the student out by telling the student at any one time what the entire protocol of the procedure is,” or “How many times am I going to hear about a professor taking a student’s paper or final exam and deciding to ball it up and fail her just because a certain percentage of students needed to fail? Should I maybe go talk to that professor and tell him what a jerk he is?” The Slovak educational system utterly craps on its students and then smiles at itself when those seemingly tortuous university years are over – proudly patting itself on that back because it did such a good job forming that excited, independent, curious mind into a downtrodden, drone ready to work any form of governmental or corporate job and to diligently take even the silliest orders, because honestly, no matter how silly the orders of a boss are, they can’t possibly be sillier than the orders that were forced upon a student during 5+ years of university studies.
It’s fascinating to watch the success of some of the people who decided to follow their dreams directly out of high school as opposed to those who decided to put off their dreams for five or six years in order to do what society says is appropriate and seek a university degree. I have no scientific studies to back me up, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that going to a Slovak university is the worst thing that almost any Slovak teenager can do with his life.
I wholeheartedly believe that Slovakia would be better without a single government funded university. I don’t just say this because the amount of taxes that go to pay for universities, in fact the costs of schooling to the taxpayer is the least of my concern. Slovak universities are bureaucratic pariahs, feeding on the lifeblood of Slovak youth. That’s my concern. They drain the energy of Slovak youth during that person’s most vital years.
Every time I meet a high school graduate getting ready for a Slovak college, my heart sinks, because I know what the outcome will be on his outlook on life 5 years later. What was once a cheerful eager high school student will turn into, 9 out of 10 times, a person who has seriously been beaten down in life by the age of 25. It’s not the fate of everyone, but it is the fate of so many who attend a Slovak university that I don’t understand how more people do not speak about this fact.
But it’s not just academia. There is a very negative and toxic atmosphere towards dreams of success among many Slovaks. Dreams are often countered with tremendous negativity.
And maybe, I’ve spent too much of my time in Bratislava and have forgotten what the other 90% of Slovaks are like. Maybe it’s this city and not this country that are so good at quashing the youthful dreams of the younger generation. I once spent many of my weekends in villages, which often had the effect of softening the way I speak Slovak, left me with better perspective on the week ahead, and a closer appreciation for all parts of Slovakia away from Bratislava. That cop-out is probably an intellectually lazy one though; I don’t think the answer is as simple as “Bratislava is not really Slovakia,” but Bratislava offers further examples of the “Slovakia is too small” bigotry of low expectations.
Bratislava seeks to be second-rate in so many ways. Its city administration tries to artificially advertise it as a second city to Vienna, which is an hour away, even issuing a magazine called “The Twin City Journal.” That’s merely one example, but one that too many in the capital city have ingrained in their head “The capital city of our country (and by extension our entire country) is little more than a suburb of Vienna.” Give a government-funded advertising budget to people like that and others might just start to believe the same foolish thing.
I hope that second-rate will never be good enough for me and it pains me to constantly see the message pounded into the heads of so many Slovaks that their dreams will never come true and they will never be anything but second-rate. Because I know that once you believe that about yourself, there is nothing better that will come of you.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.