Belgrade’s Tenth Gymnasium was a well-proportioned neoclassical building in a leafy park three miles from the city center.  Built by King Alexander shortly before his ill-fated trip to Marseilles, it bore his name until the Partisans’ victory in 1945 and was considered a very good secondary school.  Many of its students came from the provinces on state-assisted scholarships, and its diploma—obtained after a grueling final exam known as the Matura (equivalent to Germany’s Abitur or France’s Baccalaureat)—practically guaranteed the graduate’s entry into university.

Before World War II, it was not uncommon for university professors, especially in the junior ranks (assistants and “dozents”), to supplement their usually meager incomes with grammar-school contract-teaching positions.  After the war, for many who did not join the Communist Party, this was the only professional option left, as insistence on Party membership was not nearly as strong in secondary education as it was in the academy.  In the 60’s and 70’s, by the time they were nearing retirement, some of these people were not only mature educators but first-class intellectuals who derived real pleasure from nurturing in their more talented charges the sense of beauty, truth, and goodness that was independent of, and even at odds with, the official ideology.

By the time I attended the Tenth Gymnasium, a quarter of a century of communist neglect was everywhere in evidence.  Ornate mosaic tiles in the corridors, when lost or damaged, were replaced by plain white ones or simply patched up with cement.  The intricate plasterwork on the 18-foot classroom ceilings was cracking, oak parquets were darkened beyond recognition, and massive cast-iron radiators hissed angrily under the pressure needed to keep us warm on wintry mornings.  The burgeoning ranks of baby boomers required two shifts, from 8:00 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. for about 300 freshmen and sophomores and from 2:00 P.M. to 7:30 P.M. for almost as many juniors and seniors, with six 45-minute classes divided by four short breaks and one long intermission.  The student-to-teacher ratio was high, nearing 30 to one, and high-tech gadgetry was limited to one 35-mm. film projector, one stereo turntable, and one slide projector—for the entire school.

It was, nevertheless, a good school; by the standards of public education in the United States today, it was superb.  Many of its old-fashioned teachers (then called “professors”) believed that their role was to teach, not to interact.  They used the polite vous form when addressing people half a century their junior but had no qualms about telling a wanting student—and his parents—that he was unfit for the Gymnasium and should transfer to a vocational school instead.  They considered the Gymnasium education a privilege to be earned—and, in my time, it was a privilege enjoyed by no more than one fifth of all primary-school graduates.  The grading system was unabashedly quantitative and meritocratic, from “1” for “F” to “5” for “A,” and it generally made no allowances for social rank or parents’ clout.  (Race, sex, and sexual preference were not issues.)  Even when the professors had to present certain topics with the official ideological spin, they managed to do so with an implied bad grace without letting the cat out of the bag altogether.

The core curriculum was the same all over the country.  Language and literature, mathematics, Latin, history, geography, philosophy, visual arts, music, one or two foreign languages, and sports were present in all four years.  Psychology, sociology, applied technology, physics, chemistry, and a few other “elective” subjects were included for a year or two.  Final examinations were distributed to the schools in sealed envelopes on the day of the examination.  In order to graduate, students had to pass written and oral examinations in Serbian, mathematics, one humanities and one natural-science subject, and one foreign language.  In addition, they had to write a final thesis and defend it before a commission.  My own, “The Collapse of the Third Reich,” had 50 single-spaced typed pages and relied on some two-dozen published secondary sources.

In contrast to the United States, which awards high-school diplomas on the basis of (presumably) successful completion of a prescribed number of courses whose content and standards differ from state to state, we had a clearly articulated relationship between the curricula and the examinations required to gain entrance to the university—a link between what is taught and what is tested.  The heavy workload meant several hours of serious study every day.  At the end of it all, the Maturant was, by design, a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.  He had a solid grounding in most areas once considered necessary for an educated, civilized person, and the assumption was that excellence would be attained in his chosen field of university study.

In practical terms, this meant that we all had some idea of what Leonidas did at Thermopylae and what Caesar said at the Rubicon; what the Protagoras was and who Pythagoras was; who was Atilla and who was Totila; what was natural law and what was the second law of thermodynamics.  We memorized segments from Njegos and Serbian medieval epic poetry, as well as a couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets and parts of Pushkin’s Onegin, albeit in translation.  Attendance at the symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera matinees every first Sunday of the month was not obligatory, but it was necessary for a good grade in music; and what started as a chore soon became a habit for at least some.  Latin was, on the whole, easy, and making puns (I prided myself on rephrasing Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum by removing the g from cogito) was deemed only slightly pretentious.  Admittedly, the curricular absorption was achieved at the expense of what the English would call “character education,” but the same shortcoming applied to all Central Europeans—and, by that time, the concept of “character” had gone out of fashion in England itself, with some vestiges preserved in a few elite public schools.  

Some areas of our curriculum were burdened by the Titoist brand of Marxism—notably sociology, 20th-century history, and modern philosophy—but the stamp was not deeply pressed in most subjects.  Once in a while, we had to parrot the lies about the “people’s liberation struggle” of 1941-45 and explain the superiority of “workers’ self-management” to make the grade, but, for the most part, we had a curriculum essentially similar to the Gymnasia of Austria-Hungary that had provided the model for the Kingdom of Serbia in the 1880’s and have remained in force ever since.  Under this system, an ever-present principle, mostly implied and only rarely explicitly spelled out, was that moral and aesthetic norms are not a matter of personal choice.  There were “standards,” and we were supposed to conform to them and to accept the lasting norms that antedated and transcended the rules of the current regime.  At home, and with friends, however, we were free.  

I have often wondered if the communists allowed old-style schools to survive by design or by default, and, on balance, I give more weight to the former.  For many middle-ranking apparatchiks, good schools were necessary: They wanted their own children to be “properly educated,” and, secretly knowing the limits of their abilities, they were loath to experiment with the school system the way they had experimented—with catastrophic effect—with the economy and society.  They wanted their children to assume the positions of leadership that they had come to regard as rightfully theirs, and—being largely half-educated peasants—they had enough common sense to find the answer.  They intuitively understood that the only way to forge a New Class from their offspring was to combine the usurped privilege of power with the inherited privilege of good education that develops the mind and enhances character.

In addition, many of the communist ruling class had an eminently arriviste reverence for Kultur, even when they did not understand or consume it.  They courted artists and always preferred to woo them rather than persecute them.  Kultur was to be brought to the People, at least in theory, but it was not to be mutilated or destroyed to fit the alleged needs of hoi polloi.  The tamed revolutionaries filled their homes with the leather-bound classics, buttoned their shirts, and learned to tie ties.  By the mid-1950’s, after an initial period of stifling socialist-realist lunacy, Belgrade had a lively artistic and literary life.  It was always closely monitored by the Party but never successfully guided.  Something similar happened in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland: Good schools produced good minds, and no Kadar, Novotny, or Gomulka could expect to control people who were starting to live a life of learning new things.

My own high-school days came at the tail end of a long period of uneasy coexistence between Us and Them, society and the “comrades.”  The schools produced young people singularly capable of thinking for themselves, able to read between the lines of the official media while remaining unintimidated by “the West” to which they were increasingly exposed.  School trips to Eastern Bloc nations, including Russia, revealed that, even behind the deepest Iron Curtain, the canon of traditional culture was alive and well.  Whatever spin their professors dutifully put on Fyodor Mikhailovich, those children knew what The Possessed was all about.  By the deaths of Tito and Brezhnev, it seemed that a long-overdue change was ahead, but we soon discovered that “the West” hated what we were more than it hated communism.  When we took our Matura exams, we had our dreams, and we were smarting for action; three decades later, we are mostly dispersed over three continents, which is a generational defeat, but we did well in the conventional sense, which is a credit to our long-dead teachers.  

The destructive reforms of Yugoslav education came in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, inspired more by the fashionable Western notions of egalitarianism and visceral hatred of excellence than by the old Marxist orthodoxy.  Tito’s education guru, a Croat sociologist named Stipe Suvar, declared that the Gymnasium was an elitist institution incapable of responding to the demands for greater equality of educational opportunity and the growing need for vocationally qualified personnel.  The Gymnasium was to become a mass institution—and, thus, was abolished.

After a catastrophic decade of experimentation, Slobodan Milosevic reinstated the Gymnasium in the early 1990’s, but its future is more uncertain than ever under his “pro-Western” successors.  Serbia’s current education minister Gaso Knezevic, a disciple of every fashionable theory of the past 20 years, is a personal friend of George Soros and accepts money and instructors from his Open Society Foundation and other NGOs.  Within months of coming to power in October 2000, the “reformists” within Serbia and their foreign sponsors insisted that schools—all schools, from kindergarten to the universities—must be reformed and turned from “authoritarian” institutions into schools for the “unhindered expression of students’ personalities in the process of equal-footed interaction with the teaching staff, thus overcoming the obsolete concept of authority and discipline rooted in the oppressive legacy of patriarchal past.”  They started with the primary schools, with a pilot program of “educational workshops” for seven- to twelve-year-olds.  The accompanying manual, sponsored by UNICEF and financed by the Open Society, denigrates the “obsolete” view that the purpose of education is the acquisition of knowledge and insists that the teacher has to become the class “designer” and that his relationship with students should be based on “partnership.” 

Accordingly, Soros’ foundation is financing a pilot program of experimental elementary schools, 14 in Serbia and six in Montenegro, that follow his “Step-by-Step” methodology.  English-language instruction is based on a 1996 textbook called I Spy, in which thousands of little Serbs (and presumably other beneficiaries of Mr. Soros’ largesse) follow the exploits of a family of ogres: Frankenstein’s monster, a ghost, a vampire, a werewolf (“My name is Wolfie”), and a witch.  They are made to look funny and harmless, but they come out of coffins in moonlit graveyards to go to school.  Far from investing time and effort to get her homework done, the little witch uses black magic: “ABC, 123, magic pen, draw for me!” “My favorite color is black,” she says on the accompanying tape in a coarse, sinister voice, and the child has to repeat the sentence in the same tone of voice.  (From that moment on, that sentence will figure in the child’s head whenever she is faced with blackness.)  In Lesson 20, students are taught about stars and astrology and have to learn the signs of the Zodiac in English.  The monsters’ family meals consist of stewed beetles, with a human skeleton on the mantelpiece and a small coffin as the gift to the hosts.  Their Christmas present is a ticking bomb, and, for Easter they give eggs with a live prehistoric reptile inside.  In the process of learning English, the children are expected to identify with one of these characters.  Numbers are represented with groups of skulls, frogs, rats, spiders, and bats.  In short, what is evil, dark, satanic, bizarre, and disgusting is presented as cute, and direct self-identification is not only encouraged, but demanded.

The reformers devote particular attention to the more active role of schools in countering the allegedly unhealthy influence of the family, which “still carries an imprint of nationalist, sexist, racist, and homophobic prejudices rampant in the society at large.”  The time-honored Balkan tradition of spanking children when they disobey is now presented in the elementary classroom as a form of abuse that, while not yet criminalized, should be reported.  Traditional sex roles are relativized by “special projects” that entail cross-dressing and temporary adoption of opposite sex names.  The new curriculum is consciously designed to root out “nationalism,” so epic poetry is out, and in neighboring Bosnia, Njegos and Ivo Andric have already been banned by the international administrators in favor of courses on “human rights” and “tolerance.”

What these people want is to make young Serbs, and children in other postcommunist countries, give up real learning and forget the meaning of obedience and of shame.  They want them to stop reading books—real books, anyway.  This is evil and tantamount to making them less than fully human.  The experiment has been tried in America, as well, and it has worked so far: If America is defined by the character of its current political, business and media elites, it may well be beyond redemption.