What Poland’s Flying University Can Teach Us about Teaching in the Trump Era

The day after Trump was elected, I taught a class on creative writing at the International College of Liberal Arts in Kofu, Japan. While none of my students was American, most felt devastated by the outcome. We talked about what might change. At the time, I was concerned about racism, immigration policies, and health care. But I couldn’t see what should have been obvious to me: that the ascension of the far right, in America and elsewhere, would have consequences for education.

No matter what your field, the Trump administration’s louche relationship with truth and language impacts your classroom, as both are repeatedly denigrated by the leader of the free world and his associates. Phrases like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” to describe The New York Times and CNN, are not Orwellian conceits or examples of Derridean hijinks but things we now hear regularly from the administration. Because we must rely on language, as perilous a minefield as it is, to construct a dialogue in the classroom, this has been the most shocking seismic disturbance within education since the election. In addition, I have always assumed that if my students look up sources for research papers, they will be given facts rather than propaganda, lies, or racist cant; this assumption now seems quaint. Finally, we have to navigate bitter partisanship among our students like never before.

So what do we do? Personally, I’ve started looking to Poland’s underground education network for wisdom and perspective. Known as Uniwersytet Latający, or “the flying university,” its first iteration took wing in the late-nineteenth century, when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary and teaching Polish in schools was forbidden in Warsaw and some other cities. Like today’s online degree programs, it had no fixed address. In Varsovian living rooms, the professors of the flying university educated Maria Salomea Skłodowska, better known to the world as Marie Curie. Curie, along with the thousands of other female students in the system, would have been ineligible to receive any official education elsewhere in Poland at that time.

Soon after Hitler invaded Poland, the flying university took off again, this time with flights across the country. As the Nazis viewed Catholic Poles as a near-future source of slave labor and had already earmarked a far worse fate for Polish Jews, there was no reason for the native population to be given more than a rudimentary education, so most schools were shut down. For their purposes, Poles needed to know only three things: how to count to 500, how to write their own names, and that God had commanded Poles to serve Germans. Under this new regime, writing was deemed superfluous—and worse, potentially subversive—and would no longer be taught.

The wartime reprisal of the flying university was known as the Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska, or TON, which can be translated as “secret teaching organization.” Because the first round of killings after the September invasion targeted members of the intelligentsia, many professors from Warsaw and other cities fled to the country, with the result that the floating classrooms of the TON elevated education standards in many regions. Meanwhile, in city hospitals, medical students covertly continued their studies by working as orderlies. By the war’s end, the TON had issued several hundred doctoral and medical degrees and thousands of college degrees.

Resistance and education were inextricably linked inside the TON’s classrooms. Many of the older students were active in what eventually became known, after several name changes, as the Armia Krajowa, or Polish resistance. Some of them studied German because they needed to know how to read signs for sabotage missions. But for all resistance fighters, the classrooms—which constantly changed location, as they had during the nineteenth century, so the teachers and students could avoid arrest or worse—offered one of the few opportunities for free exchange of information in an occupied country where churches and universities were shuttered and large congregations forbidden.

I studied the TON while I was conducting research under the auspices of a Fulbright grant and the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL). KUL was one of the few universities in Poland to remain open several months into the war, possibly because the Germans confused it with a seminary. After closing down briefly as soon as the city was seized in mid-September 1939, the faculty voted on whether or not to continue teaching and chose to do so, despite the risks involved.

Apart from taking inspiration from these professors and students who refused to relinquish their vocations and educations under the threat of arrest, torture, and death, I believe we may retrieve other lessons relevant to the period we find ourselves in now. For one thing, the flying university is a vivid illustration of how liberal education has the potential to restore faith in and through the power of a denigrated language. Liberal education today also demands a profound reengagement with a native language that is currently disparaged by the established powers. In this case, that language is not Polish but the language of rigor, facts, and critical thinking.

Thinking about the classes of the TON and the larger context of language in occupied Poland has also curbed one of my own worst tendencies—namely, my lack of interest in understanding those who champion far-right viewpoints. In occupied Poland, the embattled native people were supposed to address their tormentors in German, but since many didn’t know the language, they were often harassed or beaten for being unable to communicate when stopped and questioned. Despite this treatment, some German-speaking Poles refused to speak the language of their invaders as a matter of principle. The Polish phrase, Nie rozumiem—“I don’t understand”—became an apophatic poem of resistance. However, in the classroom, I don’t think a Nie-rozumiem tactic gets you anywhere. We have to try to understand what is motivating the ideologies we find ugly, what fears fuel the torch-lit rallies.

These lessons from the past have also made me realize that it’s useless—and dangerous—to kid ourselves. Education has always been political. An enterprise so closely entwined with language, power, and conflicting ideals about selfhood and good citizenship could not be otherwise. I have read right-wing columnists bemoaning the “politicization” of university classrooms these days. I want to tell them that this is nothing new and will never change. And should it? Of course we should not care—nor ask—for whom our students vote. I wouldn’t even have brought up Trump the day after the election, but my students could focus on nothing else until we discussed the elephant that was in the room and soon to be in the Oval Office. But if higher education is tantamount to instruction of the “whole person,” as liberal arts institutions like to claim, we should care if our students want to hurt someone based on gender orientation, race, nationality, immigration status, or religion.

Finally, while it’s hard to reconcile recent events in Poland, like the Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Resemblance, with a country that once fought heroically for its own enlightenment, both the classes of the TON and Poland’s move to the far right testify, in different ways, to the fact that historical memory is one of the foundations of and among the best justifications for liberal education. We have to encourage students to connect with sources and authors who document, as truthfully as they can, the debacles of the past and present.

Education always entails the risk that teachers will cross boundaries or inject too much of their subjective opinions. But it’s far riskier, in the long run, to relax the principles of engagement and resistance that turn teaching and learning into an experience akin to early-days, ear-splitting, gut-punching flight.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018