A Mistake I Made in Life? I Didn’t Attend BISLA. Jakub Goda
If Slovakia were a building under construction, then education would be the foundation without which the entire structure would crumble. That conclusion is not rocket science; it is an already-established fact. We can see the results in our last parliamentary elections in which a neo-Nazi party won 8% of the seats. However, one of the worst things we can do is ignore the good bricks of quality education that exist in Slovakia today.
BISLA is the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts. Practically speaking, that means you study humanities with everything somehow related back to the major of Political Science. Nine years ago, I applied, was accepted and was even offered a scholarship. I didn’t go. The primary reason for my decision – other than being an idiot – was that it had only been open for one year. It was a new school and I couldn’t know what it would be like. Now, I know.
Much is said about Slovak universities being isolated academic bubbles with teachers who publish only in local pseudo-journals, and who don’t care that they have neither students nor teachers from other countries. At BISLA, 40% of the faculty consists of non-Slovak teachers, almost all the instructors have spent some time abroad, and almost all the courses are taught in English. Apart from that, current full-time or adjunct professors include former Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radičová (sociology), Michal Vašečka (sociology), Egon Gál (philosophy), Dagmar Kusá (political science), Prof. František Novosád (philosophy) and Pavol Hardoš (political science). One previous faculty member was a former Slovak Minister of Finance. The organization out of which BISLA was born – Society for Higher Learning (VVS) – included graduates such as Martin Filko (economist).
Why am I writing this here? Because I have the feeling that almost no one knows about BISLA and that everyone is wallowing in the idea that there’s absolutely nothing good in Slovak education and it’s not even worth talking about.
I personally know three BISLA graduates and I’m really happy that I do. Alžbeta Hájková worked for MP Miroslav Beblavý hunting down corruption and is now is doing her PhD in the US. Mirka Grófová works for the Open Society Foundation and teaches Slovaks that feminism isn’t a bad word and that we all agree with its basic essence and values without even realizing it. Filip Olšovský shows us a fresh perspective in the Slovak weekly .týžden. These three are surely not a representative sample so I’ll give you the numbers. In 2012, sixteen Slovak universities participated in the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO). Guess which of those Slovak universities scored the best? Yep, BISLA and that by far. Out of the 230 universities that took the test around the world, BISLA was in the top 18 percent.
I could continue but I don’t want to make it look like this is a paid advertisement because it’s not. I have no other motivation for writing this other than I feel like I must. I’ve stayed in contact with BISLA, albeit irregularly, and when I see what kind of people hang around it and what type of graduates come out of it, I know that if I were 18 again, I’d decide differently.
To put it simply, BISLA has the potential to be a small Oxford University on Grösslingova Street in Bratislava. What it lacks the most is the 800-year tradition with all the luster and glory that that entails. BISLA is celebrating 10 years of existence this year and in those 10 short years it has managed to offer a quality education in humanities to a lot of people. Yet, that hasn’t been enough time for it to be known for its reputation or prestige. That saddens me. It also seems absurd to me in this country where education in general is in crisis and social sciences in particular face such major attacks on their very existence.
We should not make the mistake of negating all that exists in our (higher) education. At our large state universities, there are very good faculties in which are excellent departments, as good as European their counterparts. I worry a bit, however, that not many know much about them, if at all. They need to be named and talked about so that they do not drown in “the Dead Sea” that is the majority of Slovak higher education.
You see, we run the risk of being a ridiculous generation. We are fully capable of writing a Facebook status over a page long on how we had lunch in Soho and had to wait 5 minutes longer than usual while our waitress’s smile wasn’t quite as sincere as we expect those smiles to be. Every year, there are at least 300 statuses in my newsfeed about how the Pohoda summer music festival went. My friends don’t lack for opinions on whether film footballer Sorrentino is a genius or a fake. However, to leave any kind of digital footprint assessing the quality of the institution in which we spent 3 to 5 years of our lives, and to which we paid tens of thousands of euros either in tuition or via our parents’ taxes – this tradition has yet to gain a foothold. And then I don’t know from where or on what basis high school seniors get information about where to study. Maybe they’re getting it from those recycled myths from the ‘90s about which school is the good one. Because that’s exactly what it was like when I graduated from high school.
So, Dear High School Seniors, allow me to bring BISLA to your attention. The environment and atmosphere in which it works is unmatched in any of the universities which I had the chance to attend. It’s a small school with a 3-year bachelors program, from which almost 60% of its graduates go on to study in masters’ programs abroad. It’s a private non-profit primarily financed by foreign foundations, so tuition truly supplements its financial needs and is not a fee for a bogus degree from a diploma mill. On top of that, it offers quite generous scholarships. BISLA’s president, Samuel Abrahám, has used his networking skills around the world to find people who realize just how fragile our post-soviet democracy is and who are willing to invest financially into our educational system. So, know that there is such a place, check it out, find our more and utilize it so that 10 years from now you won’t feel the need to write an article like this one.
Don’t be confused by those who try to persuade you that universities are supposed to be training centers for the automobile industry. In years to come, manufacturing 200 tractors won’t be considered any great feat. In a time when automation is on the rise, soft skills – in essence, what it means to be human – are more highly valued. It will be a while until robots are able to see and perceive things objectively and in context; think creatively and unconventionally, from a different perspective; or know how to present an argument, effectively and interestingly. Even though knowing how to code and build a website will provide you with an immediate income, it’s nothing more than a modern-day trade that you can learn using the internet. If you don’t believe me, listen to Steve Jobs: “…technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”
Let’s talk about our schools
Little praise about anything in relation to our educational system is heard these days. But little critique is heard as well. In fact, it’s not really talked about that much. Not much is said about anything related to the reality in our schools. Fiction and only general problems set the tone for such discussions. It doesn’t help that the best contribution to the discussion recently was written by the most hated person in Slovak education today, former Minister of Education Juraj Draxler.
Our generation is much more active in demanding quality and providing feedback. We’re very good at letting our bank or internet provider know when their services are subpar. We’re also willing to praise to high heaven the ice-cream at Koun. So, I tell myself, this time I’ll try to create some hype not around the newest hipster café, but around something else for a change – a university.
I’d be glad if BISLA graduates and even those critical of BISLA left comments below to fill in the gaps of this perhaps idealized perception written by someone who didn’t study at BISLA and now regrets it.