Society for Higher Learning
Society for Higher Learning (SHL)
Výberový vzdelávací spolok (VVS)
SHL was an association providing supplementary education and stipends to gifted university students of the social sciences and humanities from around Slovakia. In its ten years of existence, there were roughly 250 graduates who received a three-year stipend and an individual tutor with whom they worked on a 10- to 12-page paper for one semester. Thus, in theory, a SHL student could have as many as six tutors over the course of three years. It was a novel experience for students and exciting for tutors who were scholars who had left academia for various reasons but were happy to work with intelligent young people.
In order to somehow unite the wide variety of students from various Slovak schools, SHL designed courses that were both interesting and challenging for all. This was not simple, considering the students came from such diverse fields as fine arts, philosophy, linguistics and languages (Latin, Chinese), sociology, psychology, business, and economics. Thus, philosophers Miroslav Marcelli, Egon Gál, František Novosád, Martin Kanovský and Samuel Abrahám offered what was basically a liberal arts approach to education on critical thinking through small seminars, intensive reading lists, discussions, presentations, and plenty of writing. It is significant that apart from Miroslav Marcelli, these were those that ended up founding BISLA, the first liberal arts college in the region and the de facto successor of SHL.
The uniqueness of SHL was in its independence, with few external guidelines other than the classes be small (10 to 15 students), modest stipends be offered, and each student have a tutor to work with. Everything else was an experiment, created by its founders, with the help of students and, as years passed, alumni. Reflecting the quality of the project is the fact that the majority of SHL alumni hold prominent positions in their fields. In addition, most keep in touch with both each other and SHL’s successor, BISLA.
The beginnings of SHL are also unique. It was in fact founded in the space of just a few months in 1996 and almost by accident. Philanthropist George Soros liked how the tutorial system of the Hungarian Invisible College model worked and wished to reproduce it in several post-communist countries. In Slovakia, he contacted his friend Péter Hunčík, a prominent Slovak-Hungarian psychiatrist, who in turn, with a proposal to found such an institution, approached political philosopher Samuel Abrahám who had recently returned his native Slovakia from Canada. That first meeting took place in June 1996. The first 15 students – chosen from over 100 applicants – started working with their tutors in September of that same year.
Soon after its founding, SHL became cofounder of Artes Liberales, an association of liberal arts institutions in Central Europe propagating this type of progressive and quality education in their respective countries. Artes Liberales was initiated through the Education Leadership Program (ELP) that decided to expand its activities promoting liberal arts education in Central Europe. The sponsor of ELP was the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation (currently the Endeavor Foundation) that in 2006 stood beside the establishment of BISLA – both financially and organizationally. Hence, the close personal and institutional connection between SHL/VVS and BISLA dates back to the beginning in 1996.