Changes in teaching and writing history in the past two decades

Michal Pullmann, photo: archive of Charles University

Last time in Czech History, Michal Pullmann discussed his research into Czechoslovak society in the 1980s. In this second in a two-part special, he reflects upon the public role that historians play more generally in the Czech Republic today. I met him in his office at Charles University’s Institute of Economic and Social History, so it seemed only natural to start by asking him about his teaching:

Michal Pullmann,  photo: archive of Charles University
“Teaching is for me not only something additional to the research itself, but it is a very important part of my own research, of what I do. And I really insist on this kind of communication, because this brings mutual benefit, not only hopefully for the students whom I bring texts that I try to cultivate them towards, and introduce them to social history, contemporary history, however we define that. But also for me, because I can bring my ideas and test them, whether they work. And students are sometimes an underestimated audience who bring very important things, I mean not only for me, but also they can develop it in their own research.”

In the course of your time here, how have you noticed the profession change, and how have you noticed your students change?

“The practice of teaching at Czech universities transformed quite deeply in the last 20 years. And please do not understand it that I want to be too harsh against the system in the 1990s, but still, the time that I was studying – of course I was happy to study with Miroslav Hroch and excellent teachers, but the majority or the core of the courses in the 1990s were one-sided. Knowledge was regarded as something that is given from the teacher to the pupil. It is no wonder and no accident that the structure of the curriculum was based on lectures, not on seminars, at that time.

“Already at that time, already 20 years ago, I was quite skeptical towards the way of teaching that is based only, let’s say, on plain reading of texts. There is a kind of obligation on the teacher to bring some kind of interpretation, and so I insist even today that I bring in some kind of interpretation, which is not binding on the students. But this is something that I bring as a kind of model interpretive, which brings those texts together. But after that, the students have to read and have their own opinion about the texts.

‘In my view there is nothing like a pure past that we could just bring back as it was.’

“I am really very glad when I can see that the students develop not only their knowledge, not only their practical competencies in doing research, but also their intellectual competencies, that they reflect upon what they do, they reflect upon their questions, the advantages and disadvantages of their approach. They reflect the limits – because every question of course opens some perspectives for us, but limits other perspectives. And this kind of self-reflection is something I was trying to push through in the teaching.”

Do you think there are continued taboos in writing history in the Czech Republic today; do you think there are topics that are still more or less unexplored, and unexplored because of a lack of will?

“Not in a way that there would be deliberate taboos of some groupings in a way that was here before 1989. There is nothing like pressure from institutions, or from institutionalized politics. There is nothing like official order to be implemented. And I am quite happy, and I was not surprised, but I was quite happy to see that even in my case it worked, it worked actually perfectly. [My book] was not accepted, of course, in the beginning broadly, and in journalism it was attacked also, but within academia, it was understood as a kind of proof that there is some kind of plurality.

“[The situation] is of course not ideal, because many historians pose questions in a very specific way that strengthens contemporary hierarchies. Perhaps they want to do that, as there were many historians who wanted to do that before 1989. I don’t want to do that. So this is my different position. There is a clear difference from the time before 1989, in that somebody who would pose a completely different interpretation of something which is very important for the self-conception of a society could not have been the director of an institute, and institutionally it is, of course, completely different today.”

Do you feel that historians are often seen as public figures here?

Photo: Griszka Niewiadomski / freeimages
“I wouldn’t see a general logic or general explanation there, from my view it is more dependent upon the very topics. One can see this kind of dependency on one example and this is the Czech-German relations, or the history of Czech-German relations, or the history of Germans in Bohemian lands. Especially in the 1990s, it was at stake publicly, and historians who were dealing with these questions were very public personalities who had to intervene in public debates. There was an official commission – there is, even, a commission to this day – but as soon as this was somehow solved, historians ceased to be such important persons. So in my view, it is always dependent on burning issues.

“In 20 years if we have some kind of environmental problems, of course we will ask history, especially the history of the twentieth century about these issues more. And in this case, historians of the environment will be more present in the public sphere than historians, for instance, of communism. Perhaps communism will be somehow forgotten and this would be perhaps also good!

“Exactly - I mean for historians of Czech-German relations, this kind of solving of the problem or, let’s say, diminishing of importance of Czech-Germans issues in the public was somehow liberating for them. Because they could discuss the issues suddenly without this kind of pressure, and they have much more space for historicizing the very issue, not presuming that the Czechs were right and the Germans were wrong or vice versa, etc. Perhaps this kind of diminishing of importance of communism for contemporary debates would be liberating for us, because we could open then discussions of certain issues which are at stake because of the politics.”

I wanted to ask you about the politicization of historians here and, as a last question, whether this was something you felt historians themselves did, or whether you think there are other factors, and other institutions in this country, that do politicize the work of historians?

‘The practice of teaching at Czech universities transformed quite deeply in the last 20 years.’

“In my view there is nothing like a pure past that we could just bring back as it was. We always ask the past specific questions that are burning for us today. So there is always this link between the contemporary and the past. We always ask what is important for us and it either responds, the past, and tells us something interesting about how it was generated, how the problem came into being, how it was solved or not solved etc. Or it is silent, because we don’t have sources. So this is the productive part of this dependence of historical work on the present time.

“There is also a non-productive part of this same relationship, let’s say, that consists in some tendency of some historians to pose questions in a way that strengthens the imagination of the contemporary world as something natural, as something which is the only and the most just, the most rational, outcome of the whole of history. This kind of dependence, and at this point, from my perspective, means some historical work sometimes loses its critical competency. We always have to think and rethink this very close link to the present time, which is enabling us to talk about history, but also limiting us in historicizing the past very often, especially if we try to regard contemporary times as something which is logical, and the best outcome of what happened before.”