Festival casts light on what Czech students think of democracy

Festival of Democracy, photo: Archive of Forum 2000

One of the events accompanying this year’s Forum 2000 conference was the Festival of Democracy, which featured discussions on what freedom and democracy mean for young people in the Czech Republic today. Given the mixed bag of opinions surrounding the current direction of the democratic system in the Czech Republic, I went to the discussion in order to find out more about how democracy is explained to teenagers and what they think of it.

Festival of Democracy,  photo: Archive of Forum 2000
The Festival of Democracy organised a competition for secondary school students, asking them to submit short videos describing how they understood the term democracy, with the winners being invited to sit at a panel exploring where democracy and freedom lie on the list of young peoples’ values.

I asked the event’s organiser Dagmar Caspe, who works for the Forum 2000 Foundation, why they chose this format.

“This year we really wanted to include the voices of young people into our program. We wondered: what would be the best form of expression? Realising that young people are technologically savvy and very good at expressing themselves, we asked high schoolers to produce videos on the topic of democracy and freedom.”

Festival of Democracy,  photo: Archive of Forum 2000
Teenagers Jakub Potměšil and Adam Beranovský from Gymnázium Jaroslava Heyrovského, a Prague grammar school, won the prize and ended up being passionately engaged in the panel.

In fact the engagement of the two, as well as of their fellow students was such that the debate shifted from the initially announced exploration ‘of the place that democracy and freedom hold in the values of young people’ to an active discussion about the effectiveness of current student engagement methods.

Asked about whether his school has taken part in the variety of extracurricular projects offered by state-wide student initiatives and NGOs one of the winners, Jakub Potměšil, had this to say:

“There is no time for these projects. When we look at how education works at our schools, it is basically writing loads of pages on various subjects. If I were to ask our headmaster whether we could do some of day long activity where multiple classes were not to have lessons, I could as well just give up immediately, because there is no time for these projects.

Festival of Democracy,  photo: Archive of Forum 2000
“I think one of the causes behind this situation is that some of the teachers are just decided that the current curriculum is the ideal way to learn things. Those projects that students could perhaps design better are not seriously considered, because they are not seen as the correct educational method”

After a teacher sitting in the audience spoke up to say that such projects are prepared but students never take interest in them, the debate turned to student councils, a system increasingly implemented in the Czech Republic. They seeks to empower teenagers in the decision-making process at their schools, with some suggesting that students should use them if they truly want to see change.

However, Jakub Potměšil, whose school has such a council, said that the current system was ineffective.

“We have proposed at least 20 propositions through the council at our school and the greatest achievements of this council are that some benches were installed and that we can now enter a part of the outside school area. Those are the only two good things.”

One of the panellists, Václav Kříž, who is the former chairman of Young Citizens, a group dedicated to get young people more engaged in public life, said that money lies at the heart of the issue.

Václav Kříž,  photo: Archive of Václav Kříž
“One thing is council and another self-governance. We have been talking about democracy and freedom here. Freedom is a sort of responsibility. If you are given your own budget you are responsible to your selves and you can achieve the things you want instead of just raising awareness about problems. That is vital in removing the negative feeling among students that they have raised awareness about something but nothing changed, because just giving council isn’t freedom.

“If your school doesn’t give you the chance to realise yourselves within the system, you start being against the system and your bad experience may spill over to the way you think of the state and its system of representational democracy.”

Festival of Democracy,  photo: Archive of Forum 2000
After the debate was over Mr. Kříž told me that his argument was also based on personal experiences.

“As I said in the discussion, I was in the council for two sessions where I found out that it was useless. So what I actually did at high school was a number of other participatory projects outside of school, with a number of different institutions including universities. I took this path, but at the same time I reflected on how the participatory system worked at my school. I attended this discussion because I still care about it and I do believe it is getting better.

“By seeing it doesn’t work I also saw the potential in it and this dissatisfaction led me to be interested in this area and found an organisation for young people to be active, make them leaders at their schools and catalyse change at the local level.”

Johanna Nejedlová,  photo: Archive of Johanna Nejedlová
The two other panellists present were Martin Mikšík, a student himself and the head of the nationwide Czech High School Students Union, and Johanna Nejedlová, cofounder of Konsent, a group that seeks to raise awareness about sexual violence. I asked Mr. Mikšík if his experiences with democratic school engagement were useful and if he intends to remain active in local decision making, perhaps even politics.

Mikšík: “Definitely. Because it gave me so many things, soft skills, etc. I just want to participate again. And I see its potential.”

What about you Johanna? You’ve been referred to as an ‘activist’, why did you choose to go in that specific area?

Nejedlová: “I think it is also partly because of my school which encouraged us a lot to do stuff, both within and outside school and was oriented around student decisions. But the reason I chose to be an activist was simply because I felt there was a need to change things and couldn’t find anyone else to do it, so I felt that I felt the easiest way to change things was through getting involved myself.”

Festival of Democracy,  photo: Archive of Forum 2000
How would you evaluate the attitude that teenagers have towards democracy today?

Kříž: “I think it is good, but we need to keep their hopes up, keep their lives active and not let them get dissatisfied with democracy and freedom so that as to prevent any threat of them getting anti-systematic.”

Mikšík: “I think it depends where the school is located. We can see that in Prague there are more student councils than in the rural areas. That is where we should focus our efforts, we have to involve everyone.

Nejedlová: “I think it depends a lot on the background which students are coming from. Because I can see kids from gymnasiums in Prague being very active and trying to change things, doing lots of projects and volunteering. However, I do not see students from other cities, or less privileged schools are doing the same. We need to encourage them somehow.”

Dagmar Caspe,  photo: Archive of Dagmar Caspe
Mikšík: “Again, the atmosphere in these schools is a bit different. There are fewer students interested in this topic. But there are good examples. One of our delegates is from a vocational school, so it is possible. We just need to find a way of how to connect with these people. We as the Czech High School Students Union we are trying to do this through various ways. For example we did a survey and wrote a report on how students’ feelings about apprenticeships, which left a footprint in the media. We are trying to connect to the issues they are facing and try to solve them somehow.”

Speaking to organiser Ms. Caspe again, I asked if she was surprised with the way the debate shifted into an active conversation between students and teachers.

“Actually, I was surprised. We had little expectation, believing it would be a more broad discussion. After all, as adults we tend to think more in a bigger picture when thinking about democracy. Honestly however, it probably is not so surprising that we witnessed this, because that is where high schoolers are publicly engaged, so all their experiences are connected to the school.

“But I was very happy with the discussion and very pleased that a lot of the students took part and it was great that the teachers got involved too. We are looking forward to doing it again next year as part of the associated programmes of the Forum 2000 conference.”