From the Weeklies

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Is the dreaded small-pox back? A prominent Czech epidemiologist heads for Russia where eight children are suffering from a mysterious disease. Czech children speak out about what they MOST HATE about school - but the authorities are still struggling to reform the education system. Plus, the Church and gays associations at odds over Christopher Street Day. Those are some of the interesting stories in the weeklies.

The World Health Organization is uneasy, says Tyden. Eight Russian children are reported to be suffering from a mysterious disease after accidentally coming into contact with vials containing small-pox vaccine. Is the dreaded disease, which was still killing millions of people as late as the seventies, and which the WHO finally eradicated in 1977, back? Prominent Czech epidemiologist Zdenek Jezek, who helped fight smallpox epidemics in Southeast Asia and India, has offered to go to Vladivostock to help ascertain just what is going on. "We know the way things work in Russia," he says. "I can well believe that someone in the epidemiological institute just dumped the vaccines in a rubbish bin - and the high fever and spots would be understandable if the children came into contact with a fairly large amount of the vaccine. There have been no deaths reported so far and if this were the dreaded small-pox there most certainly would have been."

"On the other hand," the professor adds, "if - God forbid - it were the small-pox - I don't believe the Russian authorities would admit it." What if there have been deaths and Russia is keeping quiet as it has so many times in the past - as in the event of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? "I want to believe that they are telling us the truth here - because the alternative would be disastrous," the leading Czech epidemiologist notes. In any case it is vital for us to know the truth in time. Since the disease was eradicated most countries have destroyed the vaccines that were in storage. What's left would be enough for only a few million people.

Ask any six-year-old whether they are looking forward to school and they'll give you an enthusiastic "yes". Two years later they all know better. School's a chore. How do we manage to kill that enthusiasm so effectively and is there really no way of avoiding it? Tyden magazine asks. The answer to the first question is simple, it says. Most of our schools still bear a striking resemblence to those of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Memorize. Recite. Get a grade.

In an anonymous survey conducted at primary-school level schoolkids were asked to state what they hated the most about school. The answers were as follows:

Everything is always decided by the teacher.

We rarely get out of the classroom, we are desk-bound and never have any fun in learning new things.

The way in which subjects are taught -and in which students are tested - leaves no space to maneuver - there are strict requirements placed by the school and individual teachers.

Things are not explained on the basis of how a child's mind works but according to a scientific theory to be learnt by heart.

Nobody cares about what we know, they only care about what we should know - in a given class, at a given age.

The people and achievements we learn about are not presented in a way that would inspire us.

We are constantly stressed out by fear of bad grades and subsequent punishment.

Some very good pointers there on what needs changing but the authorities face more than just the task of drafting a new set of directives. The problem is that present-day teachers were themselves taught in this manner and are trapped in their own routine. Those who would not be afraid of implementing radical change in the classroom feel their hands are tied by the way the whole system works. They are only a small wheel in a big machine and, as many parents see it, their job is to teach their children so that they pass entrance exams to the school of their choice. For the most part entrance exams do not test a child's creativity and their ability to work with information - they merely request a vast amount of information as if the ultimate goal were to produce walking encyclopedias.

Under the circumstances the priority is for teachers to learn how to teach, Tyden notes, and the Open Society Fund has organized a series of education courses for teachers, now underway in 17 Central and East European states. They are based on the need to apply common sense to the education process - to build on what children know when they come to school, and in expanding their horizons allow for discussions and debates rather than present children with hard-and-fast concepts and ideas. Letting children come to their own conclusions is a luxury which very few teachers in this country enjoy.

The introduction of the Internet into the education process is also expected to help, but there again one runs into language problems. Primary-school children are not well versed in English - since a second language is not introduced until 4th grade. According to Ondrej Hausenblas the necessary changes would be introduced faster and more effectively if parents put more pressure on schools. At present they are putting very little, either moving their children to an alternative private school which they approve of or accepting the manner in which their children are educated as inevitable. What many don't realize, Hausenblas says is, that in the modern world an old-fashioned education will handicap their children's future career.

Having said all that, the present inadequate education system is not completely worthless. In an International Adult Literacy Survey conducted in 29 countries, Czechs came in 8th in text analysis, 5th in graph and table analysis and second in numerical literacy. Just as a matter of interest, the Swedes are right there at the top of the list in all three.

And finally, in Lidove Noviny's weekend supplement, sparks fly in an ongoing dispute between gays and the Catholic Church over Christopher Street Day, which is to take place in Rome on July 1st. While the City Hall authorities have given their approval, the Vatican has voiced concern, as have some Czech dignitaries of the Catholic Church. The president of the Czech Gays Association, Jiri Hromada, has reacted with unusual fervour. "This is a parade of joy, beauty and truth which means a great deal to many of us," he noted, slamming the Catholic Church for allegedly trying to prejudice the majority population against gays - "they paint us as sinners and they speak of possible destruction of churches and cultural heritage when they know that this parade is about love and tolerance," Hromada says.

Challenged that the Pope had not received respectful treatment from gays in the States, Hromada responded with what is undisputedly the strongest criticism of the Church to date by any member of the Czech Gays and Lesbians Association. "For over a thousand years we have suffered their lies and prejudice about us. They have burnt gays at the stake, and all this despite the fact that there are many more gays in the ranks of the Church than in any other sphere of human activity. Why should we be silent about these things?" he asked the paper. A million-strong turnout is expected in Rome on Saturday and doubtless there will be quite a few Czech gays and lesbians in the crowd.