An interview with prof. Wojciech Roszkowski, historian, Knight of the Order of the White Eagle, author of the textbook “History and the Present”.
Krzysztof Masłoń: “The concepts of nobility, loyalty, bravery and other qualities of the spirit have disappeared from the language of political debate”, you conclude in your textbook “History and the Present”, a new subject that will be obligatory in high schools and technical schools starting from September. It is the cultural changes, so evident today, and probably initiated at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, that you devote a lot of attention to in this widely discussed book relating to the post-war period.
Prof. Wojciech Roszkowski: We are currently dealing with a fairly fundamental civilizational conflict and I refer to it in the book, which the critics either do not understand or do not want to understand, attacking textbook with accusations that the text was allegedly written according to the standards of some right-wing ideology. What I am doing is paying attention to the culture war that destroys the concepts you mentioned. And I aim to bring into the consideration of students that in our social life both constant values and changes are needed, it is only necessary to ask which values should be maintained and defended at all costs, and also which changes are permissible and even worth celebrating.
You have to bear in mind what and who they are supposed to serve, because if such a change ruins our social life, it is unnecessary. There is no ideology to my approach, it is only common sense. The allegations that I am an ideologue – and the critics are not entering into a detailed discourse on faith and knowledge, which can be found in the philosophical layer of the book – result either from a lack of knowledge about what I wrote or from a misunderstanding of it.
You have not written a classic history textbook, such as we may have been used to, because it penetrates the realm of custom, religion, and culture so deeply. In my opinion, this is its advantage, though critics believe the opposite. But how the models of historical education were drawn from the textbook by Helena Michnik and Ludmila Mosler, or even, I cannot exclude it, by Żanna Kormanowa – one cannot be surprised1.
My textbook was based on the idea for this new subject – “History and Present”, in which the threads of recent history were to be combined with knowledge about society. So how can you lecture in the spirit of this synthesis without taking into account the fundamental social and cultural changes that have taken place in recent decades? This stems from the program guidelines for the “History and Present” lecture which, in my opinion, are very well founded. So far, students have finished schools without any familiarity with recent history. No one really denies this, because the level of student knowledge about Poland and the world is terrible, and the mechanisms of social life taught in other subjects that are currently in the curriculum are almost completely detached from reality, and by no means make reference to the “meat” of history in any way. At most it is indicated in bullets, for example, what fascism is, by giving a definition. And then the student hears Putin accusing the Ukrainians of Nazism and his mind is just boggled, he does not know what to think about it. Therefore, by combining knowledge about society with modern history, we are presenting a picture of the world as it really is, in which the student lives and about which he learns, for example from the media. And with the publisher, we also decided to make sure that the textbook differs in its form from those currently used in school, because in the existing textbooks, from all the graphs, images, signatures, maps, quotes, bolded phrases, the student could at most get nystagmus. Anyway, I heard the opinion of the young recipient: “Finally, we will be able to read, and not just jump from picture to picture”. There are also many pictures in my textbook, there are a lot of them, but all in all the pages of this book look much more friendly. So, when it comes to the methodology of presenting the material, it is definitely better than before.
But the authors of Rzeczpospolita newspaper, for example, did not like the way you presented Daniel Cohn-Bendit a Maoist, a leftist and, what is particularly shocking, a pedophile, which was reported by no other newspaper, but Rzeczpospolita, the same but somewhat different. The quote, taken from a book by Cohn-Bendit himself, was considered too drastic. Will you remove it from the textbook, which is currently in a draft version, thus introducing changes is still possible.
The changes will be minimal. However, I actually decided to delete one sentence, but not from the referenced quote, because despite the fact that the sensitivity of teenagers to moral issues is completely different than several years ago, especially in eroticism, blunted since the times of Clinton and mass access to pornography, there is some part of the youth who may not have seen or done everything yet, and therefore it is worth protecting them.
It is unheard of, however, that among the accusations against you there was one: for nearly demoralizing of minors.
Hypocrisy in all its fullness, because those standing in “defense” of the youth, which is allegedly supposed to be unaware of the existence of pedophilia are promoting sexual education in schools and doing so through so-called sex educators – without the knowledge and consent of the children’s parents.
The fact that Daniel Cohn-Bendit, an MEP – sometimes German, sometimes French – was the flagship figure of the May 1968 revolt in Nanterre and Paris, just like Adam Michnik in Warsaw two months earlier, is also not insignificant. They were both present in politics then, and years later Michnik published in Gazeta Wyborcza the scientific disputes that he conducted with him on various topics, however, omitting the one, clearly forbidden. But since I mentioned the March events in Poland, you are also accused of referring to such politicians as Lech Kaczyński and Antoni Macierewicz in this context.
These claims are the result of a selective interpretation of history. March 1968 was the first, very important experience of a whole generation to which I belong. People of Jewish origin played a special role in it, but they were not the only ones who took part in the rallies, they were not the only ones who set the intellectual tone of this whole dissenting movement. For example, the completely forgotten Jakub Karpiński was one of the fundamental figures at that time. But these were also important events for Macierewicz and Kaczyński.
The references to current affairs are characteristic of your textbook. They do not disturb the narrative, and they certainly sharpen the reader’s attention. This is what happens when, for example, you write about overcoming racism in the USA and the merits of Martin Luther King, to suddenly mention the Black Lives Matter movement, and our teenagers know surprisingly a lot about it, although the knowledge seems to be one-sided.
In my book, I emphasize that this movement is about respecting people of a different skin color, but in practice it is about only one color – black. By the way, I was attacked for a one-time use of the word “Murzyn”2, which I did on purpose to underline how it is possible to juggle the meanings of words. This is a lesson for a 15-year-old to pay attention to a certain correctness – because I believe that we should watch what we say and whether we accidentally offend someone with our words – not to exaggerate. Unfortunately, we get lost in words, and some of them are not as offensive as we are told.
To blame the colonial exploitation on whites en masse, including those who had nothing to do with slavery, is a mental aberration. And the smearing of monuments in Poland with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is some kind of pyramidal nonsense, reminding me of the 1960s, when on one could see here and there three letters written in chalk on the walls of war-torn Warsaw: OAS3. The same level of absurdity.
Young people identify with confrontational movements and activities. And simply, children rebel against their parents. What is sometimes good when changes are justified, parents neglect their responsibilities, and the young person has the right to push them to the wall. As long as it doesn’t destroy civilization.
Your textbook could not be liked by those who admired Adam Leszczyński’s “People’s history of Poland”, where the Republic of Poland is presented as a colonial state, except that the slaves were the peasants. In addition, a state that conducts a terrible policy towards national minorities. A complete farce. And you dare to mention that Poles saved Jews during the occupation instead of writing about blackmail and Jedwabne, although you present the post-war history vividly, and not the history of World War II and the German and Soviet occupation.
I only mention the memory of different nations, how differently the war was written in their memory and how differently it appears in this memory. There is no place here to enter into a narrative of what the Holocaust was, what the ghettos were, and so on. Why should I do it, and not highlight, for example, the effects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the deportations of Poles or Katyn? I have limited myself to aspects that are significant from the point of view of post-war social opinions.
You have allegedly minimized or even omitted the content of Knowledge about Society4 in favor of recent history.
This is not true, they have only been combined and correlated. In many places, I explain, for example, how to understand the state in general, what its forms are – federal, for example, what is the left and what is the right. These messages are linked to the events in question, and it was not easy at all, because I was very anxious not to disturb the flow of the narrative.
– The teacher is obliged to follow the curriculum, the textbook is not compulsory, which is for some reason rarely mentioned in the campaign against “History and the Present”. In this context, it is puzzling that the publishers – apart from one – are not presenting alternative propositions to your textbook. I suspect that they are counting on the impermanence of changes taking place in Polish education. And that the old ways will come back, and we will again have debates in our schools about nothing and tests on the knowledge of dead formulas.
– Well, we raised generations of children who entered adult life with the knowledge of clicking on a computer, memorized clusters of concepts without getting to know them in depth nor possessing the ability to discuss them. The whole premise of the reform introduced by minister Katarzyna Hall was to reduce the volume of knowledge and increase the scope of skills. It sounds beautiful, only in practice the youth, not remembering what was going on in history, started to discuss who is a fascist and who is not, who is a communist and who is a democrat and, in general, what does it mean to be a democrat. One could say that they know – without knowing, and in this way an uninformed society is built, moreover, feverish over some third-rate topics.
– Here we have touched on matters of great importance, because I have the impression that while reading your book, I heard an echo of the famous poem of Zbigniew Herbert: “I hit the board / and it answers me / yes – yes / no – no”. Because – quoting your textbook: “Everyone has the right to express an opinion – within reason, morality and safety, of course – but this is not the same as expressing the truth. There are true and false opinions, and […] if we consider human life or his moral good as something relative, we bring harm to ourselves and to others”.
– In the public discourse of recent years, we have allowed the fundamentally harmful view that everyone has their own truth to flourish. And it functioned as a slogan, mentioned next to others, such as, “You deserve more”. It is also said in school and elsewhere that often the truth is in the middle and what is called “truth” is a lie. And at this point, the truth that has no respect is thrown into the bin. And if we believe that there is no truth, then the judiciary, trade relations, and in fact the entire social life, is blown up in the air, because the truth is established in our social relations. If everyone has their own truth, it means that stealing may not be theft but murder. If we teach young people in this way, we should not be surprised later that a large part of them will escape into some unreal spheres of existence or become demoralized. Is that what all these progressive critics of my textbook intend to achieve? And teachers who probably remember what happened to their colleagues at work and do not want to encounter a situation in which a student will put a bucket of rubbish on his head5. And he will have his truth.
– Nevertheless, I hope that there will be brave and wise teachers who will be eager to teach “History and the Present”. And the students will benefit from your textbook, the second part of which I am waiting for impatiently…
– There will be a second volume, which covers a period even closer to current time, because the first volume closes in 1979. The second relates to the years 1980–2015, although I also refer to today’s events. It will be a bit more compact, because in the second grade the program includes only one hour of “History and the Present” per week.
– In my opinion, it would also be good for parents, and perhaps grandparents of those to whom it is addressed, to become familiar with your textbook. While the student will learn about facts unknown to him, the elders may be able to encounter what they forgot or what they perceived otherwise. And on the basis of this book, find a common ground with their children or grandchildren, or at least a reference point for discussion. And reading “History and the Present” is, I assure, very captivating.
1 The names indicated refer to historians active during the Polish People’s Republic and members of the Polish United Workers’ Party
2 A common term used in Polish to refer to a black person
3 OAS stands for the Anti-Solidary Organization which was formed by the secret police in Poland to combat the anti-communist underground movement
4 Knowledge about Society is a subject taught in schools covering social, political, legal and international issues
5 A reference to an incident which occurred in a school several years ago, where a group of students put a trash bin on a teacher’s head in order to belittle her during class.
This interview was published in July 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.