As I am about to graduate from a private American university, I wanted to reflect on my motivations for coming to the US to study, in the first place. Five years ago when I moved here from Lithuania, I was seeking quality higher education and personal growth through immersing myself into the American college experience. Five years ago, I was running away from what I perceived to be a chaotic and uncertain situation in Lithuania’s educational system.
In the post-soviet period (starting in 1991), the Lithuanian educational system – along with most other spheres of life in the country – began long and fundamental reforms to reorient the country away from the failing Soviet ideas of communism to the Western ideas of democracy and capitalism. The most obvious western influences were coming from Lithuania’s desire to join the European Union (EU), which required Lithuania to fulfill specific European standards in healthcare, human rights, and economy, among other requirements. Most of the reforms, including the ones in the educational system, were directly related to these requirements. In retrospect, as a student who emigrated from Lithuania, I cannot help but wonder whether my country is just jumping from one ideological system – the communist one – to a new one – the neoliberal system – while constantly being influenced by some greater world powers. In my blogs, I will take a closer look at some of the educational reforms in newly independent Lithuania ranging from school restructuring and school financing through student vouchers to anti-LGBT amendments to the “Law on the Protection of Minors.”
I will start by reflecting on the chaos of the educational reforms that were referred to as “restructuring”.
Because I was born only a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was basically part of the first generation of students to go through the educational system of newly independent Lithuania. I would always hear comparisons from my sister – who is twelve years older than me and went through the educational system of Soviet Lithuania – about how she used to receive grades on a 5-point scale instead of the newly established 10-point scale, or how everyone had to learn Russian as their one mandatory foreign language.
Russian was not even available in the schools that I attended and English has been my foreign language since first grade. It is hard for me to make comparisons of specific curricular or organizational details based only on the stories of others who experienced the Soviet educational system, yet I can still recall the great fuss of school restructuring through personal experience. These “restructuring” reforms were happening right before Lithuania finally joined the EU in 2004. In the case of my sister’s school, the official restructuring from a Soviet educational system to a Lithuanian one occurred at the start of the 1998 school year, which was my sister’s last year of school: back in the Soviet system, this would have been her 11th year, but with the new educational structure she was among the cohort that had to complete a newly added 12th year. So from the Soviet educational system of 11 grades Lithuania transitioned to the system of 12 grades – more similar to western models.
I later attended this same school that was being restructured once again: from being a middle school (serving grades 5 through 8) it suddenly turned into a “general” school (serving grades 1 through 10) and even switched facilities with a different school – all of this in 2002. This whole new type of “general” schools was supposed to serve the students who wished to complete only the 10 mandatory years of education in Lithuania. The duration and definition of “primary”, “middle”, and “high” schools were also shifted around, in addition to the establishment of such new categories of schools as “general” schools or “gymnasiums.” In the near future, these “general” schools will be restructured yet again into “pro-gymnasiums.” I know – confusing! All sorts of complicated and chaotic things were changing that I did not understand (or care for) at the time, but all the moving of classrooms, students, and teachers was quite unsettling and discomforting for a student that should only be focusing on doing well in school. All of this was part of great educational reforms to establish a western Lithuanian educational system that have not stopped ever since.
Currently, many teachers, teacher union activists, and school administrators are disheartened by the unending reforms. Shortly after the economic upswing of having joined the EU, the problems of the educational reforms have been brought back up by the lingering effects of the global economic crisis. Teachers are being fired as student numbers dwindle, schools are being closed or merged (especially in rural areas), and administrators are fighting for funding in the shape of student vouchers. The neoliberal educational policies of Lithuania’s ministry of Science and Education that are introducing competition through “increased financial independence,” decentralized management of school funds, and freedom of school choice are causing chaos in the education system.
Perhaps competition in the spirit of neoliberalism is not very helpful in such a vital field of human life as education. Perhaps it is disruptive and discomforting for students to constantly have to adapt to new educational policies: after all, any educator knows that students need safe and stable environments to grow, develop, and learn. Perhaps that is why some Lithuanians silently and melancholically remember the stability of the Soviet era where everything – not just education – was much more certain and unchangeable, albeit it was also imposed on them against their will… Now, at least, there is freedom to discuss and debate education policies and choices. Similarly, the joy of their students’ achievements and the responsibility for any problems, too, are all dependent on what direction Lithuania decides to develop. The question is whether the global neoliberal experiment in education is the right direction for Lithuania.