A Childhood Memory

What’s all the fuss about a new approach to knowledge? What is Dino really talking about? If you are still wondering, this little vignette might help. It is intended to serve as a parable.

I don’t remember how Pasha and I ended up in that meeting of our school’s pupils’ committee. It must have been an accident; I never really cared much about committees and politics. But there we were, sitting in the last row of a classroom full of kids, one representing each class. In front of us, presiding the meeting, was a teacher whose name I don’t recall. So I’ll call her Mrs. Algebra.

Although Mrs. Algebra had never been my teacher, she knew me or new of me. She was a maths teacher, and I had just successfully represented our school in a maths competition.

So right there and then Mrs. Algebra decided to engage me, by giving me an honorable task. I was to interview the school director, and present a report about self-management in our school at the forthcoming May 1 celebration.

In Tito’s Yugoslavia, where this story was taking place, self-management was a political innovation par excellence. The means of production, and more generally the economic and political power, were not to be owned by a powerful elite, or by a communist state, but by the people themselves. How was this idea implemented in our school?

I interviewed the school director, and all I got from him were the usual political formulas one could hear on the TV or in political speeches. None of it made sense, and I had nothing to say in my report. I was in trouble.

But then I looked into that question myself: How did self-management in our school work?

I found out that it didn’t. The pupils’ committee was supposed to be a body of representatives. But its members were not elected; they were selected! They were good kids from good communist families, selected one from each class, to be groomed for the future political elite.

And so I had my story! The last class before the May 1 celebration was the gym; I remember sitting in the locker room after the class and jotting down notes. And just a few minutes later, I was presenting my proposal to an astonished audience of teachers, parents and pupils: To have self-management in our school, the pupils’ committee would need to be elected, not selected.

My intervention seemed to have stirred some controversy, because after we came back from the May 1 holidays, each teacher would begin teaching in our class with a monolog about the pros and cons of my proposal. I never understood what was really the issue. I thought my proposal was a proven theorem. And in the end they did elect a new committee. A month later I graduated, and began high school.

Looking back, I can see how much I lacked what is today called “social intelligence”. Nobody expected to hear how to change the school’s system, and really have self-management. Certainly not on a May 1 celebration! I was given an invitation to join the system. I was to give an equivalent of a keynote speech. All that was expected of me was to quote the school director and put him in the spotlight. And then also the self-management,  the pupils’ committee – and be in the spotlight myself! But I blew it. My political career ended before it started, never to take off again.

And so in sum, we may conclude that I misinterpreted the situation and missed my opportunity.

Or did I?

I am remembering this because now, as an academic researcher, I see myself doing something closely similar.

But on a much larger scale.

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