OLD Albania's fortress mentality is slowly changing. And nowhere is the change more evident than in the country's social character: the increased numbers of youth and the expansion of education. Sixty percent of Albania's 3 million people are under 25 years of age. The average age is 26, and the birthrate is still the highest in Europe, though the rapidly growing educated young generation seems likely to alter that.
But it is education that stands out increasingly as the big story in a country which, before World War II, had virtually only primary schools, few middle schools, and no secondary schools or universities. In 1945 the new regime could muster only 200 Albanians educated enough to fill official administrative posts.
Ninety-five percent of the population was illiterate. People with only elementary education became teachers, and peasant houses served as schools in the villages until schools were built.
The slogan ``More bread and more education for the people'' was coined by Enver Hoxha, the country's wartime resistance leader, who went on to rule Albania for 41 years until 1985.
Hoxha made Albania self-sufficient in grains. Results are even more evident in education. Tirana now has an impressive university (with 5,000 students). The capital and each sizable town around the country has a proliferating chain of middle and upper schools.
Encounters with young people throughout the country signal the reach of educational change. A girl in a peasant cottage on a cooperative farm in the north speaks English. She is studying for a degree in literature but will then move to an agricultural college to train as an agronomist.
When young people tell of their school interests they do not mention Marxism-Leninism, the ideology ostensibly underlying all their teaching. Such indoctrination seems to sit lightly with them. Except, that is, when it comes to patriotic questions like the defense of independence.
Education is strictly secular. Hoxha proclaimed Albania an atheistic state in 1967 and outlawed (and demolished) houses of worship - Roman Catholic and Islamic. Priests or anyone else striving to keep faith alive were often harshly treated.
Religious practice is still taboo, though ``private belief'' is now spoken of with tolerance. But it is little in evidence. Students say that their grandparents attended church, but that ``we are not interested.''