AMERICAN educators are scrambling to answer a sweeping call for help from their East European colleagues. The task is awesome: to help transform totalitarian education systems into much more democratic ones.
The American response has been swift and mixed. Enthusiastic teachers and Peace Corps volunteers have rushed abroad this summer to share their knowledge of English and teaching techniques. Other educators are helping to revise history and government texts. Many nonprofit groups and universities are aiding in similar ways under agreements with specific universities.
Leaders of some of the newly formed independent teacher unions in Eastern Europe made it clear at the recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) meeting here that the help is greatly appreciated and that it could never amount to too much.
``We need much more than Americans are able to provide,'' insisted Wiktor Kulerski, former leader of Teachers Solidarity in Poland and now vice minister for education.
``Everything you send, including old textbooks, will be used as much as possible,'' stressed Jaroslav Kalous, chairman of the schools committee of the Civic Forum of Czechoslovakia, one of the groups that helped spur free elections there last year.
Several East Europeans attending the AFT meeting and workshops said that the experience gave them their most graphic lessons yet in democracy.
Pokorni Zoltan, a spokesman for the Democratic Teachers Union of Hungary, said he was particularly impressed that the Massachusetts Teachers Union volunteered to pick up the garbage after a group picnic on the University of Massachusetts campus. He says he admires this show of ``moral capital,'' beyond any interest in power or money.
Only recently have both sides come to appreciate the extent of the need for education reform in Eastern Europe.
``I think the degree to which the whole educational system really needs to be revamped has even flabbergasted the East Europeans,'' says R. Bruce McColm, executive director of Freedom House, a group that monitors global human rights and civil liberties progress around the world. Freedom House has been working with the AFT to develop and translate new teaching materials.
The demand for change includes everything from teaching methods - such as the encouragement of student questions and critical thinking - to the content of such subjects as math and science, once regarded as free from ideology.
``We're literally talking about the creation of textbooks [devoid of political bias] in every discipline,'' says Mr. McColm. ``Certain areas of science such as psychology and psychiatry have been tainted by politics in the East Bloc.''
``It's everything - the total system has to change,'' agrees Eric Chenoweth, an official of AFT's Education for Democracy Project-International, which has provided everything from teacher union seminars in Eastern Europe to curriculum materials.
Mr. Chenoweth already notes some changes. Gone are compulsory classes in Russian, Marxism-Leninism, and military training.
Changes are also noticeable in higher education where party loyalty has often been as important as expertise. The American Council on Education's Barbara Turlington notes that a number of university professors and rectors have been let go. She says East Europeans are being forced to take a hard look at the structure of who was chosen to teach what, and why.
One of Eastern Europe's most pressing needs, as Poland's Mr. Kulerski tells it, is for teachers of teachers. He says Poland would like to set up 33 colleges to train future teachers with the help of American, French, and Canadian educators. ``The question is how fast can we educate new teachers,'' he says. ``Unfortunately it appears that many will have to be trained by those who have been training them for the last 45 years.''
Mr. McColm agrees. ``The big void right now in terms of all these programs is the need for Western educators to teach Eastern Europeans how to educate. ... That's not saying they should use the content of our teaching but more of the techniques. There's a need to teach the value of democratic behavior, tolerance, and debate.''
English is viewed as a strong language need. It is both the most common language used in the European Community and the choice in past years of Eastern Europe's underground. Some educators, such as Poland's Mr. Kulerski, hope to combine the teaching of English as a second language with the teaching of more democratic methods.
Many of the Americans involved see education as key to solidifying Eastern Europe's democratic political gains.
Chenoweth, however, terms federal efforts up to now to be ``paltry.''
He says Washington has not yet focused on the importance of that link.
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.