“You’re really not that bright, are you, Emina?” said Mira M., my elementary school math teacher. She looked at me with contempt, the kind even a 7-year-old could understand. I understood, but had not yet experienced, adult rejection on that scale.
In the days of Yugoslavian Communism, we used to address individual teachers as “comrade teacher,” corresponding to the male or female gender. Technically, a comrade is supposed to be someone to whom you feel close or upon whom you can rely, and because of this habit of speech, it is supposed to be the case that there develops a sense not only of solidarity but of complete equality. The irony (and many expressions within Communist regimes are chock full of ironies) is there was no such thing as comradely equality between students and teachers.
As children, we understood where our place was, and let me tell you, it was very low on the socialist totem pole—especially if your parents refused to be members of the Communist Party (as mine did). Hell, we weren’t even on the pole but miles and miles away from the circle where the pole stood. And so, for all the promised equality and supposed solidarity, there was an undeniable and rigid hierarchy, as is generally true in any human interaction but especially so in those that are purely ideological and political.
Comrade teacher Mira was a plump old woman but she may have been 30-years-old since “old” is a relative term to a child. I remember her fat fingers and the pronounced lines from the rhinestone rings she wore. Her words about my lack of intelligence echoed in my head. I didn’t know whether I was expected to say anything at all and I simply stared at the blackboard, which was full of mathematical scribbles. I seemed to have accepted the ensuing silence, which stretched into eternity. My lack of defiance made her accusation all the more plausible and truer by the minute.
“I don’t think you’re going to do well in life unless you start applying yourself. But I’m not sure whether even that will do the trick,” she said and raised her one eyebrow in pedagogical disapproval.
Do well? Because I don’t know how to do fractions, I won’t do well?
The crazy thing is, at that moment, I believed her. My entire existence seemingly depended on learning how to do fractions. After this little morality lesson in front of the entire class, she told me I had to stay after school because I needed additional studying. I went back into my seat in complete shame (a desk I shared with another randomly assigned student), and sat down as quietly as possible. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, any voices in the classroom or outside became a garbled mess, and I just stared at the picture of Comrade Tito that was placed at the center of the classroom facing all of us.
I certainly didn’t find any comfort in a dictator who had been dead for six years now but his Communist spirit was alive and well. The Communist propaganda was still used in textbooks. Our first-grade readers had pictures and mentions of Tito throughout. The societal hierarchy consisted of Tito, father, mother, and child, but we could not fail to notice that the picture of Tito was always above the parents. The State was our real parent.
Truth be told, I am not sure whether any of us took those lessons all that seriously, and at the very least, this was true of my generation growing up as we did in the late stages of Communism. By the time Tito died in 1980 and the mid-80s arrived, Communism was slowly exiting. In Bosnia, it was replaced by the genocidal ultra-nationalism of the Serbs, which was another totalitarianism in itself. Still, this is not to say that Communist habits, policies, and even the Communist aesthetic were not alive and well. It was felt in books we were told to read and in the assignments we were told to do.
Most of the material we read had to do with some kind of element of sharing and solidarity but these two seemingly good and moral concepts were always connected to the state and never to an individual or to the family. Everything was to be done for the good and the security of the state because to advance the cause of the state was conflated with the cause of the individual. Of course, this was one of the biggest lies to come from the Communist ideology, and Western liberals have been greatly misinformed: socialism has no human face no matter how hard they want it to be true.
I’ve lived in America now for over 20 years and have spent the better part of those years engaged within the American academy. The strange thing about the current trajectory of American schools is that it is becoming worse than anything I experienced during my childhood in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Naturally, that feels in many ways like a bizarre thing to say. I know how extreme it sounds, but I have come to the conclusion that education in America is both ambiguous and insidious. In Communist Yugoslavia at least we could know for certain what the regime we were living in was all about. We knew who Tito was and why we were made to make a pledge that “we will not stray from his path.” We knew why we watched movies about Communist victors over Hitler, why we read books that minimized religion and praised the state—it was all there, plain as day, propaganda out in the open. There was a kind of perverse freedom in that.
In America, we are now witnessing an education so poisonous, so devious, so unnatural that it wears not just one mask, but many. It insists on the concepts of sharing and solidarity as long as you don’t question the leftism of the teachers. It wears a mask of coddling and care but with a totalitarian intent. Bad teachers—the pedagogical vessels of leftist ideology—are like the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tempting Edmund with a plateful of Turkish delight and promises of prestige to gain his favor. Inevitably these promises are revealed in their intellectual cruelty and rampant dehumanization of everyone around her. The State is not the Mother or even a mediocre nanny. The State is the White Witch.
Of course, none of this is to deny that there are many excellent teachers and professors in America who deeply care for the well-being and intellectual growth of their students. But as education becomes increasingly leftist in its trajectory, what matters most is the creation of a collectivist society. The hearts and souls of individual students be damned.
Such “educators” are interested in their own advancement like anyone else. But unlike Communist careerists, leftist teachers and professors in America appear even to believe their own propaganda. The idea of individual voices scares the hell out of them because they are mediocre entities seeking power over young minds. On top of this deeply problematic psychological status, students are quite simply denied access to real knowledge and history, and so, unless they seek it out themselves, they do not know of the evils of Communism.
Throughout my years in the Yugoslavian school system, I went through the motions, kept my mouth shut, and sought to learn things on my own. The obvious contempt I felt was freeing in a way. I could feel contempt, too, and defy those people.
I read as many books as I could get my hands on, I taught myself English, and I reveled in seeing American heroes in American movies. Such a shame that when I became a student in America, especially in graduate school, I had to do much the same thing! Again, I went through the motions, keep my mouth shut, and sought to learn things on my own. We are facing a terrible suppression of free speech and thought, and we ought to be incredulous and angry that the very thing, which was guaranteed by the Founders, is being taken away.
Communist education always fails. Take it from me—I never managed to learn fractions.
(or How I Never Learned Math)