Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

How to change a country by means of education?–2

Ulo VOOGLAID: “Democracy is a function of culture – otherwise it turns into a set of public deception ploys”
11 June, 2018 - 16:30
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

In the first part of the interview (see No. 34, June 5, 2018), the well-known Estonian philosopher and statesman Ulo Vooglaid reflects on the formation of elites, the preconditions for successful reforms, and the importance of service, spirituality, and planning in the context of societal changes. Read below about the place of upbringing and patriotism in the system of education, drawbacks of the Bologna Agreement, and the nature of democracy.


In the past few years, Ukraine’s education officials have been endlessly trying to reduce the number and volume of compulsory liberal-arts disciplines in non-core curriculums on the grounds that a narrower specialization is needed. What do you think of this viewpoint?

 “Society is in need of educated people in all the spheres of life, including, naturally, industrial production, agriculture, and trade. If somebody really intends to withdraw liberal arts from the system of education, it is sheer horror. In these conditions, a generalist cannot emerge in principle.

 “Research shows that the fundamental phases of education, which fall on the earliest age and even the prenatal period, are of paramount importance for the formation of a personality. We call it ‘education in the womb.’ What is from the moment of birth until the age of three is ‘education in the nest.’ At this stage an individual acquires the idea of himself as well as ethic and esthetic notions, forms the sensation of ‘I,’ ‘we,’ and ‘they,’ and learns the native language.

 “We should understand that education does not begin in the kindergarten or school. A human begins to receive education the moment parents ‘send a letter to the stork.’ It is very important for him or her to feel warm and cozy, without any fear or alarm. The likelihood of neuroses and psychoses depends on this period to a considerable extent. The question is whether one will grow into a subject or an object of manipulations. At a very early age, in the kindergarten, it is a conscious person who has rights, duties, and freedom of actions. He or she must know why it is necessary to observe certain rules, do something one way, not another. This lays the foundation of a personality.

 “As for the next phases, we should know that the ultimate goal of an elementary school leaver is not confined to being promoted to secondary and then higher school. Life is multifaceted, and we are speaking of a person who receives the passport of a citizen and will soon take part in social and cultural life. He or she is fully responsible for what they are doing as well as for what they are not doing, although they should do. The graduate should be prepared for work, and know how to defend not only himself, but also others as well as nature, culture, the native language, the honor and dignity of the state – with weapons in hand, if necessary. Work, creation, cognition – one must be prepared for all the spheres of public life.

 “In the higher school, what really matters is not specialty but personality – as a subject, an active beginning of certain processes for which one must be responsible. What is important here is experience in terms of not only the specialty, but also the profession and the office held.”

There is a widespread opinion in Ukraine’s educational circles that upbringing is only good at the school stage. The idea is that school should inculcate civil patriotism, certain moral guidelines, etc., in children (which is far from always the case in reality, unfortunately), whereas the university should remain “neutral” in this matter. But it is hardly achievable in reality, for every teacher also has values and persuasions of their own which they convey, deliberately or not, to students. Do you agree to this interpretation of the place of upbringing in the system of education?

 “No, in my view, it is a terrible approach. I am convinced that upbringing takes precedence over education. Knowledge, skills, and experience are only some of the prerequisites, but human life centers around the personality, subjectness, soul, world-view, the human being and his position in public and cultural life. This is what really matters.

 “An individual is brought up and educated not only in school and university – experts estimate that it is a question of not more than 10 percent here. Ninety percent is accounted for by all the other civic institutions: above all, the family, and the system of mass communication and information, sport organizations, and any other nongovernmental initiatives.

 “It is worthwhile to define what education and learnedness is. There are at least 10 viewpoints on this. To get a full picture, we must take all them into account. For example, we can regard education as a lifelong process. It is a process of forming preparedness for various situations at different stages of life, which culture and society offer. It is impossible to evaluate education by inspecting schools. You can only evaluate the result of this activity – whether or not it meets the expectations of public and cultural life.

 “It is very important that an individual should grow into a patriot who wants to serve his country and nation and is preparing for this at every moment of his life.”


I think the fear that upbringing is part of the system of education may be the result of a totalitarian legacy. For both the USSR and the Third Reich were trying hard to “bring up a new man.”

 “Maybe. It is important to note that the effects of upbringing are not produced in a game situation – the process requires a serious attitude. Is it shameful to love your country culture, nature? Of course not! It is an honor, a natural need for man. We should in no way give in to enemy propaganda in this matter. Are we really striving to produce an individual who will learn all subjects but end up as a rascal? There’s nothing to argue about here. Bringing up a sound-minded and adequate patriot is the primary task.”

After all, one is happier when these contexts are present in his life, when this life is not confined to his purely personal interests and has broader public and cultural horizons.

 “Exactly! Ideals (both personal and national) are an important quality of any personality. Serving the ideals makes life meaningful.”

I know that you are critical of the Bologna Process in education. Why?

 “I remember everybody saying in 1999, when the Bologna Agreement was signed, that, while earlier it took four years to gain higher education, now it will take five (three years of the bachelor’s course and two years of the master’s course). But, as we can see, the majority of students confine themselves to the bachelor’s degree. It is very difficult to call three years of study a university education. Pardon my harsh words, but I can only offer my condolences to those who think so. If one who has only a bachelor’s degree is allowed to work in a university, it is abnormal, to say the least.

 “The objective of the higher education system is to train, above all, an educated person, not a degree-bearing specialist, and increase the number of intellectuals in all the required fields. It is not a question of choice but a prerequisite for the existence and development of society. In addition to giving a specialty, the university provides training with due account of the profession, position, and ability to cognize and create. The graduate must be able to begin practical activity in a certain field. If the objective is only to prepare for the next stage of education, as the Bologna Process suggests, what one is going to do after gaining a doctoral degree?

 “The Bologna Process calls for students to draw up programs on their own, but most of them are not prepared to do so. If doctors were also trained on these principles, this would have a deleterious effect on patients’ life expectancy.”


There is an opinion that modern-day democracy is more and more turning into sort of “democracy of minorities.” Major efforts are being made to preserve local identities, while universal values are being either ignored or, on the contrary, so emasculated and “worn out” due to constant use that they are in fact turning into empty words bereft of any sense. For example, everybody talks of “human rights,” but do people know where this concept came from and what it means? Do you agree that this problem exists?

 “Yes, of course. You are asking about ‘modern-day democracy.’ But who developed this modern-day idea of democracy? Who decided that the so-called minority has all the rights, while all the other people must observe them? Unfortunately, this improper idea is very common. I think we must ‘straighten our back.’ Democracy is a function of culture. Democracy is people who know and respect one another, have a feeling of shame, and strive to behave normally, in accordance with the expectations of others. Only in these conditions is democracy possible. Otherwise, democracy turns into a set of public deception ploys. We have seen these sad changes take place in the past few years.

 “Winston Churchill once said that if something depended on elections, they would have been banned long ago. Certain figures have always been trying to use elections for consolidating and preserving their power even after their own death. Democracy is impossible when people are uneducated, uninformed, and inexperienced. What’s the use of elections if you know nothing?

 “Ballots should bear the names of the people who really know what to do if they are elected. If you’ve been elected to parliament, you must know what legislation is and how the law works as a regulatory mechanism. To be still more exact, mechanisms of impact must be brought into play. You must know this, and only then you will have a moral right to push multicolored buttons.

 “Another enormous task is to exercise top control over the activity of all civic constitutional institutions. One must understand their purpose, goals, rights, and duties, and know the prerequisites that allow one to govern, manage, and conduct other target-oriented processes. One must know society, people, the laws and regularities of the formation of various relationships – in other words, you must be an educated person or, to be more exact, a generalist. To ask the people for the right to participate in parliamentary activity, you must first prepare yourself very seriously. It is a tremendous honor, but, first of all, it is a very important task to serve your nation – not to simulate service but to serve indeed. Only this kind of ruler will earn society’s respect.

 “It is primitive to identify democracy with elections only. Under normal circumstances, the people, as the highest power-forming body, has the right to show legislative initiatives, hold referendums on various issues, and take part in shaping the organizational mechanisms of public and cultural life. For, as it was said above, an individual asserts his activity and responsibility by way of real participation in decision-making. Once he withdraws from this process, he sinks into passivity, apathy, and alienation (in the psychic and sociological senses). You cannot order a person to be active. Activity forms by itself, but this requires the creation of relevant preconditions.

 “We have discussed all this at our meetings in Ukraine, and I can assure you that there are a lot of people here who understand the essence of these fundamental societal issues.”

By Roman GRYVINSKYI, The Day