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Kundera in class

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“It is great material to work with. Finally we get to work on something authentic. It seems like we have until now been stuck in times of Havlíček Borovský,” said a 23-year-old student of journalism dressed in a colourful shirt on the ground floor of Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences on the Vltava bank. A new social studies course, which was first introduced in November last year, is starting in just a few minutes. Entitled “The Kundera case in Czech media 2008”, the course, which is taught within the media studies programme, aims to help students find out for example how today’s media cover our communist past and what impact it has on Czechs.

What happened

At 2pm, seven young men and women are sitting down around a table in a small study room. Most of them are students of journalism around 20. “It is closely related to reality. It won’t be some kind of boring library work,” said 4th grader Michal Mareš. The girl sitting next to him, Barbora Vaníčková, is hoping to learn more about history in the class. “We don’t know anything about it. I feel like our parents’ generation finds it difficult to talk about it. They don’t seek to find the truth about their life under communism,” she said. The student dressed in the colourful shirt believes that something similar is happening in the local school of “journalism”. “Most of the professors taught under communism and the students can sense that some topics are taboo for them. The teachers will rather drawn us in theories on how to open up the past,” he said.

And what do students think about the controversy surrounding Kundera? (The controversy erupted last year, after this magazine published a document, according to which the famous writer reported a western intelligence agent in the 1950s, who then spent 14 years in a communist prison.

Most of them see it on a similar scale as articles in the Czech media, which, in their opinion, did not offer many interpretations: Either reporting someone is “a fatal sin” for which Kundera will not be forgiven or it was about the “mistake of a world-renowned writer”. “For me that whole case was something like destroying idols,” says Jan Martinek, one of the students. “Something happened, and we can’t keep avoiding it forever.”

But a girl with long hair disagrees. “I can’t side with one or the other. It was a difficult time, and we should blame people for that. That way will never come to terms with it. I can admire Kundera as a writer, and I can admire him less as a person.” “But we want to analyse the case, so our opinions are irrelevant,” says Zuzana Tejnická, concluding the debate. On the table are the materials being analysed: charts with lots of columns and the young researchers get to work. Today their goal is to organise their findings. You can hear words like “fault” and “morality” from the group, as the students discuss their findings. The course, for which 10 students signed up, is taught by Ulrike

A positive direction

The project “The Kundera Case in Czech Media 2008” is part of a masters degree journalism course called “The media and society”, for which 10 students have signed up. It is taught by Ulrike Notarpová from the Goethe Institute. She has a degree in Slavic and German studies and has been living in the Czech Republic for 10 years. She has been teaching at the Media Studies department for three semesters. “I am mainly interested in media and their place in society: What it is that we as citizens want to find out through the media, and how their portrayal is reflected in our culture,” says Notarpová.

One of the topics this semester is to look for an answer for the basic question, how is the Czech communist past portrayed and written about in the media. “It was simple: I suggested that the students themselves choose a topic, and after a short discussion, they decided on Kundera,” explains Notarpová. “His case offers fascinating study material. It lets us address some of the key themes of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s.”

The team of students uses the content analysis of individual texts to collect and organise words into five categories with titles like “associations with socialism”, “associations with democracy”, “facts about the case and Kundera’s work”, “evaluation” and “critique”. These are then divided into subcategories, and through their analysis, the students work their way to their goal. “It seems that the Czechs see their past in a very specific and negative way. And that after 20 years of living in a democratic system, they look to an example – normally this is the west – when it comes to their values. They care about how the rest of the world judges them and who they have become after entering the European union,” says Notarpová.

And has some similar analysis been done in another post-communist country? “As far as I know, no it hasn’t,” says Notarpová. “But when I lectured in Poland, we analysed young people’s attitudes to Germany. Traditionally, it is a very critical stance. The interesting thing was that the young Poles’ attitude changed for the better following the World Football Championship that took place in Germany two years ago. The suddenly saw a country of “Nazis” in a more friendly light. I would be interested to look into the relationship between young Czechs and young Germans next,” says Notarpová. “After Kundera case, it could be another project.”

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