There’s no such thing as bad press – Lessons from FHS, Prague

flickr - Karlův most, Dmitry Lebedev

In this first institutional profile published on ELAI blog, we offer a snapshot overview of a liberal arts programme as reflected by one of their members. Liberal arts initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe started in the 1990s, but language barriers and sometimes arcane organizational arrangements limited their recognition. Today, Mgr. Vratislav Kozák tells us a little more about the Faculty of Humanities at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

The Institute for Liberal Education (Institut základů vzdělanosti, sometimes referred to as Institute for Fundamental Learning) was established at Charles University in Prague in 1994. Its original leadership included philosopher and lecturer Doc. Zdeněk Pinc and philosopher, translator, publicist, and lecturer Prof. Jan Sokol. It was created to provide study programmes in the humanities, and in social and cultural anthropology which were previously not offered at the University, and to answer important needs arising from the democratic transition. Since its foundation, FHS stayed in touch with and reflected the latest trends in university education. Researchers have attached a liberal arts tag to it over two decades ago. The mission of the Faculty of Humanities is to shift students' thinking and perceptions to another level in the context of text analysis, their own interpretation of topics etc. In 2000, after a period of growth, the Institute became an independent Faculty of Humanities (FHS).

The Faculty currently offers the following study programs: Bachelor in Liberal Arts and Humanities (offered in Czech or in English), 10 Master’s degrees (3 in English, 1 in German and 1 in French) and 10 doctoral study programmes (4 in English, 2 in French and 2 in German). FHS common Bachelor program runs in Czech (about 900 new students each year) and a smaller English version (accepting 40-50 students every year). More details about our bachelor are available here.

The Bachelor in Liberal Arts and Humanities is structured in a way to familiarize students with all the necessary areas of the Humanities (History, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, History, Psychology, etc.). Every student completes mandatory courses in the humanities and passes comprehensive exams relevant to each field. The curriculum requires all student to learn the basics of many Liberal Arts while trying to determine which and how many of these will be important for him/her regarding their future study or job search.

The program's signature feature is a widely opened study schedule that allows students to pursue their individual abilities and develop their interests. 50% of courses are chosen by students from a variety of optional courses to create their own study program according to their needs and preferences. By properly choosing other courses during the study, students can gradually specialize and focus either on further (Master's) studies in any of the relative theoretical branches or on the practical use of acquired skills and thorough practical knowledge of at least one foreign language, including professional translation skills, the ability of critical thinking and of sophisticated speech and writing. Great emphasis is put, above all, on self-reliance and responsibility training and on individual creative work, which allows developing further effective education and flexibility under the changing conditions on the labor market.

Graduating students pass comprehensive exams in the individual Liberal Arts and a defense of their respective bachelor thesis. That exam is an oral exam where the student will be given a topic, and he/she will prove that he/she is able to approach this topic from the perspective of various Liberal Arts.

Research-wise, the Faculty envisions itself to be an interdisciplinary nexus of philosophy, social sciences, and humanities. Both basic and applied research, on both international and national scale, are conducted not only in traditional fields but also in an interdisciplinary fashion. In line with its long-term plan, the Faculty puts a strong emphasis on the close connection between research, internationalization, and curriculum, and it has over 80 contracts with partner institutions from around the world relating to exchanges of students and teachers. In a consortium with leading German and French universities, it implements a joint program of German and French Philosophy, and through work with the non-academic sector, it further strengthens the position of the University as a leading public institution.

Was it difficult to establish a liberal arts foothold in the Czech Republic? It is fair to say that at the beginning, the program was not well understood or recognized. Some people said that our students – and faculty – just do not know what they are doing. If humanities are already considered a bad choice for the labor market, our liberal arts approach was an anathema only those who are completely lost can find attractive. It was quite unfair, especially because many employers require students to have a university degree, but which one exactly, they could not care less if you are a graduate of Charles University, which is considered the most prestigious in our country. But such myths die hard.

To give an example: FHS was mockingly labelled as “fakulta hledající smysl”: in translation, it can either mean “a faculty looking for a sense of its existence” (questioning the need to have a new humanities faculty at Charles University) or “a faculty looking for a meaning of life”. We embraced the insult and turned it around. Our platform was: yes, that is true that many students do want to find a meaning of life on their own and during their university study. They might not know who they want to be when they enter, and this is perfectly fine, and if they believe that FHS is helping them to figure it out, then we are delighted to be called whatever you prefer. It turned out that we must be doing something right about that since the number of applications to our Liberal Arts and Humanities program grown exponentially in the last few years.                                                

Vratislav Kozák, M.A. is a historian specializing in the history of societies. He is a graduate of traditional history on the Bachelor level as part of Liberal Arts and Humanities study program at Charles University – Faculty of Humanities. There he graduated the Master level study of Modern, Contemporary and Oral history. Now he is actively pursuing his PhD. in the Historical sociology department. Apart from that, he is a teacher/lecturer of modern history at Charles University – Faculty of Humanities, executive editor of the scientific journal Historical sociology and administrative coordinator of English Bachelor program Liberal Arts and Humanities at Faculty of Humanities – Charles University.

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