Maarja Vaino: Estonians invisible in Estonia

Maarja Vaino.
Maarja Vaino. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonian children have not been the focus of the Estonian education system for some time. Instead, it is on foreign students, immigrants and at best Estonians living abroad. It is as if Estonians living in Estonia are invisible creatures with almost no needs who do not have to be considered, Maarja Vaino finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Spring is the time of exams. Twelfth-graders on April 25 took the Estonian language state examination that is made up of two parts and assesses the student's functional reading and writing skills. A recent study found that Estonian students are still among the best in the world at that.

But there is always a reference base, and it is not good. That things aren't quite as bad in terms of reading and writing in Estonia as they are elsewhere doesn't mean they are good.

Teachers have been saying for years that results are slipping, while concerns for education are increasingly voiced by parents, teachers and scientists.

It seems that the only one not keeping an eye on relevant discussions is the Ministry of Education and Research that seems to be bravely marching in its own direction. One manifestation of this "direction" is consistently ignoring or undermining the importance of Estonian language and literature.

Literature teacher Tiina Veismann wrote in Postimees under the headline "Estonian state examination dropping the classics" (link in Estonian) that the Estonian state exam no longer favors knowledge of classic literature. And that the choice of exam topics will inevitably affect the contents of teaching. But what is it today? We can hear almost nothing on it, even though national curricula should follow a social contract and public debate according to the law.

A recent presentation of a project to "modernize curricula" held in a relatively narrow circle revealed that the content of curricula is subject to serious changes or at least attempts to blur the limits without plans for a broader public debate. For example, one plan is to refrain from including specific works of literature in Estonian and literature class.

Do I understand it correctly that literature will become a general denominator the contents of which every teacher will choose for themselves? There used to be a list of obligatory literature consisting of core national cultural texts and no one graduated without having at least heard of Koidula, Tuglas, Tammsaare, Paul-Erik Rummo or Viivi Luik. The obligation to know was turned into a recommendation to know years ago. More than a few teachers breathed a sight of relief and dropped "heavy literature" in favor of something lighter.

Are we now dropping specific writers and works even as recommendations? Too much compulsion, too little freedom? If knowing Estonia's cultural and literary history is no longer an exam requirement, we might as well stop teaching Estonian literature altogether and be done with it.

How much longer will we have dedicated teachers swimming upstream to try and teach children Estonian literature and culture at all costs? More so as the curricula modernization project also prescribes basing the recent subject-based division of lessons plans on general fields. This will make it unclear how many lessons of a given subject there will be every week.

For example, while a certain number of language lessons are in order, it would be unclear how many should be Estonian and how many foreign language classes. Would these decisions be made by each individual principal? Perhaps we should even stop teaching Estonian as people are born into it anyway. Therefore, we should hardly wonder at the ministry's reluctance to support the Society of Estonian Teachers' initiative and successful execution this year of the Estonian Literature Olympiad.

Let us unceasingly recall that our curricula lack the subject of Estonian cultural history, which only a handful of schools are teaching as an elective subject. Let us also recall that Russian schools in Estonia have the subject.

Does this not amount to discrimination of Estonians in the form of uneven education? Or could Estonian children at least attend classes in Russian to learn their culture's history?

Jokes aside, Estonian children have not been the focus of the Estonian education system for some time. Instead, it is on foreign students, immigrants and at best Estonians living abroad. It is as if Estonians living in Estonia are invisible creatures with almost no needs who do not have to be considered.

I believe that what is happening with so-called modernization of curricula, the state exam, language training, closing of rural schools etc. has gone too far. How can a ministry steps taken by which are directly opposite the spirit of the Constitution that protects national culture continue to function in Estonia? Is the Constitution no longer in effect?

A recent court judgment that stopped the closing of the small Lüganuse School gives us hope that at least some of it is still in force. But a wider look reveals literal demolition in education curated by the ministry. I have met seventh-graders who say they need more Estonian classes. The children understand, while decisionmakers do not.

Perhaps we could do without the armada of blockheaded officials? Let us hand the running of schools and educational content over to the children. I doubt things could get any worse as sandbox games and infantile decisions make for common phenomena on our education landscape already.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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