Hope, freedom and a sense of humor / Joe Nathan’s Column

Originally published at: http://hometownsource.com/2015/09/23/joe-nathan-column-hope-freedom-and-a-sense-of-humor/

Today I’m writing from Europe. This column was started in Prague, Czech Republic, and finished in Linz, Austria. So far, my trip has produced wonderful memories and a few reminders. I hope some of them will be useful for schools and families.

Prague was an unexpected delight. Some of my family came from what used to be called Czechoslovakia. I was not prepared for the deep, moving desire for freedom that I encountered in Prague. In their plays, music, sculpture and streets, there is a constant theme – we will work for freedom. Hundreds of years went by before the Czechs achieved the freedom they sought – from, for example, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and the Soviets. But deep inside, the force for freedom remained.

Finally, and quite unexpectedly, they achieved it in in 1989: a peaceful, nonviolent “Velvet Revolution.” As the republic’s first president, playwright Václav Havel told the nation in his first presidential speech: “People, your government has returned to you!”

The republic’s first president, Václav Havel, proclaimed freedom for the Czechs in 1989 in front of this building in Prague. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

A key question for the Czechs, and for all free people, is how wisely, and how well, we will use our freedom? Will we use it only for personal advancement? Or will we combine personal betterment with advocacy for others?

Havel described what we can hope for: “I dream of a republic independent, free and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn.”

That brings us to hope.

For Havel, hope was not a mindless faith that everything will work. He knew, as most of us do, that there will be mistakes, errors and, indeed, tragedies. But he also presented a vision of possibilities – of people working together to help create a better world.

One of my hopes for schools is that they will help young people learn to develop the skills and desire to be active, constructive citizens. Knowing how to read, write, do math, understand biology, etc. are not goals in themselves. They are skills we can and should use to help ourselves as well as others.

It’s not enough to dream about a better world. As Havel told his country: “Vision is not enough; it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps; we must step up the stairs.”

As people walk through Prague, they see both beautiful and ironic things. There are magnificent, soaring, awesome bridges, towers, theaters and cathedrals; a mesmerizing, rotating, constantly changing statue of the head of the writer Franz Kafka; and, by the same artist, a sculpture of two men urinating on a map of Czechoslovakia (intended to convey the artists’ sense of what the Soviet Union did to this country).

So as a new school year begins, I hope we consider some of the messages and questions from Prague. There is a deep desire for freedom – but once attained, a key question becomes, how do we use it? I hope schools help young people develop their talents, skills and insights, both for themselves and to help serve others. And as we debate education and other social issues, I hope we retain what Havel described as essential for a free, healthy nation: “a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.