Reviews 2015

Ad usum Delphini. O szkolnej edukacji literackiej – dawniej i dziś [Ad usum Delphini: On literary education in schools then and now]

Ad usum Delphini. O szkolnej edukacji literackiej – dawniej i dziś [Ad usum Delphini: On literary education in schools then and now]. Dorota Michułka. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwerstytetu Wrocławskiego, 2013. 438 pages. 45,00 PLN (hardback).

Dorota Michułka, the author of Ad usum Delphini, analyzed and interpreted a rich material: her sources are about 140 textbooks edited in 1863-1914, over 30 textbooks from the period of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL, 1945-1989) and about 140 contemporary textbooks (published after 1999). A glance at the bibliography and the index of names suffices to notice that the book is the effect of thorough interdisciplinary studies: literary history; pedagogical, sociological, historical and psychological approaches, as well as theory of culture and literature. The main field of research is literary education in diachronic and synchronic perspectives.

The broad field of research makes the book interesting and inspiring for teachers and for scholars across various disciplines. The author takes into consideration both Polish and foreign literature that has been used in Polish schools. She also often refers to latest international studies. The chosen subject is currently being discussed not only in academic circles. Ad usum Delphini touches such "hot" topics as school literary canons; the problem of adaptations; shortening, modification and fragmentation of literature for pupils’ use; gender issues’ balance between didacticism and artistic values of chosen books; relativization of value systems; multiculturalism; regional education; the role of images/pictures in literary education; or problems of identity (looking for a "real" self, especially by adolescents).

The study is divided into five parts (the last one, a summary, is also translated into English, 416-418). The first part (Theoretical Aspects of School Literary Education) consists of three chapters clarifying the origins of the book’s title: the 17th-century concept ad usum Delphini, which becomes a motto for later adaptations of literary texts used in schools. The author presents motivations for and ways of using chosen books and their parts by teachers, concluding that "the sets of texts and excerpts from them reprinted in textbooks (then and now) have reflected...educational assumptions inherent in pedagogical systems and the authors’ ideological preferences....manipulations of literary texts, shortenings and facilitations, or choosing a proper passage often led to deformation of books’ meanings and strengthen desired reading strategies" (24).1 Michułka states that "the fragment is a child of our times" (36) and shows different contexts where and how fragments of literary texts are used. In the conclusion, the author stresses that school anthologies and readings reflect socio-cultural tendencies, educational theories, ethical systems, ideologies and pedagogical problems that are characteristic of given times.

The second part (7 chapters) of the study is entitled Literature – culture – education (school textbooks of the second half of the 19th century). It is written both from a topical point of view and from a generic perspective. The author presents the most popular school genres and topics of the 19th century: simplified school readings, parables, legends, hagiographies, short stories, religious inspirations, images of village life (connected with a special space and time of childhood), heroic characters ("heroes of fight and heroes of work," 97), or mountain fascinations. The chapter What sex is a school reading? deals with social ideology of gender, starting from the fact that in the 19th century textbooks were written separately for girls and boys (as well as for younger and older grades or students from towns and villages). It is worth noticing that Michułka devotes several pages to the work of Klementyna Tańska-Hoffmanowa, who was a very important pedagogue and writer but nowadays tends to be forgotten. Michułka also reconstructs the 19th-century gender role models recommended for children. The example of a new female model—a suffragette and businesswoman—was a popular textbook author and pedagogue, Anastazja Dzieduszycka. Although rarely mentioned in literary studies, she is worth remembering. Michułka describes her life and work in a separate chapter which ends with the conclusion that ‘in times of globalization and social integration in postmodern Europe and in the context of the discussion about a vision of new, practical education, Dzieduszycka’s theories seem to be especially interesting.... humanistic education, according to her, should have interdisciplinary...and practical character....Knowledge acquired in school is to become a pretext for developing specific skills and competences" (214-215). This part of Michułka’s study ends with bringing up Piotr Chmielowski’s and Jean Piaget’s ideas on the styles of reading. Chmielowski was an eminent Polish historian of literature, literary critic and pedagogue. The author proves that his ideas, albeit 100 older than Piaget’s, have a lot in common with the views of the famous French psychologist. Hence Michułka draws the reader’s attention to the topicality of Piotr Chmielowski’s works (219).

The second half of Ad usum Delphini (beginning with the third part) focuses on literary education in post-war Poland, dividing the period into three parts: the times of socialist realism, the 1960s and the 1970s, and the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. At first the author shows changes in school approach to literature, beginning with "socialism in a school uniform" (227), the phenomenon of Newspeak, and a vision of a socialist hero who was usually a worker, a policeman or famous communist politician. All readings were to serve "the only right" ideology. Biographies proved a very important genre, but they did not describe lives of saints but of socialist and communist activists, e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Marx and the like. Moreover, a new literary space appeared: Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Short stories show the heroic past of this special place on a map of the country as well as its wonderful present, full of people’s enthusiasm and happiness. The chapter devoted to the period after 1999 (the beginning of the national school reform) posits: "New identity?" and tries to answer it, outlining the shift from ideology as the central point of literary education to the emphasis on reading skills and literary text interpretation, from the almost uniquely Polish (and Soviet) to European, and in general, human point of view. The global turn, however, coexists with strong regional movements: folk tales and legends appear again as the "tools" of regional education. New genres representing speculative fiction also start to dominate. The fantasy novel has gained a special status not only among young readers but also in school readings. Michułka analyzes such important books as Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) and Polish writer Dorota Terakowska’s Córka czarownic [The witches’ daughter] (1991). Both of them show "the inner ethical complexity of psychological portraits of characters" (418).

Michułka also devotes some attention to Tomek Tryzna’s Miss Nobody (1994), called by Czesław Miłosz the first Polish postmodern novel and adapted for the screen by Andrzej Wajda. It is an example of "new comparative perspectives"—this time a literary work in comparison to its film adaptation. The same perspective can be used while talking about comic books, which are becoming more and more popular also in school education, or rapped versions of literary classics like works by Adam Mickiewicz, Aleksander Fredro, Henryk Sienkiewicz, or Władysław S. Reymont. Dorota Michułka claims that such forms ‘should be adapted by the modern school to make literature more comprehensible for students’ (418). This statement is the final conclusion of the whole study. Throughout her book, Michułka points to such elements of tradition and modernity that can nowadays encourage children to read and make reading pleasant and interesting for them, which appears to be the main goal of literary education in the 21st century.

Krystyna Zabawa
Jesuit University Ignatianum, Poland


1 All translations from Polish are mine.