PAST PRESENT AND ITS MESSAGES
author: Pepka Boyadzhieva
title: Social Engineering. University Admission Policies Under the Communist Regime in Bulgaria. Sofia: Institute for Studies of the Recent Past/Ciela, 2010, pp.392.
Had there been more books like this one, Bulgaria’s socialist past would have been more past and less present. A study on the practice of a defunct political actor, Pepka Boyadzhieva’s book may be read as a warning of the dangers of any social engineering in which the plurality of perspectives, prospects and positions is ignored, socially significant values are subjected to the interests of one social group, and a single social order absorbs all others.
How could ‘significant and fascinating social values’ give rise to acts that renounce their own moral grounds and undermine the foundations of ‘living-together’? Pepka Boyadzhieva traces and investigates the history of this process, focusing on the university admission policies initiated and implemented by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) during its 45-year-long rule. Thus, by its subject-matter, the book fits into the historical sociology of socialism that emerged and developed as a separate field of research in Bulgaria after 1989. It is precisely with regard to the scientific reflection of socialist reality that the book’s contributions are most evident and that readers’ expectations are strongest.
Above all, Pepka Boyadzhieva’s study expands the perimeter of the illuminated zones of the communist past. Higher education is at the centre of interest in her study, but the focus is so finely ‘tuned’ (on access to higher education and its political regulation) that it allows her to explore and dissect the phenomenon in depth, revealing its universal and historically specific characteristics. In the context of the communist Party-State, higher education was not merely a territory and tool for policy implementation, it was a mechanism for social engineering aimed at reproducing the monopoly position of the ruling party. This instrumental role of higher education, governed by an invariable, narrow-group aim, makes it key to understanding the principles and mechanisms of functioning of the communist regime. A cognitive function which the analysis of higher education can perform with varying degrees of success depending on the chosen theoretical model.
The theoretical perspective of neoinstitutionalism, from which the study is conducted, has a potential for analyzing higher education in Bulgaria under the communist regime as an element that was isomorphic to the increasingly totalitarian institutional environment and which therefore reproduced the latter’s characteristics. The main question posed by the author is, ‘how did universities, as a specific type of institutions, adapt to the institutional environment of a totalitarian society, that is, to an environment that conflicted with the fundamental principles of their structure: institutional autonomy and academic freedom?’ (p. 19). Hence, the study of the process of institutionalization of socialist policies of university admission seeks ‘an answer not only to the question of how but also to the question of why given policies were institutionalized’ (p. 20). Special attention is given to the principles, norms and values that governed those policies, and to the actors and acts that implemented them. Through a meticulous analysis of a large corpus of documents, Pepka Boyadzhieva reveals the social transformation of the teaching staff and student population of Bulgarian universities. Launched in the name of the democratization of higher education and restoration of social justice under the Fatherland Front government as early as the autumn of 1944, this social transformation resulted in the establishment of a loyal but low-qualified partner of the BCP in the form of part of the specialists with higher education, through political purges, political favouritism and non-recognition of the significance and value of academic criteria of success and achievement. The whole history of access to higher education in socialist Bulgaria is represented by the author as ‘transformation of the university admission system from an academic into a state (party) problem’ (pp. 43-93), with compelling arguments in support of that thesis. The book provides a detailed account and analysis of the two forms of discrimination – negative (purges, prohibitions, character reference letters required for application to university) and positive (various privileges depending on social origin, party membership and loyalty of the parents, working-class status, working-class and peasant origins, place of residence, ethnic identity, gender, and the privilege of being ‘outside the rules’), as well as of the whole range of statutory acts and institutional procedures that legitimized those two forms of discrimination, and of actions that contravened them, all of which were invariably initiated by the ruling political party which operated in parallel with the government and academic structures. Through a careful comparison of adopted and published statutory acts, the author not only succeeds in empirically proving main characteristics of the BCP’s style of government – such as non-transparency in decision-making, ‘distorting’ and ‘doctoring’ information, or ‘controlling the limits of permitted publicity’ – but also formulates an important methodological rule in the study of the communist period: namely, the need to work with ‘the whole set of available materials and archives, and not just with the published statutory acts’ (p. 159).
An unquestionable contribution to the study of totalitarian society, this comprehensive, multi-layered and nuanced presentation of the system of prohibitions and controlled privileges in Bulgarian higher education under the communist regime (chapters 2, 3 and 4) is complemented by an analysis of their real-life functioning and real-life effects on the stratificational, moral, group, and individual plane (chapters 5 and 6). Here, too, Pepka Boyadzhieva makes us ‘witness’ (a) the flexible strategy of the ruling political party which changed, replaced, displaced, violated its own decisions but never deviated from the prime objective of preserving and strengthening its own monopoly position by building a loyal social base among the best-educated part of the population; (b) the efficiency and effectiveness of university admission policies, and their opposite effects; (c) the slow but certain moral erosion of Bulgarian society, where value hierarchies were not merely distorted but substituted. Through a comparative analysis of the higher education policies of the communist parties in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Pepka Boyadzhieva shows both the non-uniqueness and the specificity of the Bulgarian case, explaining it with several factors: priority importance of higher education to the BCP from the very beginning to the end of its rule, the all-encompassing and large-scale character of the measures undertaken, simultaneous application of discriminatory and preferential mechanisms, exclusive priority of social over academic criteria, rapid and radical imposition of the Soviet totalitarian model in all social spheres (Chapter 7, pp. 265-282). The long-term consequences of those policies resulted in a social structure that was not only reproduced over four decades but that determined the structural characteristics and behavioural models of the elites in different spheres of public life in post-socialist Bulgarian society. We only have to mention the finding, based on an analysis of empirical data and documental and archival sources, that from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1980s approximately 50% of all applicants every year were admitted to university thanks to official, and also often thanks to unofficial, social and political privileges – and we may draw the conclusion that part of the present Bulgarian elite aged over 40 is the product of that system.
Consistently applied to the socialist educational system, the analytical potential of neoinstitutionalism reveals that higher education in Bulgaria was wholly subjected to the monopoly and all-encompassing structure of political power, and that university admission policies were a political tool used for social engineering by the monopoly power-holder. The subject of research – higher education and its institutions, including those regulating access to higher education – proves to have been an element that was external to the context, and the sociological explanation for that is to be found in the structure-defining characteristics of totalitarian society. This theoretical perspective, however, fails to explain a number of paradoxes in the functioning of university admission policies under the communist regime that are noted by the author herself – such as the production of confidential information on the implementation of public resolutions, the creation of more privileges than there were potential beneficiaries, the transformation of social origin into a stake of access and limitations in a society that was supposed to overcome the limitations of social origin, the assignment of ever more moral-educative functions to higher education in the course of the ever fuller victory of the socialist system, the transformation of the ruling party into the biggest violator of the rules it itself had created, the establishment of executive bodies as carriers of normative functions or ‘co-authors of the rules’ in issuing character reference letters. The political management of socialist education, the changing language of communist argumentation, the transformation of socially significant objectives into a source of social injustice and restrictions, the substitution of value hierarchies, the overt or covert, public or internally limited resistance of the academic community against the imposition of non-academic principles and criteria could be understood, I believe, only if higher education is viewed as a field of mutually dependent interests, goals, positions and resources. The way in which tension or balance between them was kept, intensified or reduced could reveal the specificity of social relations under communism, with their typical individual and collective compromises, unpunished violations and shaken value-foundations. And it could thus make us wary of social experiments in which universally significant values are expropriated by a single political force, attached to a single power-position, and instrumentalized in the name of narrow-group interests.
- Svetla Koleva
- Pepka Boyadzhieva – Social Engineering. University Admission Policies Under the Communist Regime in Bulgaria