To Reform the World Means to Reform Education(1)

Agata Siwiak

The RePrezentacje project intends to give a voice to diverse groups of people – regardless of their background, social or economic status, nationality, age and health condition – by means of activities that span the border between art, activism, criticism and social practice. The series is, as it were, a blueprint for a world where every community and every individual is recognised and represented in the public space. A vision of reality where no topic is marginalised, human needs and dreams can find complete resonance, and economic, social and cultural inequalities and resulting conflicts are articulated so as to seek solutions that make change a possibility. The first in a planned series of RePrezentacje projects is subtitled New Education and dedicated to children and adolescents. The idea is rooted, on the one hand, in indignation at the disregard for children and young people’s rights and needs that prevails on the political and educational levels and, on the other hand, in the desire to find alternatives that make positive changes possible. I can see this potentiality in the feminist notion of ethics of care as well as in the educational and political practice of Janusz Korczak and his associates: Stefania Wilczyńska, Stefania Sempołowska, Maryna Falska, and Maria Podwysocka.

Workshopping for RePrezentacje began in July 2018. Our work is inspired by the awareness that „a child is already a human being” and we honour his/her “right to respect”. The workshops have taken place in various districts of Warsaw, in cooperation with local actors – NGO’s and public institutions. During the first Biennale Warszawa, we are going to open a collective space to be co-created by children and artists, named Przestrzeń bez granic (Endless Space). It will be marked with egalitarianism and respect for children, democracy and human rights.


Korczak: Childhood as a Domain of Leftist Reflection and Politics

Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit, 1878-1942) was aware that childhood is not a phantasmic land of no worries. He knew how cruel it can be and how this can affect later life, weighing on the condition of society as a whole. As a doctor, he visited extremely poor neighbourhoods where children were dying of malnutrition in mouldy basements. His own childhood was not easy, in spite of growing up in a well-to-do family. His father would often be unpredictable and violent; when his attacks worsened and were a danger to the family, he was placed in a psychiatric institution. Korczak was 12 at the time. Neither was he happy with his school where corporal punishments abounded. This is reflected by his ghetto diaries as well as his novel Kiedy znów będę mały (When I Am a Youngster Again, 1925) whose main character – Korczak’s alter ego – precisely describes scenes of physical abuse of children by teachers. He firmly opposed child-raising underpinned with corporal punishment: he knew this could effectively discipline a child but the suffering would stay in him as a life-long wound. In 1980, psychoanalyst Alice Miller would publish the book Am Anfang war Erziehung (known in English as For Your Own Good), which would give rise to research on “black pedagogy” analyzing impacts of violence on children. It would be found that people who were subject to violence as children, often grow up to use violence on those in their own care, thus perpetuating the patterns of discrimination and repression.

Korczak’s sensitivity to child suffering was enormous but it was not lordly and patronising. His biographer Joanna Olczak-Roniker wrote:

The young now see him as a martyr that hopefully nobody will ever have to emulate. A man of flesh and bones turned to a monument. Someone so rebellious and teasing, always walking his own ways, must feel ill at ease when placed on a marble postument. (…) The “children’s friend” cliché that stuck to him must be striking him as repulsively sweetness.(2)


A non-religious activist and irreverent pedagogue, fascinated by socialist ideas, he knew that “to reform the world means to reform education”. His identity was formed by leftist circles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a student of medicine, Henryk Goldszmit began to attend the “Flying University”, an informal underground academy in post-partition Poland, which also admitted female students. He was influenced by lecturers such as a Marxist economist, anthropologist and sociologist Ludwik Krzywicki and free-thinking commentator Wacław Nałkowski. It was during his college time that Korczak met Stefania Sempołowska (she was headmistress of the girls’ boarding school where he tutored as part of his pedagogy training). She was an outstanding educator, children’s rights militant, and opponent of racism and chauvinism, who organised a congress of delegates of teacher circles in the former Kingdom of Poland during the Revolution of 1905 and supported political prisoners. The year 1904 saw a true breakthrough in Korczak’s life when he worked as a tutor at a summer camp organised for the poorest children by the charitable Summer Camp Society founded by Stanisław Markiewicz. The Society was supposed to serve everybody regardless of religion, but the camp houses were divided on the basis of creed due to the necessity of keeping a separate kosher kitchen for the Jewish children. Korczak worked with the Jewish children at Michałówka. The underlying idea was to provide a month of carefree rural life, away from poverty, hunger and slums. He believed those few weeks could empower the children by showing them that a different, better life existed. He wrote about the miseries of little Warsavians in his heart-wrenching books Dziecko salonu (The Child of a Parlour, 1907) oraz w Jaśki, Jośki i Srule (Johnnies, Joshes and Sruls, 1909).

The Revolution of 1905 was followed by significant liberalisation of the czarist regime: Polish was admitted in schools, people’s universities were established. Leftist intelligentsia came out of the underground and could openly manifest its beliefs such as respect regardless of social background, class or ethnicity, sensitivity to poverty and capitalist exploitation. On the other hand, nationalism was on the rise – Roman Dmowski and his National-Democratic Party were gaining support. It can be said that Korczak operated in a reality that was as antagonised as Poland today. The present-day increased civil activity on behalf of women, refugees and political transparency coincides with a flourishing of organisations that are pro-fascist yet legalised.

In 1907, the assimilated Jews of Warsaw founded the “Pomoc dla Sierot” (Aid for Orphans) association whose aim was to support Jewish children. In 1909, Henryk Goldszmit became a member of its board, and 1912 saw the creation of Dom Sierot (Orphan Home) in Krochmalna street, Warsaw, which he managed until 1942 (under the Nazi occupation, it was moved to Chłodna and Śliska streets in the ghetto) together with Stefania Wilczyńska – pedagogue and graduate of the University of Liège, Belgium. The two educators introduced innovative methods: special boxes were provided where the children could drop their anonymous letters of complaint, questions and confidences. The letters were always carefully read and worked through by the teaching staff. Children took turns with duties, learning to be careful and acquiring a sense of responsibility for common possessions.

At a teachers’ parliament convened in 1919, Stefania Sempołowska appealed for a modern school that would be independent from the Church (!) and tolerant, as well as for extending care to disadvantaged children: If the State does not take care of those children today, many more hospitals, sanatories, correction facilities and prisons will have to be built [tomorrow]. Children who are left without care can be a horrible curse of our future.(3) Sempołowska knew that violence does not occur without a reason – it is rooted in a childhood deprived of caring and love.

We need to be aware of that truth today as we look at Marches of Independence [yearly mass processions organised by nationalists on Poland’s Independence Day]. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion(4), looking at communities, divided them into “work groups”, which are realistic in their assessment of reality and their place in it, and „basic assumption groups”. The latter do not reflect critically on their structures, ideas or leaders. They are convinced of their infallibility, and unified in their psychotic fantasies and anxieties. They are both destructive and self-destructive, aiming to humiliate, or, in extreme cases, exterminate the phantasmal enemy. Acts of destruction tend to consolidate this kind of a group, and the resulting sense of guilt can only be dissolved by another aggressive act which is then projected on “others”, “aliens”, the threatening ones. Violence and hate from “basic assumption groups” should not be condoned, but we should be aware of our shared responsibility for what our country will be like and how the Independence Day of November 11 will be celebrated in the future. Weak kids need strength, and when they do not find it in an empathic community, they look for it in destructive formations.

In 1919, Korczak, along with Maryna Falska – educator and socialist with a revolutionary past and liaisons with the Polish Socialist Party – and Maria Podwysocka, inaugurated the children’s home called Nasz Dom (Polish for Our Home) in Pruszków near Warsaw, which moved to the Warsaw district of Bielany less than a decade later. The institution was established by the Department of Working Class Child Care that was founded for that specific goal by the Central Committee of Trade Unions, of which Falska was an associate. The home housed both Polish and Jewish children. This was Korczak’s dream come true: he believed that a better world was possible, without ethnic, class or religious divisions.

National independence inspired the pedagogue to initiate a unique experiment, designed to prepare children and adolescents for conscious participation in a democratic society: it was to instil in them a system of state organisation, respect for the common good and social sensitivity. Nasz Dom turned into a self-governed republic – a newspaper was published which served as a platform of free expression, and children as well as tutors were subject to one judiciary, whereby all matters were decided with utmost respect for the child’s dignity and on presumption of innocence. Writing was another avenue for Korczak’s work to raise children’s socio-politico-economic consciousness. The main character of his novel Bankructwo małego Dżeka (Little Jack’s Bankruptcy, 1924) founded a cooperative where everything was put to the service of the common good. The writer presents to children a world where social responsibility is understood as overriding the rules of a free-market economics. This positive story is actually an exception in Korczak’s writing. The democratic children’s homes he organised with so much effort in real life – utopian worlds premised on a belief in equality and fairness – were taking shape in reality, while those same ideas were falling apart in his literary works, morphing into dystopian visions, best exemplified in King Matt the First and Król Maciuś na bezludnej wyspie (King Matt on a Desert Island). It is as if fiction became a reservoir for his sense fear, powerlessness and disillusionment.



There are striking similarities on many levels between the reality in which Korczak lived and our own time, especially the recent years when Roman Dmowski’s ideas have seen a revival. Rights of the weakest, including children, continue to be disregarded. Leftist activists are taking over the responsibilities which a democratic state should bear. The right-wing policies are destructive for the commons, feeding into the rise of nationalist attitudes. The radical right’s phantasmal enemy has many faces: a Jew, a refugee, the so-called “gender ideology”. Fascist-leaning militias legally march on official holidays, hate talk has conquered the public media. The weak government is primitively playing the cards of a mythical national community, “sacredness of family” and the Catholic One God to win the votes of those Polish people who are frustrated and disillusioned by the neoliberal transformation.

This is the reality for children and young people in Poland today. They are growing up with their rights disrespected and their agency unrecognised, steeped in insecurity. Without asking their opinion, the government decided to institute a reform of education, the results including uncertainty whether secondary schools would have enough places for primary school alumni. Young people are deprived of the right to secular and rational education in sexual and gender issues. The PiS government is unleashing a disgusting smear campaign against LGBTQIA+, oblivious to the fact that non-heterosexual children are sometimes bullied and hounded in schools, which has led to a number of suicides. Violence on the part of the Roman Catholic Church is pervasive – from its most appalling forms like child rapes covered up by Church authorities to religion classes where young people are instructed about the “sins” of  contraception, abortion and homosexuality. A generation that is being raised in guilt will have to either act out violently by reproducing the discriminatory ideas, or turn the violence inwards, leading to self-aggressive and self-destructive behaviours. The Roman Catholic morality also presumes disregard for women’s rights, as well as discrimination against girls early in life, reproducing patriarchal and misogynous clichés that find their way to officially approved textbooks.

On the other hand, the rightist politicians are cunningly appealing to societal sensitivity to economic exclusion – an exclusion that has been persistently ignored for the last three decades of neoliberal state policies. The state inconsiderately hands out the 500+ allowances for families with more than one child, and makes populist promises of universal handouts to more and more sections of society. Poverty is a fact and a strengthened welfare system is necessary, but that of the ruling party sounds rather like pre-election propaganda. A single mother of one child is the system’s pariah, not entitled to the 500+: she has not kept a husband and family and is not supporting the nation with subsequent pregnancies. Children’s home charges will not see the 500+, either. Pecuniary allowances for caregivers of the disabled are extremely low in Poland, absolutely inadequate for the costs of treatment and rehabilitation. There is no system of assistance for people with disabilities, no support once the compulsory education is completed, no well considered system of vocational activation, or financing for parents and caregivers. A school management can legally refuse admission of a disabled child and suggest home schooling, which amounts to forced isolation and a secondary exclusion. The weakest ones are not a concern of the ruling class.

Let’s consider the situation of Poland’s children from the perspective of ruthless numbers. The children and adolescents’ mental health statistics are alarming. In 2017, 730 people in Poland under 18 attempted suicide, of which 116 were successful. As of writing this, on April 1, 2019, Warsaw’s last psychiatric ward for children was just shut down. The medical staff was no longer able to work in conditions which precluded providing young people due care. The queues for admission to children’s psychiatric hospitals number in the dozens, help is only extended to those whose life is considered at risk. Unhospitalised young people in need of medical assistance will have to reach a critical point to be given a hospital bed, albeit in a corridor of an overcrowded facility. An increase in disease occurrence is noted in late September (the school year begins on September 1), the situation is alleviated in June (last month of school)(5). School is hardly a supportive space any more. One factor is outrageous work conditions for teachers: after the PiS “de-form” they frequently have to combine jobs in more than one school to attain full-time employment. Their salaries are dramatically low, often forcing them to look for additional paid activities. This is hardly a recipe for educators’ identification with the school or group of students; they simply have no time. All this is compounded by education censorship and hijacking for propaganda purposes. In the name of national education, a teacher presenting a “non-patriotic” approach to a history lesson, e. g. about the Volhynia genocide or Jedwabne pogrom, is threatened with prison. Failed insurrections and the axioms of Poles being oppressed, noble and innocent are supposed to be the exclusive reference points for historical and civic education of Polish children and adolescents.

Young people are fed up. Less and less confident in their political agency, they do not have the strength to protest. We may complain at their unwillingness to get engaged, to fight, and to vote, but first of all, we, as adults, should take responsibility for the kind of world we have created for them. This resounded very loudly during the RePrezentacje workshop with young people 10 Days of Anger and Love which was conducted by the Siksa collective at the Bemowo Culture Centre. During the open show, workshop participant Svetlana Sukhorukova read out her text Trzy setki milczących słów (Three Hundred Silent Words):

I, member of the Z Generation born on the frontier of ages, will refrain from dealing with political problems and global calamities. I don’t want to splash off my pain. I have seen it in your tears. I prefer to shout silently. I’m pissed off with the question what makes me pissed off. (…) My pain and anger are an atomic bomb whose shock wave could cover the whole Galaxy. But I’m never going to push the red button. I want you to be alive. I want you to be happy begetting your children, even as that undermines the planet. Even as you rear them as a pack of dogs fighting for domination, comparing the form of their genitals, or the shine and length of their hairs.


The world model created by the adults and present in public space – that of hateful talk and discrimination – is being reproduced in school and playground settings. A 2017 report of Fundacja Dajemy Dzieciom Siłę (“Empowering the Children” Foundation)(6) presents a frightening image of Polish childhood:


  • growing numbers of children are hospitalised due to mental disorders;
  • Poland is second in Europe (next to Germany) in terms of fatal suicidal attempts by children aged 10 to 19;
  • one in five children has experienced physical violence from an adult person they know, but in the recent years there has been an increasing percentage of parents who have never given their child a spanking;
  • 12% of children have experienced some form of sexual abuse; only 50% of parents have talked to their children about such a risk;
  • 11% of teenagers have sent intimate photos via Internet or mobile phone;
  • 5% girls and 4% boys experience repeated, long-lasting cyberbullying.


Anti-discriminatory and anti-violence education in schools should be the basis of violence prevention, yet in Poland this is hampered by the “mythical family” being regarded as an overriding value. In 2015, Poland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Polish government has not to this day fulfilled its duty of instituting a regulation that ensures the victim’s immediate separation from the perpetrator. On the contrary, according to applicable law, an adult victim of domestic violence, in most cases a female, is supposed to first go through the process of mediation with the perpetrator in the name of saving the family / marriage (for “what God has joined together, let man not separate”). Children whose life, health or sanity are threatened, find themselves in the same situation. The state whose priority is to protect Catholic moral standards and institutions does not side with the youngest ones. Their victimisation will be reflected by our weak sense of community.


RePrezentacje:  Relationality, Empathy and Ethics of Care

Korczak believed in the law, but care and empathy were equally important to him, as reflected in his pedagogic achievements as well as his writing: diaries, books on education and novels. From the outset of our work on RePrezentacje, I wanted these two categories to be present as objects of practice and analysis in artistic and social processes that include children. My understanding of the importance of care and empathy in art expressed through relationship building and inclusion was born out of long years of practice in this area, reinforced by the reading of feminist researchers, most notably Carol Gilligan and Judith Butler.

According to American psychologist and feminist activist Carol Gilligan, absence of care and empathy precludes the chances of democratic community building. The researcher points out that under patriarchy, independence and rationality are typically masculine qualities while emotionality and care belong to the cultural continuum of womanhood and are not taken seriously on the level of socio-political agency. She cites the study of young boys who, due to cultural norms, and following the dictate of injunctions such as Boys don’t cry. Act as a man! Don’t be a sissy! gradually amputated the vulnerable, emotional parts of their selves. As they became more “manly”, that is not showing their weakness or dependence, they also became increasingly aggressive and self-aggressive. Gilligan notes that patriarchy in fact does not privilege anyone; it only creates patterns of oppression which are then applied in the name of  “higher values” and the letter of law. She calls for activating “a different voice” whereby caring is neither masculine nor feminine, but remains just human. As she writes, “Within a patriarchal framework, care is a feminine ethic; within a democratic framework, care is a human ethic.”(7)

Ethics of care contradicts the patriarchal figure of a “lone sheriff” who pursues justice on his own – it is relational and presumes human interdependence. Judith Butler wrote in  Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly(8):


If I am to lead a good life, it will be a life lived with others, a life that is no life without those others; I will not lose this that I am; whoever I am will be transformed by my connections with others, since my dependency on others, and my dependability, are necessary in order to live and to live well. Our shared exposure to precarity is but one ground of our potential equality and our reciprocal obligations to produce together conditions of liveable life. In avowing the need we have for one another, we avow as well basic principles that inform the social, democratic conditions of what we might still call “the good life”. These are critical conditions of democratic life in the sense that they are part of an ongoing crisis, but also because they belong to a form of thinking and acting that responds to the urgencies of our time.


Butler also notes that not all group of people have the status of “entities deserving to have rights and protection, to be free and belonging to the political community”. Therefore, their status must be safeguarded on the political-legal level, and if this is denied, the denial should be made visible.

The first venue where we initiated our activities was the Centre for Foreigners in the Targówek Fabryczny district, particularly dedicated to women with children who seek refugee status in Poland or international protection. Organisationally aided by Fundacja dla Wolności (Foundation for Freedom), which runs a children’s activity room at the centre, we began a month-long series of choreographic workshops that were conducted by Kaya Kołodziejczyk together with a group of artists practising parkour. Participants of the movement workshops were gaining more trust in their own bodies, stimulating imagination and learning to overcome obstacles. They also worked with artists to create an installation revealing the places of their earlier travels, including the countries where they were denied a chance to stay. Another outcome of the activities was a series of video works by Teresa Otulak – the artist had to face a particular challenge posed by the necessity of concealing the children’s faces.  Their image must not be publicised for the sake of security, their own and that of their mothers. Residents of the centre want to remain anonymous largely for political reasons, but also, in some cases, because they are being sought by their families – women coming from radically patriarchal cultures where their rights are not respected sometimes decide to flee, escaping domestic violence.


The same “invisibility” challenge confronted us in a children’s home in Białołęka (a branch of the “Chata” [The Cottage] Complex of Small Forms of Care and Education), dwellers of which worked with artists Anna Smolar, Michał Buszewicz, Dominika Korzeniecka, Hanna Maciąg and Rafał Paradowski. The aim was to co-create a theatre show in a way that was based on a democratic process, where it is essential to set rules for collective work so that every person feels that her/his rights and needs are being honoured. Before we even started the rehearsals, we were told by the home manager Elżbieta Stencel that we are not allowed to reveal the children’s image. The reason was possible discrimination and contempt in the school community – on the one hand, the children are stigmatised by their peers and their parents (sometimes, deplorably, also by teachers), on the other hand they refuse to accept patronising attitudes and pity. Most prefer to keep their residence secret. As one of the boys explained, “It’s a very good principle [not to publicise one’s image]. Otherwise… if somebody falls over on the stage… Look, a home child fell over! And no matter the topic, they will be thinking: Oh, the home child… Or they will pretend to laugh just to please us. So we had to choose between two ways: either to go ahead with the show while concealing the residence identity of the children, or to speak about it openly, cutting away the possibility of public promotion and performance. We opted for the latter – it was very important to us to emphasise the value of working with facilities that too rarely find themselves in the field of social visibility and concern. The première took place in Nowy Teatr (New Theatre), only inviting guests from the detailed list agreed on with the child actors. Subsequent shows were to be played for closed audiences in schools and kindergartens, and information about the children’s home were not to be disclosed in these cases. Two months after the première, an extraordinary thing happened: the young people decided to offer shows for open audiences. When Marta Michalak – producer and programming coordinator of RePrezentacje – and I explained that someone they know may appear in the audience, and someone else may find online information about their home, the same boy who earlier told us why they did not want to be revealed, said: “Well, that’s the cost of being famous.” The children’s emancipation from their usual shame and fear of stigmatisation was one of the most touching moments during the work on RePrezentacje.


Korczak’s novel protagonists – King Matt the First and Kajtek the Wizard dreamed about caps of invisibility; children of children’s homes and refugee camps are often condemned to invisibility due to political and social reasons. As a curator of participatory projects, I have until now seen what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls “inclusion in the space of visibility” of the people I invited to cooperation as one of my main tasks, realised by giving them a voice and enabling their physical presence within the circulation of art and in public spaces so they could be heard and seen. As a team of creatives, we had to ask  ourselves what to do when being invisible is somebody’s only protection in a threatening environment. The reason why facing this dilemma was not easy lay not only in the choice of arts as a medium and form of communication with our potential audiences, but, first and foremost, in that we could not dismiss the feeling that “invisibility” is not the children’s choice and desire but a necessity which, in the case of children’s home residents, was additionally charged with shame and fear of rejection.

In our work for RePrezentacje, we constantly tried to examine the tensions between the children’s choices and wishes, and the needs of us, the grown-ups. This was also true for the place whose architecture was co-created by residents of the Białołęka Cottage, Targówek Fabryczny Centre for Foreigners, pupils of the Special School Complex No 89 at Skaryszewska Street and grown-up artists – Maciej Siuda and Agata Kiedrowicz. The original idea of the project I proposed was to have them all design a Children’s Institution for Civil Affairs – a direct inspiration by the pedagogic practice of Janusz Korczak. However, as we proceeded with the workshops, getting immersed in children’s imagination and experience, the original name began to sound like an abuse of the children – a misappropriation of their social and political sensitivities. Convinced of the performative power of language, our project team decided that the “adult” language of power and hierarchy will have no place in the workshops. Eventually, the place was given the name that the children themselves invented: Przestrzeń bez końca (Endless Space) – which seems much more likely to inspire social and political reflection. The questions which arise from it will be uncomfortable to us adults. But if we want to “organise our tomorrow”, and, in fact, a “good tomorrow”, we have to incessantly ask them, look for ways to process them, and most importantly, to act on them: Can there be a world where children’s opportunities are not limited by their place of residence / class / colour / political status? Does the world created by adults allow us to believe that children live to see their own maturity? To what extent do the spaces in which we live challenge or reproduce mechanisms of power and oppression? As adults, where does our responsibility for children and young people’s rights begin and where does it end?


1     Janusz Korczak, ‘Spowiedź motyla’ (A Butterfly’s Confession) in Dzieła, vol. 6, Warszawa: Oficyna Wydawnicza Latona, 1996, p. 166.

2     Joanna Olczak-Roniker, Korczak. Próba biografii (Korczak: An Attempt at Biography), Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 2002, p.10.

3      Ibid., p. 243.

4     See Hanna Segal, ‘From Hiroshima to the Gulf War and after: socio-political expressions of ambivalence’, in: Psychoanalysis, Literature, War. Papers 1972-1995, Hove, Sussex, and New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 157-168.

5     See,152121,24209415,40-dzieci-czeka-w-kolejce-na-przyjecie-do-szpitala-kryterium.html (as accessed on March 26, 2019)

6 (as accessed on March 26,2019)

7     Carol Gilligan, Joining the Resistance, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011, p. 22.

8     Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Mary Flexner Lectures of Bryn Mawr College), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 201.