Komisja Edukacji Narodowej (KEN, Polish for Commission of National Education) was the central educational authority in Poland, created by the Sejm and king Stanisław August Poniatowski on October 14, 1773. Because of its vast authority and autonomy, it is considered the first ministry of education in the history of mankind.
The basic reason for creation of the Commission was that in Poland the education was almost entirely controlled by the Jesuits. Although the Jesuit controlled schools were fairly efficient and provided the Polish youth with good education, they were also very conservative. In addition, in 1773 the pope decided to close down the Jesuit order, which could result in a complete breakdown of education in Poland.
The Commission was formally created on October 14, 1773. Its' main organiser and chief figure was a Catholic priest Hugo Kołłątaj. Initially the body was formed of 4 senators and 4 members of Sejm, half of them representing the eastern voivodships of Poland (former Grand Duchy of Lithuania). The first head of the KEN was prince bishop Michał Jerzy Poniatowski. Although other members were mostly magnate politicians, the factual creators of the body were prominent writers and scientists of the epoch: Franciszek Bieliński, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Feliks Oraczewski, Andrzej Gawroński, Dawid Pilchowski, Hieronim Stroynowski and Grzegorz Piramowicz. They were joined by Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours, the secretary of the King of Poland and father of the latter creator of DuPont company.
Although initially the KEN had to face strong opposition inside of the Sejm, it was supported by both the king and the Familia party, which gave it almost complete independence.
Early period (1773-1780)
In 1773 the KEN was granted with all the former property of the Jesuit order, including the schools, palaces and church-owned villages. Thanks to that the Commission had not only the necessary infrastructure, but also its' own profitable farms. Soon afterwards Hugo Kołłątaj prepared a three-level education plan:
- Parochial schools - for peasants and burghers
- Powiat schools - mostly for children of szlachta, but children of lower classes were also admitted
- Universities - Academy of Warsaw, Academy of Wilno and Academy of Kraków
Since the education in Poland was until then conducted mostly in Latin, the KEN faced a problem of almost complete lack of books and manuals. to cope with that problem a Society of Elementary Books (Towarzystwo Ksiąg Elementarnych) was formed. The scientists working on the new Polish language text-books at times had to invent the necessary specialised vocabulary. Much of the vocabulary they invented related to chemistry, physics, mathematics or grammar is still in use.
The Commission also prepared several documents describing the whole educational process. However, several of the new rules were considered too revolutionary and often disobeyed. This included, for instance, equality of both sexes in education. Finally, in 1780 the opposition denied to sign the statute of elementary schools prepared by Kołłątaj.
Second phase (1781-1788)
After the formative period, in which all the legal borders of the Commission were established, the KEN started to convert the schools to the new model. The three universities in Warsaw, Wilno and Kraków were granted the right of curatorship over schools of lower degree. This included also the schools that remained under the influence of the church. Gradually, the teachers who were frequently former Jesuit priests, were exchanged for young, lay teachers, graduates of the three academies. Thanks to that, the opposition inside of the local schools was finally broken.
Third phase (1788-1794)
After 1789 the supporters of reforms in the Polish Sejm gradually started to loose their influence. Similarly, the KEN was deprived of much of its former privileges. During the Sejm Wielki the Reformers had to sacrifice much of them in order to gain support for the Constitution of May the 3rd. Finally, after the victory of the Confederation of Targowica in 1794 the KEN lost control over most schools in Poland and many of its members were banished or had to escape abroad. This included also Hugo Kołłątaj himself, who had to escape to Dresden.
Although the Commission was working only for roughly 20 years, it managed to completely change the shape of education in Poland. The Enlightenment-based school programmes and books influenced the whole generation of inhabitants of Poland. Also, although the education was still far from being universal, it reached much wider group of people, including the peasants.
The several dozen thousands of teachers trained in lay teachers' seminaries became the back-bone of Polish science during the Partitions and the generation educated in the schools created and supervised by the KEN became the most prominent personalities of the Polish Uprisings and the politics in Central Europe in 19th century.
In addition, the 27 elementaries and manuals published by the Commission laid foundations for the Polish language terminology in chemistry, physics, logics, grammar and mathematics. They were used by all prominent Polish scientists and authors of the 19th century, from Adam Mickiewicz to Bolesław Prus and from Lwów-Warsaw School of Mathematics to Lwów-Warsaw School of History. The guidebook to chemistry by Jędrzej Śniadecki was used in Polish schools well into 1930's.
It is often argued that because of the efforts of the Commission of National Education the Polish culture and language did not disappear during the Partitions of Poland, despite heavy russification and germanisation.
- KEN in Polish State Archives (http://www.archiwa.gov.pl/?CIDA=346)
- Polish Ministry of Education (http://www.menis.gov.pl/menis_en/news/news.php)