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History & Background

Bulgaria is a South East European country situated in the heartland of the Balkan Peninsula. With a territory of 110,993 square kilometers, it ranks among the smaller states of Europe. Bulgaria borders Romania to the north, Yugoslavia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the west, Greece to the south, Turkey to the southeast, and has a Black Sea coast line to the east. Demographic trends in the 1990s led to the decline of a population of roughly eight million. An estimated one million Bulgarians reside abroad, primarily in North America and Western Europe. Turks constitute the largest ethnic minority (about 10 percent), followed by the Roma or Gypsies, a group elusive to statistics. There are also Russian, Jewish, Armenian, Tatar, Pomak (Bulgarian Muslim), and Greek populations in Bulgaria. Bulgarian is the official language and the language of education, although most minority groups also use their mother tongues.

Bulgarian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a choice made in the ninth century at the time of conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Bulgarian is a Slavic language, akin to Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and Russian. Compulsory education was widespread for most of the twentieth century, causing literacy rates to be as high as ninety-nine percent and to be almost equal for both genders. The capital city Sofia is a major center of culture and education and boasts some of the nation's most prestigious schools of higher learning. Otherwise, educational facilities are evenly distributed throughout the country and available to both urban and rural citizens.

Bulgarian traditions in education go back to the Middle Ages when the First Bulgarian Kingdom (893-1018) provided the conditions for a blossoming of early Slavic literature and culture based on the Cyrillic alphabet. The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon The Great (893-927) welcomed the disciples of the "Apostles of the Slavs," St. Cyril and Methodius and furthered their effort. A court school was established in the Bulgarian capital of Preslav. St. Clement, founded a school on the shores of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia. Thus Bulgaria became the "cradle of Slavic civilization", where an estimated 3,500 priest-teachers were trained, large-scale translation of service books was carried out, and original works of theology, philosophy, literature, and art were created. This legacy later enriched other Slavic Eastern Orthodox nations, including Serbia, Russia, and Ukraine. The Bulgarians celebrated May 24th, the day of the Slavic alphabet and culture, as one of the most cherished national holidays.

The Ottoman conquest (1396-1878) brought education and culture to a standstill. The nation had lost the institutions that previously sponsored it: the state was defeated and the autocephalous church submitted to the control of the Greek-dominated Orthodox millet in Constantinople. The only Bulgarian schools during this period were kiliini (cell) schools at monasteries which taught basic literacy. The Greek schools available at the time were not Bulgarian in spirit and were not trusted by the local population. The national revival was stirred by a "Slav-Bulgarian History," a book written in 1762 by the monk Paisii from the Hilendar Monastery in Mount Athos. It revived the memory of past glory and had enormous impact on the nation. Other books followed and generated a popular movement for secular education, which was at the mainstream of the Bulgarian national renaissance. In 1824, the distinguished Bulgarian scientist Dr. Peter Beron published the "Fish Primer," titled after the illustration on the front page. This textbook taught the essentials of arithmetic, geography, biology, and hygiene. In its forward, the author gave valuable pedagogical advice to teachers and promoted the concepts of secular education. The first fully secular Bulgarian school, known as the Aprilov Gymnasium, was established in the town of Gabrovo in 1835. Secular education quickly gathered momentum and by the middle of the nineteenth century, a real system of schools existed throughout the entire territory of the country.

State education dates back to 1878 when independence was restored with the decisive help of Russia. However, the first Ministry of Education did not have to start from nothing; a system of 1,479 primary schools, 50 secondary institutions, and 130 reading clubs was already in existence. The young modern nation-state pursued vigorous policies in the field of education. The legal foundations for these were laid out in the Turnovo Constitution of 1879, which sanctioned free and secular primary education, compulsory for all children regardless of gender, age, nationality, or faith. A law adopted in 1921, during the rule of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, extended the period of compulsory education to seven years. The establishment of the first institution of higher learning, St. Clement Ohridski University of Sofia, occurred in 1888. During the period 1878-1912 a fine arts and a music academy, teacher-training institutes, vocational schools, theological institutions, and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences was established. Educational development was slowed down during the period of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and the First and Second World Wars.

The advent of communism's rise to power, shortly after the end of the Second World War, had a decisive impact on education. During the period 1944-89, education in Bulgaria was heavily centralized and placed under the rigid control of the Communist Party. Religious influences, previously quite strong in the schools, were replaced by heavy obedience to the atheistic doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Private schools were abolished. In the meantime, the education system was expanded and new schools were founded at all levels. A law passed in 1948 made education compulsory until the age of 16. The curriculum was rigorous and comprehensive, with very few elective subjects, and placed special emphasis on math and the sciences. Education was free at all levels, including higher education and post-graduate studies. Many new universities, mostly with technical profile, opened new opportunities for professional growth to previously underprivileged groups of society and to women. A typical characteristic of academia was the separation of higher teaching from research, institutionalized in the parallel existence of universities and research institutes. Under communism, education bred sophisticated urban elites, whose covert opposition to the system undermined its very foundations and facilitated its fall in the "tender" revolution of 1989. The freedom of travel after the fall of communism enabled many Bulgarian professionals to look for employment on the world labor market. Many found white-collar jobs in North America and Western Europe during the 1990s—a testimony to the quality of Bulgarian education in this period.

Since 1989, the nation has lived through a transition period, which has encompassed thorough changes of the economy, from command to market-oriented and the polity from totalitarianism to pluralist democracy. These changes affected education in a variety of ways. Some of the immediate positive effects included freeing of the education system from ideological constraints, its decentralization, and the restoration of private schools as an alternative in education. Nonetheless, the transition brought about an acute economic crisis. The state economy could no longer continue as the only source to fund education. The cuts in the state appropriations for science and education were extremely severe in the beginning of the 1990s. For example, in 1990 the resources provided by the Bulgarian government for higher education and research were reduced 2.5 times compared to the level of 1989, after corrections for inflation. This underscored the need for introducing paid tuition in higher schools. The economic crisis reached unprecedented official rates of 15 to 17 percent and families in which one or both parents were unemployed were struggling to keep their children in school or college. Despite the crisis, the best traditions in education were preserved and enrollment in higher schools increased. This fact underscores the value that Bulgarians placed on education.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceBulgaria - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education