Illuminating enlightenment


Marcin Wicha
Illuminating enlightenment



Education, enlightenment, lighting (oświata, oświecenie, oświetlenie): three words that over the past hundred years have often swapped meanings.

The traditional school iconography we still keep in a drawer somewhere (if not at home, then at our parents’) was full of enlightenment symbols. It’s enough to look at old school certificates, insignia, ID cards and banners, and we will find a whole gallery of suns, torches, oil lamps (raised before the nation), flames and sparks.

Interestingly, many of these emblems have disappeared in recent years. Instead of the sun of reason, more and more often it is the mortarboard, the squared-off headgear peculiar to American graduates, that serves as a symbol of education. A sign of status, an emblem of individual success achieved by the buyer of educational services.


Universal schooling is a product of the enlightenment. Schools are a decentralized museum of modernity and modernization.

The same schools—institutions with their exams, tests, averages, absurdly hierarchical structure, inequality, violence, rivalry, persecution of minorities, powerlessness in the face of a changing world—reveal what enlightenment means today. What it has changed into. What is left of it.


The political dispute has only caused issues of education to become a subject of interest today among the liberal public.

But the problems did not start yesterday.

Schools were the assembly plants for modern man. Like other factories, they fell into difficulty in the late 20th century.

Low teacher salaries, low prestige of the teaching profession, chaotic curricula, all of the problems that have been snowballing for decades, are symptoms of a great crisis. A crisis of the entire model of education.


Today enemies of enlightenment have taken control over Polish education.

They say things like this:

“In contemporary education, earthly aims have been deemed the equal of eternal aims. A theological orientation has been replaced by an anthropological orientation. But without God, there is no purpose to human life.”


For a moment, let’s again replace words with meanings. School lighting is not just a metaphor, but a specific design issue.

We often recognize school buildings for their rows of large, densely distributed windows.

(What is a sweater? Holes held together by knitting. What is a school? Windows held together by brick or concrete. The style of the framing may change, but the windows remain in place.)

Schools are designed to ensure that classrooms have access to sunlight. They are oriented towards the sun. They seek the sun. They absorb and disperse its light. They spread brightness throughout the space.


In the European climate, sunlight in insufficient, and learning requires artificial lighting.

The SK-300 lamp was designed by Abram Damski in the 1950s.

A spatial composition of a ball and three circles. A manmade electrical sun. The most typical, mass-produced Soviet device, applied across all schools in the empire, alluded to myths of the avant-garde and modernity.

Similar lamps were produced in the Polish People’s Republic. Years later, they were withdrawn at the request of the fire brigades: when there was a fire they melted, and liquid plastic dripped down and burned the fleeing people.


The metaphor of light and darkness remains in constant use.

But what if the source of light is a buzzing fluorescent tube? Or a floodlight in a high-security prison that is never switched off? Or a lamp that poses a mortal danger during a fire?


The central switch can be used only by the one who exercises authority (the teacher and no one else).

But according to the regulations, school premises must have access to both natural and artificial light.

The story of school is not just a tale of torches, oil lamps, fluorescent lights, switching light bulbs on and off. It is also a tale of windows: openings through which light passes, through which one can look inside or see the outside world. Sounds, smells, hot and cold air, raindrops, leaves and insects all pass through windows. (Teacher, teacher, there’s a wasp in the classroom!)

Schools are lamps of knowledge and pathways of illumination.

Lamps and windows.

Marcin Wicha