Intellectual Trends, Institutional Changes and Scholarly Needs in Eastern Europe

An earlier selection was published in the previous issue of EEPS

Intellectual Trends, Institutional Changes and Scholarly Needs in Eastern EuropeA New Agenda for the Social Sciences

The papers in this bloc represent a selection of contributions to a recent JCEE conference on Intellectual Trends, Institutional Changes and Scholarly Needs in Eastern Europe. An earlier selection was published in the previous issue of EEPS.

(C) 1993 by the American Council of Learned Societies East European Politics and Societies, Volume 7, No. 1, Winter 1993.

The Continuity of the Two Approaches to the Role of the Social Sciences

In the countries of East Central Europe academia is the place where independence and dissent, as well as a theoreticaljustification for and an apology of the regime, were fostered in the past. Both these trends continue in academia today with the same protagonists playing the same conflicting roles. The conflict that is most fundamental and hardest to overcome is not that among different ideologies, political affiliations, and preferences, but between the two very different understandings of the role of intellectuals, especially social scientists, in a society and their relationship with the state.

There is one approach that sees social sciences and humanities operating within the framework defined by politics and the political objectives set forth by the state, and the representatives of this approach certainly did not maintain their political loyalties during the initial transition before and after the elections of 1989-91. Most of them switched political parties. What they did maintain, though, was the basic conviction that their research topics and, more important, their attitudes had to be in agreement and in harmony with the political beliefs of the state and the government of the day.

The other approach saw the role of the social sciences and humanities as that of criticism or at least a strong reserve and healthy skepticism toward politics and the regime, whatever that regime might be. The advocates of this approach also maintained their basic attitude throughout the transition. Thus a sizable number of them occupy today the range of positions from the dissident to the less favored social scientist (in the allocation of research funds, access to the media, participation in more attractive research and teaching projects, and so on), the same one they occupied in the past decade, and the older ones among them, in the decades before that.

The third potential approach, that which argues in favor of an objectivesocial science that would be neutral in relation to politics and the state and adhere only to its own scholarly criteria in selecting its topics and in producing its objective results, is at least for the time being practically unrealistic. Even to the extent to which this is a viable option at all, it is certainly out of the question in the highly politicized everyday environment of the aspiring democracies (for want of a better name). Even the most ardent advocates of this approach very soon become viewed either as supporters of the regime or as its critics. It is that, rather than any attitude that they might cherish personally, that determines the influence of their work on the public life, academia, and the social science community.

The Construction of New National and Political Identities

Apart from the overpolitization of every aspect of life brought about by the very process of political and economic transformation, the universities and other academic institutions of East Central Europe have an additional task that puts them into an even more precarious position. They are the major cultural institutions in their countries with, in most cases, a longer history of continuous existence than the respective states themselves. Because of that they are seen as having to play an extremely important role in building a new identity for the cultural and political environment and for the whole country.

The identity that the countries of the so called Second Worldhad between the end of the Second World War and 1989 was mainly defined through their relationship with the Soviet Union. It depended on the time and success of their rebellions against the Soviet domination, the level of independence of their foreign policy from the Soviet foreign policy, the magnitude and direction of their deviations from the Soviet model in regulating domestic and foreign travel for their citizens, the private ownership of small businesses and the agricultural land, tolerance toward dissent, control over the churches and the clergy, and so forth. (1).With 1989, and especially with the demise of the Soviet Union, that identity disappeared practically overnight. Their different attitudes toward the free multiparty elections provided some distinct identity for a time, but even that is fading fast. So the aspiring democracies need to develop new recognizable faces to present to the world but, even more important, to provide something coherent and consistent for their own citizens to identify with.

The universities are being called upon to contribute quite substantially to the articulation of that new identity. This is not an unknown phenomenon, nor is East Central Europe the only place where this has ever happened (2). But it is a task that differs considerably from the original purpose and goals of the academic institutions. Instead of focusing on promoting higher learning and furthering academic research and knowledge, a university in this substitute or secondary role is becoming much more vulnerable to outside political pressures, aspirations, and expectations (3). In an already highly politicized environment this makes it almost impossible for the universities to extricate themselves from politics. That is why the established academic institutions have become, at least temporarily, relatively unreceptive toward innovations in the academic curricula, toward creative research, and toward seeking new topics and methods in social sciences. Finding themselves overexposed to daily politics, they concentrate more on survival and stability than on inventiveness and creativity.

The Continuity of Established Academic Institutions and its Alternative

The fact that, for the time being, the universities seem incapable of being the main venue for reviving the social sciences and for new academic initiatives has very often led to the questioning of the teaching staff and the whole traditional academic structure. For obvious reasons social sciences are particularly sensitive in that respect. In discussions of the new law on higher education in Bulgaria, for example, it has been suggested that anybody who had taught social sciences at the university before the elections should automatically be prohibited from doing so ever again. Since social sciences are less resistant to ideologies, the new regimes very often want to purge them of the old ideology. The problem is that by the same token they also want to make them serve their own political objectives.

Considering these three factors:

  • (1) the continuation of the methodological rather than the ideological split, where the divisive criterion is the attitude toward the state rather than toward different political affiliations;
  • (2) the role universities are expected to play in building the new political identities for their respective countries and the political pressures that go with it; and
  • (3) the fact that most of the new regimes are highly tempted to conduct some sort of purge at the universities, especially in the social sciences,

it can only be concluded that the universities are best left as they are for then they will weather the political pressures to which they are currently exposed and will gradually establish normal academic criteria of selection (4).

But that means that there should be other ways and strategies for reviving the social sciences and making them dynamic. There is certainly no shortage of research topics and new phenomena in need of analysis and understanding. But if the universities are, of necessity, more concerned with institution preserving and guarding their own stability, the innovative input will have to come through other channels.

New Organizational Forms for the Social Sciences

In order to survive, the social sciences have to have high standards, but also have to be relevant in their own environment. To combine these two characteristics they have to be able to dictate their own agenda. The best way of achieving that under the present circumstances, certainly in Croatia but also in most other aspiring democracies, is to start a number of independent individual projects organized around either one topic of research or one type of activity. By having independent financing they can be made more immune to the state's political prerogatives and pressure. That way more new, younger people can get actively involved but, at the same time, the new independent projects would not have the permanence of the old academic institutions.

The advantages of this are that such projects would provide fresh ideas and initiatives that can invigorate and be picked up by academia, without disrupting and de stabilizing the institution of the university, making it even more vulnerable to political pressures. The projects that prove successful would gradually become part of the permanent institutional setup of academia, while the others would die and disappear without taking the credibility of the old institutions with them. As an example, I propose the Institute for Democracy in Zagreb, Croatia - an initiative for starting a number of such independent projects that can be run individually as well as combined top form an institution.

(1). The countries were defined as hard-line or liberal only in terms relative to the Soviet Union. The most telling example in that respect is Romania. While it was one of the most vicious despotism of modern times it was still for many years defined and perceived as liberal, simply because it was relatively independent from the USSR in its foreign policy.

(2). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, the identities of Scotland and England were greatly influenced and shaped by their universities: the University of Edinburgh and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A vivid description of this difference can be found in the biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London, 1991). "The students were also exposed to the latest Continental thought, particularly in the thriving extra mural schools clustered around the university. They kept Edinburgh students briefed on the best, the most heterodox, and the most innovative new sciences, as Charles was to find out, [Edinburgh] was a city of wonderful sights and fearful sciences: of socialists experimenting with cooperative living, and phrenological shopkeepers eying their customers' heads; of professors debating the earth's origin, and anatomists debunking the creation of life." (pp. 22-23) That was the Enlightment-influenced Scotland. England of that time, however, was much more traditional, suspicious of the new scientific and political developments, xenophobic, and dominated by a rigid class system. "Or Eras could proceed of Oxford or Cambridge, the only two English universities. If, that is, he did not mind subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican faith; Here Eras would receive an upstanding rather than an outstanding education. Here the future gentry, doctors and clergy were to be unitedÑthey would close ranks against the vulgar classes and protect the 'precious birthright of an English gentleman.'" (p. 17) The most important difference between Great Britain of these descriptions and East Central Europe in this respect is, of course, time. These were England and Scotland of Darwin's youth in the early nineteenth century. The new aspiring democracies have to face the problem of their identity today.

(3). For a very interesting discussion on using schools for secondary purposes, i.e., purposes other than promoting learning and education, see Peter Drucker, The New Realities (London, 1990).

(4). In the past forty years in East Central Europe there have been numerous examples of individuals and institutions identifying with their formal, nominal roles. When the political pressure got slightly more relaxed, even judges or managers appointed for strictly political and not professional reasons tended to start acting as normal judges and managers. When there was not too much interference from the outside the institutions tended to assume their original, primary roles. When there was a crack-down followed by political purges in Croatia in the early 1970s the biggest problem for the regime was the judiciary. Formed during the relatively liberal period of the late 1960s the judiciary tended to follow the law rather then the party line, although most of the judges and public prosecutors were Communist party members. A direct intervention and a purge of the judiciary had to precede the purges in the other spheres of public life.


Other Travel Tips: