The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

You never miss it until it’s gone

April 30, 2009

Nothing fails like success.

Consider vaccines. It’s rather easy to worry about pesudo-scientific links between vaccines an autism, or even the small percentage of real adverse consequences of childhood immunization, when you aren’t concerned that your child is going to die of polio, the measles, or whooping cough. But when people stop taking the vaccines, these diseases come back.

We see a similar process in the economic policy front. The prior decades saw significant deregulation of the financial industry because, in part, most policymakers and voters stopped worrying about possibility of massive financial shocks. The regulations simply become barriers to making more money; critics decried them as atavistic. The result: a series of policy changes that arguably helped get us into our current economic mess.

I think something similar may be gathering momentum with respect to the US system of higher education.

For all its faults[1], the system works well enough that we take it for granted. Taylor’s muchdiscussed opinion-editorial provides a good example of this dynamic. It is only because of the many basic things the system does right that someone can worry about its “policy relevance” or its problems of disciplinary “overspecialization”[2].

A recent Chronicle story on the “Underground University” in Minsk drives home just how important all the basic things about higher education, including its role in a well-functioning civil society, really are.

For 10 years now, professors of the Belarusian Collegium have held classes in private apartments and rented offices. The institution, known as the “underground university,” is not officially registered. Under the regime of Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the dictator who has been in power for 15 years, professors who teach at the collegium face three years in prison if convicted.

They are the cream of the Belarussian intellectual elite: scholars, writers, critics, journalists. Some of them, including the head of university, Ales Antsipenka, lost the right to teach at state institutions after working in the 1990s for the George Soros Fund, which Mr. Antsipenka directed. In 1997 Belarussian authorities shut down the fund, which had invested in medical, cultural, and educational programs, and seized its $3-million bank account.

“It meant only one thing to us: A frightening time of repression of academics and intellectuals had returned to Belarus,” says Mr. Antsipenka.

Those fears were borne out. In the decade following 1997, Belarusian State University expelled students and fired professors for participating in political opposition movements or for expressing views critical of the government. In 2004, after authorities terminated the lease on some rented classrooms, the university had to move out and re-establish its main campus in exile, in neighboring Lithuania.

Other state universities, where faculty members were more compliant, remained open. But academics wishing to teach without government interference had a choice: Either leave the country or stay and teach in the underground.

In 1997 a handful of such academics joined activists and journalists to form the Belarusian Collegium. “We realized we could not officially register, but if we kept a low profile we could still teach students in the underground,” Mr. Antsipenka says.

The founders declared in a statement: “We are few now, but once our institute is born, we will multiply.” Beginning with four professors, the faculty has grown to 50, who teach about 100 students.

The stated aim of the collegium is “to revive the multicultural Belarussian tradition, to promote the democratic transition of Belarussian society within the European civilization and pan-European integration process.” Its classrooms are the only places in Belarus where professors can teach freely in what they consider postcolonial studies of their country.

The collegium runs a three-year postbaccalaureate program, and master’s programs in philosophy, literature, journalism, and modern history, recognized by some independent mass-media companies in Belarus.

In addition to the lecture system used in official universities, the collegium’s professors have adopted Western practices, like having literature students write essays and holding tutorials in philosophy and journalism. Students are encouraged to express their opinions. Reacting to one television show under discussion, a student told Mr. Zhbankou, “I would have added more irony, more satire.”

1. I would argue that many of the most serious problems in American higher education stem from attempts to “reform” it by incorporating all the “best practices” of the private sector.
2. I’m particularly fond of the idea of a multi-year program in “water studies.” Because, really, I’m sure that placing a marine biologist with a comparative-literature professor who has written a book on the symbolic uses of the sea in the 19th-century German novel would endlessly benefit both scholars. It would certainly be better than consigning them to departmental gulags filled only with, respectively, other scientists and other comparative-literature scholars.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.