МАГ/The International Association for the Humanities     ЖУРНАЛ МЕЖДУНАРОДНОЙ АССОЦИАЦИИ ГУМАНИТАРИЕВ

Tocqueville in Ukraine: Civil society in the academic community

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Tymowski_Andrzej_lgTocqueville in Ukraine: Civil society in the academic community as well as through the recognition that comes with being elected by one’s peers to governing bodies and committees.

Andrzej W. Tymowski
Program Chair
ASEEES-MAG convention
(Ukrainian Catholic University -June 26-28, 2016)

As we gather for the ASEEES-MAG convention, it is worth reflecting on its purpose. Scholars easily understand why they should attend a congress to present their research in an atmosphere of open, collegial discussion. It is what scholars do.

In these turbulent times, however, we well might ask whether “what scholars do” is enough. Shouldn’t they be more active in the public sphere? Shouldn’t they challenge the misreadings of history and cultural traditions rampant in the media today?

Donors ask these questions, because they look for research relevant to current affairs. Scholars typically respond in terms of expertise. Academic research at its best establishes facts and analyzes them dispassionately. This is crucially important to public policy, because it disarms belligerent rhetoric and promotes reasonable debate on difficult questions.

But the way that the academic community produces and broadcasts expertise has a fundamental importance. Voluntary associations of scholars, such as ASEEES and MAG, because they are collegial, self-governing, and independent, are ideally suited to generate expertise that is accurate and well-reasoned.

In his justly famous book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed the creative energy of voluntary associations in 19th century America. He used the term “civil society” to distinguish the voluntary action of citizens’ networks from political society, which he defined as activities authorized by, and directed by, government agencies. Tocqueville was impressed by Americans’ instinct to join with neighbors to solve a broad range of local problems, from cleaning parks to organizing school districts. Faced with the same tasks, Tocqueville’s fellow Europeans waited for action by state authorities.

Today, the term “civil society” has been overused, especially in Eastern Europe. It has lost its identity, like a chameleon that changes hue depending on the context.

Nevertheless, Tocqueville’s definition of civil society as a network of voluntary associations independent of the state will help us evaluate the contemporary role of scholarly associations. Tocqueville would recognize ASEEES and MAG as voluntary networks, bottom-up initiatives of individuals in pursuit of a common good. The value of such associations to the public sphere depends not on how much they enter political society but on how much they remain independent of it.

Central to the activities of these associations are forums at which scholars present their research in open, collegial exchanges and debate their differences. Presentation-feedback-revision is a self-regulating mechanism that establishes a working consensus on quality and thereby assures the accuracy of information and reliability of analysis. The democratic, autonomous character of scholars’ voluntary associations lends authority to the new knowledge they produce, so that it has greater impact when broadcast in the public sphere.

There are differences, of course, in the ways learned societies implement their missions.

Societies in the United States, such as the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, closely match the Tocquevillian democratic definition. They were created by the initiative of individuals, not institutions or ministries. Their membership is open to everyone (from full professors to PhD candidates) interested in the studies they promote; there is no formal application/acceptance procedure. Learned societies are independent—self-governing and self-financing. Decisions are made by peer-review committees, not by appointees of universities or governmental bodies.

These specificities of American learned societies bring distinctive benefits to individuals, to the institutions in which they are employed, and to the national (and international) academic communities to which they belong.

Individual scholars have strong vertical obligations—up to the hierarchies within their employing institutions and down to the PhD candidates they train and the students they teach. But horizontal contacts are important as well, for sharing ideas and research findings with colleagues at other, often distant, institutions. Individuals seek such connections on their own, of course, but the meetings of learned societies multiply opportunities for cross-institutional exchange on current research. Scholars writing alone crave the collegial, self-organized exchange they find at learned-society conventions.

It might seem that institutions would resent the horizontal dispersal of energy by their faculty, especially when service on learned-society committees consumes their employees’ valuable time. But that is not the case, at least not in North America. In fact, universities appreciate the independent verification of the quality of the accomplishments of their faculty, measured through prizes and other honors offered by societies, as well as through the recognition that comes with being elected by one’s peers to governing bodies and committees.

The benefits of learned societies are also substantial for the public sphere. Learned-society meetings stimulate new research. Feedback shared at panels tests the accuracy of factual knowledge and analysis. Scholarly debates provide a model for rigorous and objective discussion. All this academic activity enriches the contribution scholars can make to public debate.

This description of North American learned societies argues that the genius for voluntary association Tocqueville observed in 19th century America flourishes today in scholarly societies such as ASEEES. Tocqueville considered the aptitude for civil society distinctively American. Yet, are the conditions for voluntary association exclusively American? If so, is it even possible to establish similar learned societies (horizontal, independent, non-hierarchical, self-organized) in areas without those conditions?

MAG tests civil society in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine

MAG, the International Association for the Humanities, is an experiment in creating a learned society by merging two traditions—American and east European.

MAG was established in 2007 based on the experience of the Humanities Program in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (HP). MAG’s American lineage comes from the HP being sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and being administered by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). HP’s fellowship competitions, peer-review procedures, and annual meetings were based on ACLS peer-reviewed competitions and on learned societies’ annual meetings.

MAG’s roots in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are just as significant. HP research grants were distributed to scholars in these three countries to strengthen the intellectual infrastructure in the region. More than half the peer-reviewers were from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. During the twelve years of the Humanities Program, the reviewers formed a robust network. Their personal and professional bonds were the basis of new forms of international cooperation in the future.

However, as the Humanities Program approached the end of financial support from the Carnegie Corporation, it became clear that HP would fulfill that promise only if the community of peer reviewers took decisive action. An advisory group of the most active of them met to draw up a balance sheet of the HP’s achievements. The group noted remarkable successes: over 500 research grants, more than 100 books published, and 12 annual meetings. In addition, advisers pointed with pride to the unique community established by HP. Grant recipients and reviewers had forged professional and personal friendships, which they wanted to continue.

The planning meetings that followed were dedicated to designing an organizational successor to the Humanities Program. MAG struggled to find its footing as a self-governing and self-financing organization. When funds became available, MAG organized peer-reviewed competitions for travel grants—to ASEEES conventions in the United States, to the MAG seminar in Kiev, and to the Lviv convention. The Kiev seminar (October 2014) examined “Democratization and the Humanities in the post-Soviet sphere: The fate of new initiatives in higher education and research after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” The seminar was memorable for the intelligence and frankness of the descriptions of the present and hopes for the future. Participants had the sense of standing at a critical fork on the road to reform. They continued to believe that the high road remained open, but many reported worrisome signs of the low road—retrenchment by the old institutional order. Papers were published in Intellectual and personal friendships reaching across regions and generations were solidified. 

Though such green shoots in MAG’s early activities are encouraging, they have been accompanied by a troubling, though understandable, tension. On the one side is the energetic ethos of voluntarism (collegiality, independence, self-organization); on the other, the lethargic hierarchical habits of the region’s ministries, universities, and academic societies. MAG was created by a bottom-up initiative of advisers; but, at every step, it had to contend with authoritarian structures and mindsets inherited from the Soviet Union. For example, although MAG’s membership was in principle open, MAG in fact followed the membership practices of regional academic societies, in which current members control new admissions. As a result, MAG remained a relatively small organization.

The urgency of the geopolitical situation, which has reached a terrifying new intensity of international hostility, makes the success of MAG all the more urgent. MAG is unique not only for establishing horizontal ties among scholars across institutions, but also across borders and language barriers. The success of an international, multilingual, collegial voluntary association will stand as a beacon of mutual respect and understanding in a volatile region.

It is vital, then, that in today’s geopolitical crisis scholars take the lead in seeking horizontal, non-political, region-wide contacts, based on respect for the languages of the relevant academic communities.

In this context, the cooperation between MAG and ASEEES on the Lviv convention opens a dramatic new opportunity. MAG now acts as a sister learned society. The two associations are clearly different in size (ASEEES has over 3,000 members) and in longevity (ASEEES has been active for more than 60 years). But their missions are similar: to represent communities of scholars who voluntarily associate for common goals through the capillary action of individuals in horizontal, collegial, and independent networks.

If Tocqueville were to arrive in Lviv on June 26-28, he would be astonished at how different our world is from his, but he would recognize the democratic similarities. He would applaud MAG’s energy and inventiveness in building voluntary networks. He would also, most surely, join us in heralding a civil society in the academic community. 


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