Director’s Corner2018-08-01T11:54:55-07:00

Director’s Corner

Welcome to our Director’s Corner, where we will be posting articles we think may be of interest to the community.
Please send us your own suggestions to cis@ucr.edu.

War in Europe

by Jeanette Kohl, Center for Ideas and Society Co-Director

In the summer of 2011, I wrote an article on Vladimir Putin for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  Dmitry Medvedev was still president of Russia, with Putin, then prime minister, eagerly waiting in the wings. His aspirations to take over power in the world’s largest country were unmistakable. In my article, I looked at the ways in which Putin made use of historical image types of military prowess, sexualized male power, and the Machiavellian qualities associated with Renaissance rulers – some of them updated for a 21st century audience, others not so much: Putin bare-chested on a stallion in the Russian Taiga, Putin hunting a Siberian tigress on foot, Putin piloting a firefighting plane, Putin whale hunting on a rubber raft. The images and their blatant message, circulated internationally by his office, were strangely atavistic and to a considerable degree ludicrous – at least to the Western eye. Yet they were also surprisingly successful in establishing Vladimir Putin’s image as a fearless man of action, a confident ruler in the long lineage of mythical superheroes, a Machiavellian prince of the proletariat.

I am sharing this brief story with you barely a week after the same Vladimir Putin launched a brutal military attack on Russia’s neighbor to the West, Ukraine, a democratically ruled state that shares borders with several NATO states. Yesterday morning, the world woke up to the unsettling news that Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert. There is war in Europe – something I, a convinced European, hoped I would never have to say during my lifetime. The world is left in a state of shock and disbelief: How can this happen in the 21st century? Is this the beginning of a third world war? What has gotten into Putin?

One wonders, indeed, what has gotten into the man who was once celebrated by Time Magazine as “Person of the Year 2007,” with a cover story about his intelligence, ambition, and the beginning of a new era for Russia and the world. The puffy, ashen-faced man who last week delivered a bewilderingly convoluted one-hour history lesson to the world – filled with anger, baseless claims, historical falsifications and interrupted by weary sighs – is a different Putin altogether. With Putin’s agonizing tirade on my laptop screen, I could not help but think that it marks a historical moment: the beginning of the end of Russia as we know it, and the beginning of the end of Putin. It certainly meant the beginning of immense suffering for Ukrainians.

Putin is a politician with Machiavellian beliefs, and the idea of ‘limited warfare’ as a natural extension of failed diplomacy is self-evident to him. But why war now? While I am not a political analyst and certainly not qualify to comment on the political workings of Russia or Putin’s inner circle, I still want to share the following brief thoughts with you.

This war, terrifying and saddening and outrageous as it is, seems to be the symptom of something larger, more than an autocratic ruler accidentally pushed over the edge. Might it say something not only about Putin and his claim on territories historically entangled with Russia but also about the state of our own western democracies, our societies, and our lives? It will not have escaped Putin’s attention that democracy, a political system that we have taken way too much for granted in the past decades, has reached a point of deep crisis; that the world’s oldest and seemingly strongest democracies – the UK and the US – have become particularly prone to erosion by loudmouth populist leaders who care little about the principles on which these democracies are built; that we are fighting culture wars on the inside whose bitterness has entrenched us and weakens our solidarity with one another; and that the ideological warfare between left and right, the loss of a common ground of middle-class values, and a general climate of censoriousness, mistrust, and self-righteousness is weighing us down. My own aversion for aggressive political agendas and hermetic belief systems and ideologies, left or right, sits deep. As a German I grew up in a country ravaged by radical ideologies that lead to dictatorship – first by the Nazis, then by anti-fascist socialism on the other side of the German wall. Russia’s war on Ukraine is a clear sign of the return of an age of ideologies and the havoc they cause, and it is the symptom of societal crises around the globe, crises that transcend geopolitical borders.

My German colleague Yascha Mounk (Johns Hopkins), in a recent op-ed on his Persuasion platform, emphasizes the far-reaching, sad historical significance of the recent events: “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine puts to rest the hopeful view of the future which dominated the western world in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The certainties on which we built our worldview have long been morphing into illusions; the missiles which fell around Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv in the early morning of February 24, 2022 confirmed that the metamorphosis is complete. (…) Nothing, from the survival of democracy in its traditional heartlands to our collective ability to check the ambitions of the world’s most ruthless dictators, seems certain any longer.”

Let us stand firmly against aggression, censorship, and fundamentalism of any kind. And let us pause and think about the sort of values it will take to strengthen and mend our democracies again from the inside, enlightened values such as tolerance, solidarity, science, and reason, all of which should be non-negotiable.

My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. Let us hope for the best.

Yours,

Jeanette

February 28, 2022|Categories: Director's Corner, News|Tags: |

The Party of the University: The institutional memory of Hanna Gray

There is a moment in former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life (published this spring with Princeton University Press), when Gray is appointed to chair Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, a committee whose object was reputed to be the dismantling of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Her co-chair is Charlton Heston, star of Planet of the Apes, outspoken social conservative and president of the NRA. We might expect a futile exercise in bureaucratic nihilism, but, as Gray describes the experience,

Charlton Heston and I got on well. We never discussed politics, or guns, and found ourselves in agreement on most of the matters before us. Charlton was intelligent, fair-minded, and hardworking, always courteous and tolerant, never full of himself, a good colleague … In the end, after four busy months of discussions and of hearings open to the public in different parts of the country, we concluded, with surprising agreement among committee members who actually represented a wide range of initial positions, that the federal government did indeed have a role [in arts funding].

Gray’s memoir is so insistently out of place among higher-education polemics that it might be worthwhile for that reason alone. She is an inveterate institutional loyalist, impervious to the appeal of the movements and ideologies to which many academics have openly and happily hitched their work. To call someone an institutional loyalist now cannot help but sound like an accusation of moral corruption—surely you’re not going defend Yale over justice? But in Gray’s depiction, correcting injustice rarely requires exposing the university to public humiliation, and, conversely, it is very unlikely that such humiliation will correct any injustice.

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October 23, 2018|Categories: Director's Corner|

The Rise of the Promotional Intellectual

The main tasks of a professor are to teach and do research. The two sometimes vie for priority, but together they encapsulate what we expect professors to do, and they take the bulk of weight in yearly evaluations, tenure judgments, and other professional measures.

Now, it seems, a new task has been added to the job: promotion. We are urged to promote our classes, our departments, our colleges, our professional organizations. More than anything, we are directed to promote ourselves. The imperative is to call attention to one’s writing, courses, talks, ideas, or persona in media new and old. It could be about your new book on Shakespeare or the history of haberdashery, or something you did, or simply yourself, but the key is to get your brand out there — if not in The New York Times, then on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or just the department newsletter. And if not quite to the general public, at least to administrators, boards, funders, students, and other professors.

The conventional standards — teaching your classes well, publishing in reputable journals or with academic presses — no longer are enough. You do not exist unless you fire up your personal publicity machine.

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August 7, 2018|Categories: Director's Corner|

Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities

Arguments that they’re useful are wrong, anti-humanistic, and sure to backfire

The humanities are taking it on the chin. If there were any doubts about this proposition, they have been dispelled by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point’s proposal to eliminate 13 majors, including history, art, English, philosophy, sociology, political science, French, German, and Spanish. The administration cited large deficits, programs with a low enrollment, and a desire to play to its strengths — STEM subjects and training in technology. One professor of physics and astronomy (Ken Menningen) approved, declaring that the university was right to “pivot away from the liberal arts” and toward programs that students, concerned with career prospects, find attractive. That reasoning might make sense if Stevens Point were a trade school, but it is, at least by title and claim, a university, and there is an argument to be made that because the claim is now without support at Stevens Point, the title should be removed.

The philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott would have thought so. Here is his account of the university: “It is a place where [the student] … is not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society, or with the acquisition of a kind of moral and intellectual outfit to see him through life.” Note that Oakeshott lists in rapid succession the most often invoked defenses and justifications of liberal education, and note too that he immediately dismisses them as barely worth thinking about: “Whenever an ulterior purpose of this sort makes its appearance, education … steals out of the back door with noiseless steps.”

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June 19, 2018|Categories: Director's Corner|

Whose University Is It Anyway?

TOWARD THE END of his life George Orwell wrote, “By the age of 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” The same is true of societies and their universities. By the time a society reaches its prime, it has the university it deserves. We have arrived there now in Canada, in the middle age of our regime, well past our youth but not quite to our dotage. What do we see when we look into the mirror of our universities? What image do we find there? Lots of smiling students, lots of talk of “impact” and “innovation,” more than one shovel going into the ground, a host of new community and industry partnerships to celebrate. But whose image is that really? Who created it and whom does it serve?

March 8, 2018|Categories: Director's Corner|
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