13. 12. 2004
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Britské listy

ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
13. 12. 2004

Between the Rock of Social Scientism and the Hard Place of Liberal Humanism:

Czech, Slovak, Minority Subjects and Discipline

When I tell people who do not have anything to do with Central Europe that I am involved with Czech and Slovak Studies, they often assume that there must be marvellous opportunities after the Velvet Revolution and the accession of the two countries to the EU. I am forced to comment wryly that the two events that were best for the Czechs and the Slovaks were, from one point of view, the worst things that could have happened to Czech and Slovak Studies. This paper explores that irony.

A paper given at the conference at the Czech Embassy, London, 10 December 2004, `New Trends in Czech Studies II'

Czech version HERE

Czech and Slovak Studies and the Crisis of British Universities In the past few years, and particularly in the past few weeks, we have seen evidence of a deepening crisis in British universities. Financial pressure have to a range of established universities to enact or to propose the closure of entire departments: Chemistry at Exeter, Architecture at Cambridge, Scandinavian at the University of East Anglia are but three examples. On might add to this picture the findings of the influential Nuffield Report on Languages: `Languages are in crisis. Most University departments are regarded as operating in deficit, and an increasing number are under threat of closure or reduction.' In this brutal climate where market forces rule so powerfully, it is only reasonable to ask what sort of future can one expect for Czech and Slovak studies. If German departments have difficulty recruiting students, if Chemistry, Architecture and Scandinavian are not able to pay their own way, what hope is there for Czech and Slovak studies that are and -- let's be realistic -- always will be of limited market value when seen from the point of view of the accountant's bottom line?

In his letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), dated 1 December, the British Minister of Education, Charles Clarke, seemed to give an answer to this question that provided some hope. Here, Mr Clarke ordered HEFCE to carry out a review of subjects, including minority language, that he termed as being of `national strategic importance'. In the annex to the letter, the Minister gave more specific indications:

Intervention might be appropriate to strengthen or secure the following subject areas:

  • Arabic and Turkish language studies and other Middle Eastern area studies, former Soviet Union Caucasus and central Asian area studies - this is mainly for strategic security and inter-cultural awareness reasons, as highlighted by the recent BRISMES Report.
  • Japanese, Chinese, Mandarin and other far eastern languages and area studies - for business and trade purposes, as highlighted by, among others, the UK-Japan 21st Century Group [...]
  • Courses relating to recent EU accession countries, especially those in Eastern Europe and the Baltic.
  • So, it seems alright then; Czech and Slovak Studies, as minority languages of recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe, are deemed to be of `national strategic importance', and, hence, may expect special treatment at the hand of the central funding bodies that should ensure their continued existence.

    It would be wise, however, to take a more critical -- and perhaps more cynical -- view. First, one must analyse the impact on Czech and Slovak Studies that will, and indeed has already resulted from a reliance on a definition of their `national strategic importance'. My argument here is that an increasingly narrow notion of `national strategic importance' leads to an inexorable social-scientization of Czech and Slovak Studies that may allow them to flourish in the short term but mean their severe impoverishment, if not extinction in the long term. This is in noone's national interest: British, Czech, or Slovak. Second, then, one must find an alternative rationale for the continued special governmental funding of Czech and Slovak Studies. (I take it for granted that Czech and Slovak Studies will always be, to some extent, dependent on such funding.) Whilst I admit the difficulties in making this case, I shall argue that this alternative rationale must be a revitalized form of Liberal Humanism. Put differently: if literature, the discipline that so often dares not speak its name, is able to find a modern and self-confident voice, then it might be possible to discern a long-term future for Czech and Slovak Studies that is not limited by the short-term vistas of political and economic transition.

    Special Funding, the National Need and Social-scientization

    Czech and Slovak Studies in Britain have always been, in part, dependent on the British government's perception of the political, diplomatic and economic, national need. Czech and Slovak Studies were first put on a firm institutional footing in 1915 with the creation of the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (SSEES). The reasons behind the creation of SSEES were not simply a British sense of fair play and a desire, stoked up by Masaryk and Seton-Watson to champion, within the academy, the underdogs and small nations of Europe. Rather, the British government was also keenly aware that an allied victory in the First World War would most likely bring about the collapse of the German and Austrian Empires, thereby opening up a new sphere in which Britain would need expertise if it was to wield influence. (Incidentally, a similar view of the fragility of the Ottoman and French Empires motivated the establishment of SSEES's sister institution, the School of Oriental and African Studies.) The link between Czech and Slovak Studies, particularly at SSEES but also elsewhere, defined in strategic terms and expressed in financial subsidy, has continued until this day. The crisis of the 1930s, the Second World War, most obviously the Cold War, and finally the changes of 1989 and the question of EU enlargement; these political and historical events have ensured this connection.

    Since the mid-1990s, the vehicle of special governmental funding has been HEFCE's provision of Minority Studies Funding (MSF) which subsidizes Czech and Slovak Studies in Oxford and at SSEES/UCL and was, under a slightly different initiative, responsible for the creation of a post in Czech at Sheffield. MSF is perhaps not essential to Czech and Slovak Studies -- one need only look at Bristol's bold decision to expand Czech and Slovak Studies without it -- but it is of great importance. MSF is currently under review. SSEES, which receives a very large block grant for all its minority subjects, is heavily reliant on MSF. Were SSEES to lose this source of funding, the future of Czech and Slovak Studies would look very bleak. For these reasons, it is worth looking in detail at HEFCE's criteria for MSF. In essence, minority subjects are those that are not in themselves likely to be financially viable. In practical terms the guideline for this is that, at any one time, across all years of undergraduate study, there must be fewer that one hundred students nationally studying the subject as their principal degree subject. In addition, the provision of MSF for a subject must be considered to be in the `national interest'. This is defined as follows:

  • A. The needs of diplomacy. This covers the full range of UK interests, influence and commitments overseas, and requires a supply of independent expertise to respond to the patterns of UK interests as they vary over time.
  • B. The needs of industry and commerce. International trade and the development of overseas markets demand knowledge of local languages and cultures. Again, as international trading patterns change, so do the countries and regions about which knowledge is required.
  • C. Maintenance of academic diversity. Minority subjects contribute to the diversity of provision by HEIs, and to maintaining the balance and breadth of discipline expertise in the UK. Such subjects by their nature depend upon a very small group of experts, and would quickly become in danger of disappearing if the number of new first degree entrants were allowed to decline too far. Once gone, the reintroduction of a subject would be unlikely.
  • The problem with this definition is that increasingly the rather vague criterion C tends to be less valued than the diplomatic and economic imperatives of criteria A and B. We see this in the quotation from Charles Clarke, given above: in this letter, Mr Clarke mentions only strategic and economic grounds for supporting minority subjects. The result of this has been a thorough-going social-scientization of minority subjects in Britain. One finds evidence of this in the results of an initiative carried out by HEFCE in 1995-6. Under this initiative, universities were asked to bid for funding for new academic posts in minority subjects relating to Eastern Europe. Of the thirty-three successful bids, thirty posts were filled by social scientists or contemporary historians.

    At this point one must ask: what is wrong with this process of social-scientization? Why can it not be in the interest of Britain -- as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- for expertise on these countries to be concentrated in the contemporary problems of politics, society and economics? I shall give two of the many answers to this question: one, an obvious answer, and another that is less obvious but equally important.

    1. The ephemeral nature of the national need for social science in Czech and Slovak Studies

    The same processes that have brought about the need for social sciences in Czech and Slovak Studies will also make them redundant. Even now, the Lectureship in Transition and Ethnic Conflict, which was established at Nottingham under the scheme referred to above, looks obsolescent. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are now well integrated into the European and global frameworks of the EU and NATO. The national need for the social sciences is disappearing. For evidence of this, one need only look at the US equivalent of MSF, so-called the State Department's Title VIII funding. Since the mid-1980s Title VIII has been a rich source of funding for Czech and Slovak Studies. As of this year, application for may no longer be made to Title VIII for studies in Central Europe, including Czech and Slovak Studies. Title VIII has shifted to cover only South-Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia; that is to say, those areas where the strategic and economic interests of the US are still perceived to exist. Funding for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatian could be cut as early as next year. Even here, funding is heavily social-scientized:

    The Title VIII Program supports research topics that strengthen the fields of Eurasian and East European Studies, and that address U.S. policy interests in the region, broadly defined. Historical or cultural research that promotes understanding of current events in the region is acceptable if an explicit connection is made to policy relevant issues, broadly defined.

    It should be clear that, if Czech and Slovak Studies is to make itself a real and long-term future, it must resists the temporary lure of social-scientization and make arguments for its necessity on other grounds. In fifteen years the Czech Republic will be, in political and economic terms, little different from the Netherlands. In the case of Slovakia, let us not have to pray for a Mečiar come-back in order to secure the future of Slovak Studies. Governments and universities must be convinced of better grounds than these for Czech and Slovak Studies.

    2. The instrumentalization of language

    If Czech and Slovak Studies are given over to the social sciences, language is relegated to the position of an instrument. For the vast majority of social scientists, language is the instrument with which they access the date that they wish to study, no matter whether this be voting patterns or party formations. When the learning of a language is relegated to this secondary and instrumental position it begins to disappear. PhD students in the social sciences often have rudimentary reading knowledge of the language of their country of study, if they have any knowledge at all. Language as an instrument is best learned at a language school, by living in the country, or in bed with a Czech or Slovak partner -- not at university. Language as an instrument ends up being taught by casualized, underqualified or undervalued staff. Language as an instrument begins to shuffle out of the academy. This is in no one's national interest. It is only literature that recognizes the opacity of language and that it is never merely an instrument.

    Subordination to political and economic demands (and, after all, what really is the difference today?) and the instrumentalization of everything are, of course, the hallmarks of a post-Thatcher, Blairite world of global capital. Here, I quote from a paper by my brother, Jon Beasley-Murray:

    ...so "specialists" should break out of their discipline and disperse throughout the curriculum to teach languages to all. This, essentially, is the conclusion of the Nuffield Inquiry. Hence, among other things, the proliferation of programmes in "Management and French," "Business Studies and a Modern Language," and so on. Here, language becomes simply technique--a means to an end, a way of "getting to `oui'" (or ja, or sí) in your Lille, Berlin, or Mexico City business meeting. [...] Beyond what some might regard as the political perniciousness of subordinating university teaching so wholly to market priorities, this proposal also means surrendering critical thought to the pragmatics of technique. And beyond the way in which its technocracy is itself ideology, or the fact that the notion of linguistic transparency it promotes is only ever illusory, the problem with this approach for those currently teaching within Modern Languages is that it is suicidal.

    Czech and Slovak Studies must avoid the suicide that results from social-scientization. The solution must but the formulation of a national need for Czech and Slovak Studies that is not ephemeral or instrumental but still relevant and pressing. One obvious source for such argument is Liberal Humanism which its emphasis on the lasting and inherently valuable role of the study of language and literature. And yet, if social-scientism is the rock against which Czech and Slovak Studies are being crushed, then Liberal Humanism is the hard place.

    The Problem of Liberal Humanism

    Liberal Humanism is often and rightly criticized for its ahistorical and elitist insistence on the eternal value of the canon of high culture. This must be challenged. The task for Czech and Slovak Studies is to remodel and modernize these arguments and to purge them of their elitist exclusivity. If Czech and Slovak Studies in Britain is to have a long-term and fruitful future, one must argue for the level of cultural knowledge and analysis that a study of literature provides. This, of course, does not mean a study of literature alone. One might agree with Sir Philip Sidney, writing in the 1570s that `no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as poetry.' Or one might quote Northrop Frye: `

    the study of literature does not solve social problems. What it does is to base education on the sense of a participating community which is constantly in process and constantly engaged in criticizing its own assumptions and clarifying the vision of what it might and could be.

    In so doing, however, one must be aware that these are social and political arguments. In any case, Czech and Slovak Studies must learn to convince governments and itself that more than narrow political and economic interests are at stake and that the broadest range of national and human interests are best served by a more profound engagement with Czech and Slovak culture.

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