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08.02.2017

“I FEAR THE DAY THAT TECHNOLOGY WILL SURPASS HUMAN INTERACTION”

 

 

The accompanying text is the inaugural lecture delivered on September 20, 2016 by academician Professor Dr. Paul Robert Magocsi on the occasion of his having been nominated Honorary Professor at the Ivan Ohiienko National University of Kamianets’ Podil’s’kyi.

 

Paul Robert Magocsi

University of Toronto

       

        Honorable Rector, Esteemed Academic Colleagues, Dear Guests!

        It is a great honor for me to accept the title you have bestowed on me: “Honorary Professor of the Ivan Ohienko National University of Kamianets’-Podil’s’kyi.” I am particularly pleased to be among friends and academic colleagues at this distinguished institution of higher learning in Ukraine.

        Honors of this kind are usually granted to persons of advanced age, or, as the French so graciously say, de troisième âge. With age, so they say, comes experience and, hopefully, wisdom. Being here among students and professional colleagues, I wish to share a few observations about the academic and civic world in which we all function in these early decades  of the twenty-first century. My observations will be limited to three topics about which we all should be concerned. These are what I would call: (1) the bureaucratic mindset; (2) the challenges of modern technology; and (3) commitment to the world’s multicultural reality.

        It only requires a cursory glance at history for one to realize that governments come and go, but bureaucracies remain. Even when a state disappears, it is not uncommon for bureaucrats from a previous regime to remain and be employed—because they are needed—by the new state. In general, bureaucrats are constrained by regulations they are expected to follow in order to uphold what all states hold most dear: social order. The all-embracing  need  to follow  and to enforce regulations—and this includes collecting and  dispensing tax money—is what I have in mind when speaking about the  bureaucratic mindset.

        One of the greatest impediments to the proper functioning of the academic world is precisely the bureaucratic mindset. When libraries are not open seven days a week; when university faculty are forced to leave their workplaces, like factory workers, at five or six o’clock each day and are barred from their university desks or laboratories on weekends and during long holidays; when creative scholars are expected to be “at work” for a fixed number of hours each week: all these are examples of the bureaucratic mindset at work.

        I remember my disbelief when I learned from academic colleagues that they needed to calculate—in the manner of elementary school children—how many times their name was cited in publications by other scholars. It makes no difference what is the relevance of a given scholar’s work, or the quality of the study in which it is cited. All that seems to  matter is that  a citation exists and can be counted. And from where do  such regulations come? Inevitably they come from a bureaucrat who is likely to have little understanding of the intellectually creative process, but who feels obliged to quantify somehow  that process so that it can be  made part of a universal regulatory mechanism.

        If the mindset of  bureaucrats is bad enough, perhaps even worse is the tendency of academics to adopt that mindset when they are called on to become themselves administrators in the universities they serve. More often than not, one’s former academic colleague becomes one’s bureaucratically minded administrator-adversary.

        To be sure, there are  administrators, in particular at the level of  presidents and rectors, who do indeed maintain a vision of the university as a place of intellectual creativity. Far too often, however, fellow scholars and teachers who accept positions as deans, faculty chairmen, or heads of institutes soon take on themselves the personalities of  administrators—guardians and enforcers of regulations set by bureaucrats in governmental bodies who have little appreciation for the often non-quantifiable nature of the scholarly world.

It would  seem to me that the primary function of university administrators is not to enforce by rote bureaucratic regulations. Rather, they should be concerned with devising  mechanisms that respond to the needs  of bureaucratically-minded state funding agencies without forcing creative scholars to be burdened with an increasing number of mind-dumbing regulations. One should always keep in mind the words of the classical Greek philosopher:  he who is most intelligent is he who has most free time.

        Therefore, the main task of university administrators should not  be to function as bureaucrats and to create endless committees whose work contributes little, if anything, to the intellectual and pedagogical process, but rather to  enhance the work environment of the university’s greatest resource—its intellectually creative faculty.

        My second area of concern is that of modern technology. Persons of my generation experienced an educational formation that was based on some basic common experiences. Many of us used to conceptualize, create, and communicate in terms of the written and printed page; now we  conceptualize, create, and communicate directly, or through surrogates, by electronic means. We have all become beholden  to the all-powerful  great god, the computer, with its lesser gods: the cell phone, i-phone, blackberry, together with variegated forms of communication and information access—all, I might add, with infantile English-language names like google, tweet, facebook, etc.

        These modern gadgets were allegedly designed to simplify one’s existence. But do they really help to make our lives easier? I believe it could be argued that these technological tools have achieved just the opposite: they have made each of our existences more difficult. For example, I hear the same complaint over and over again from academic colleagues: the first thing they do when they arrive at the office to begin the work day—and the office in question today is determined by the location of one’s  computer—the first thing they do is spend at least one hour, perhaps two or more, going through their e-mail communications, ninety percent or more of which are classifiable as garbage. What a waste of what should be otherwise “free” creative time so invaluable, as our Greek philosopher said, to the  creative intellectual.

        I do not wish to convey the impression that I am simply an antiquated and irrelevant Luddite who is about to waste your time with a prophetically misplaced Jeremiad against modern technology. Nor am I about to criticize the tendency of the vast majority  of young people to communicate  with each other through their cell phones, even if they are sitting  in the same room or same table. I will leave the commentary on that phenomenon to someone more qualified than I, specifically  Albert Einstein, who lamented: “I fear the day that  technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

        Of course, the computer with all its present and yet-to-be discovered communication tools  is here to stay. I am concerned, however, by the degree to which academics consciously or unconsciously contribute to our overall dependence on computer-based communication and thereby encourage their students to reject the past. What I have in mind is: (1) the increasing  lack of awareness of the extensive body of knowledge produced  by generations of our scholarly predecessors; and (2) the tendency to destroy the present so that it never becomes the past. By way of illustration, let me focus on disciplines in the arts and humanities, since advances in the natural and medical sciences are less likely to depend on scientific achievements from the distant past.

        Alas, students—and far too often professional scholars—begin their humanistic inquiry about any given topic not by  going to a published and often vetted encyclopedia or a specialized bibliography, but rather by reading on-line a Wikipedia entry or by googling a specific individual or event. These sources—as intellectually questionable as they are—have taken on an aura of authority, especially for the present generation of students who have no awareness of a world without computerized knowledge that is instantly accessible.

        The tyranny of computer-generated knowledge is particularly evident in the field of history, a discipline with which I have some familiarity. Today, most of the references found in student essays are only to secondary literature that is in electronic form. This means that sources recorded and made accessible via old fashioned bibliographies are hardly ever cited. Essays by professors and mentors of students are often not much better. The result is that many of today’s scholarly journals are filled with articles based primarily on secondary literature produced in the past ten years, which at times propose ideas or announce “discoveries” that actually have been known to scholars for decades.

        The present generation of active  university professors in the humanities should pass on to their students a greater respect for the accumulative body of past knowledge that has not been—nor likely is ever to be—digitalized. In other words, the time has come to liberate ourselves and our students from the seemingly all powerful but intellectually limited computer.

        What do I mean by the second point: the tendency to destroy the present so that it never becomes the past? Remember when those of us studied, let us say cultural or political history, and how we reveled in reading the published and unpublished correspondance of literary figures, intellectuals, and political and civic figures?  It was through such sources that we were able to understand better the thought processes behind literary and artistic creativity or the motivations behind political and civic acts. Today, because most correspondance is transmitted via the Internet, we are creating a world without a past.

        Professors, too, encourage students to communicate with them and with others only via e-mail. It is  entirely possible that from these same students may come some day a great poet,  or painter, or historian, yet we will never know—and even they themselves will not be able to remember—what motivated them in their creative work. The world of virtual  electronic communication is a world without  a past. Should we, as professors and intellectual mentors, be encouraging our students to perpetuate such a state of affairs?

        My third and last observation deals with what I have referred to at the every outset as a commitment to the world’s multicultural reality. Until now I have been speaking in relatively general terms about the challenges posed by bureaucracies and modern technology to the academic environment in universities wherever they may be located throughout the world. The following comments will, in part, refer more specifically to developments in Ukraine and,  for that matter, in many other European countries as well.

        May I begin by declaring that I consider myself an intellectual and spiritual child of the late eighteenth-century German philosopher, Johann  Gottfried von Herder. Herder is best remembered for his views—or should we more properly say convictions—regarding the various ethnolinguistic groups or peoples that inhabit our world. Herder believed that each people, regardless of numerical size or political status, has its own intrinsic cultural value. Therefore, all peoples are equal, whether they may or may not have their “own state” which carries their name. As a child of Herder, I have always been uncomfortable with classifications, such as titular nationalities and national minorities, since to my mind there are only peoples, each one equal to the other, regardless of what labels modern-day states and ideologues may give to them.

        At the end of the disastrous twentieth century, at least on this continent, the European Union heralded not only the hope but the practical reality that the abolition of borders would make state boundaries less important than the boundaries of ethnocultural communities, many of which live within more than one state. Hence, each individual was a European, belonging—should he or she wish—to a specific nationality or people, whose citizenship in a particular state was a secondary attribute.

        Let us take as an example one of Ukraine’s smallest neighbors, Slovakia. To my mind, independent Slovakia began as a model of the Herderian ideal. When, for instance,  in 2005 Slovakia entered the European Union, it was headed by a president of Carpathian German heritage, a prime minister of ethnic Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn heritage, and a vice-prime minister of  Hungarian heritage. All were  Europeans belonging to the continent’s different peoples at the same time that they were citizens of Slovakia. Like other citizens, they had multiple identities: as Europeans; as ethnic Slovaks, Magyars, or Carpatho-Rusyns; and as Slovakian citizens. Each of these multiple identities is compatible and, most importantly, each of the ethnocultural or nationality identities is, according to the Herderian principle, equal.

        The model of civic society practiced by Slovakia when it entered the European Union is worthy of praise and respect. It is a model which Ukraine should follow as it strives to be associated with—and eventually become a full member of—the European Union.

        In this regard, universities have a special role to play in the intellectual formation of Ukraine’s young people, many of whom are likely to become the country’s future government and civic leaders. All universities should provide courses in history, literature, ethnography, and the arts that include information not only about ethnic Ukrainians but about all Ukrainians; that is,  those of Russian, Polish, Jewish, Crimean Tatar, Romanian, Bulgarian, German, Czech, Hungarian, Carpatho-Rusyn, and other cultural heritages.  Aspects of these cultures created in Ukrainian lands are part of what it means to be Ukrainian.

        It is in this sense that universities can and should represent the best face of Ukraine as a democratic country which  will be worthy not only to take a place but also to contribute to the further understanding and enhancement of  Europe’s multicultural reality.

        In closing, may I speak to you and what you are: privileged young people who are likely to become civic and political leaders in your country and who will represent Ukraine to the world.

        Beware, in the future, of becoming a classic bureaucrat and certainly do not operate with the Soviet bureaucratic mindset still prevalent in your country. Beware of allowing modern technology to dominate your lives. And, finally, be proud of the multicultural nature of your country as it works toward finding its rightful place among all the other multicultural countries of Europe. 

 

 

 

 

 

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