Note to the reader: What’s mundane is not a timeless and trans-national concept. What’s mundane for an American academic living and working in the US is not mundane for an American academic living and working in Central/Eastern Europe—as this essay illustrates.
Somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe
Wednesday, March 21, 2001
As part of its pre-election campaign a local political party is offering working mothers one day off per month. The cynicism implied by this offer is, perhaps, not astounding if one considers that this is coming from a party headed by a man whose chief contribution to public debate seems to be vague accusations of corruption directed at other politicians.
The other night on the local Monday night political chat show, one member of the audience produced a newspaper article showing that this particular leading light had once been the recipient of special training in Russia. The political leader looked unhappy and did not respond. The moderator wanted to ignore it too. It wasn’t part of the planned discussion.
But, there’s something here worth noting. This country never had a lustration law—a law which banned former Communists from participating in politics. Had there been a lustration law many of today’s leading politicians would have been prevented from participating in politics. (A friend recently told me about a case in a neighboring country where a member of parliament who has responsibility for the media turns out to have been a censor during the communist period. When reporters tried to ask him about this, the former communist censor responded with belligerence and threats.)
In any case, the cynicism implied by the one-free-day-off bait is not restricted to the political realm.
My current employer recently offered a night of free bowling at the local shopping mall. The very same employer (speaking to me through the mouth of the most low-ranking local administrator, a man whose salary is certainly at least double my own) once told me that I shouldn’t complain about the ancient washing machine in my school-provided flat. He flatly stated that while my contract promises me a flat, the school is under no obligation to provide a washing machine. (Let us ignore the fact that this is a city where there is not one laundromat.)
This particular bureaucrat then went on to inform me that during his first six months at the school he had washed all of his clothes by hand.
I suppressed the thought: Well, when I worked for a different local University I washed my clothes by hand for 18 months. So, there: I’m more macho than you.
Had I said that, there would have been a race to prove who was more macho. I was speaking to a man who in his mid-thirties was living in Eastern Europe and is a quarterback for an American-style football team in the Exotic East. On top of that, his name appears above mine in the organizational chart for the local branch of an America-based university.
Praise God for the American Empire! Look how they send talented people to the poor part of Europe to help out. Such a generous country.
[Tracing the history of my washing machine—a mundane item if ever there was one– is instructive. When I spoke about its run-down condition to a member of the academic staff (a woman whose calling card identifies her as a “Site Manager”) she responded with surprise, telling me that it was her old washing machine and worked very well. In fact, her candid remark confirmed my suspicion that every local resident has a newer washing machine than I do. I have visited the homes of more than a few people who are citizens of this country, and every one of them has had a newer washing machine than I do.
My suspicions were reinforced by a conversation I recently had with a washing machine repair man. Apparently unable to place me from my accent alone, he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was American, he immediately responded with the question, “Why don’t you buy a new washing machine?”. Plainly the repairman would be surprised to learn that a native speaker of a prestige language, citizen of the world’s only super power, and someone working for a company with a “home office” within the territory of that super power, might actually be receiving a salary less than the average paid to local residents working for foreign companies.]
Then there is the case of a free trip to the local ski resort. Another case of bread and circuses — Yes, we should regard this as a free gift from our lord and master the Distance Learning University, which gives American Academics a chance to strut their stuff in the Exotic East of Europe.
The purpose of the Free All-Expenses Paid Trip to the local version of the Alps was to encourage Team-Building and reward the hardy workers. It also allowed “Senior Professors” based in the United States a chance to pontificate on the sin of plagiarism and the fifteen ways to skin (whoops, I meant evaluate) a student.
The globalization of education. Is that what it is? Or, mightn’t we speak more accurately of the Will to Power? If you can’t dominate at home, go abroad. If people who speak your own language don’t admire and respect you sufficiently to satisfy your dreams of being a guru, go abroad to a place where people want to speak your language, and you can have a head start, an advantage over them in the form of your native-speaker status. By all means, find someone to dominate. If you can’t be a winner at home, you can at least be the quarterback of a team in the Exotic East.
But by all means, you must be a quarterback!
Note on Distance Learning (DL): Thanks to the Internet, if only one has a computer and money, one can study with a university anywhere in the world. In the above rant, the author exaggerates a bit when he describes his school as a DL school; the school is not exclusively devoted to distance learning—it actually does have “day students” as well. On the other hand, distance learning is an important part of the school’s activities, and with the help of a grant recently awarded by the US government, the school plans to expand its DL activities in Eastern Europe.
One of the most horrific aspects of this new institution (as Phillipson 1999 points out) is that educators ignorant of a student’s culture, environment, and language are, in effect, marking out what is important and what is not.
It may, perhaps, be possible to have distance education of some quality in an extremely abstract mathematical subject, but in the humanities as traditionally conceived, discussion is essential. And discussion means face-to-face contact. And insofar as good (relevant, local) examples are the life-blood of any lecture, it is difficult to imagine how a distance teacher can overcome the inherent limitations of the medium.
It would appear that what is now on offer is (yet another) version of education for the masses. Just as mass production meant a decline in quality for the sake of wider availability of the product on offer, so education in enormous lecture halls at America’s state universities meant a de-humanization of education. And distance learning continues the trend with its promise of wider availability, and an unadvertised accompanying decline in quality.
Distance learning is a means for English-speaking countries to assert and expand their cultural hegemony. It is a vehicle of cultural imperialism, the McDonaldization of education.
See Robert Phillipson, 1999, “International languages and International Human Rights” and the references therein. (in Miklós Kontra, Robert Phillipson, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Tibor Várady, eds., Language: A Right and a Resource (Central European Press, Budapest, Hungary 1999)
Author: Mark Lovas teaches at the Central European campus of an educational institution which would very much like the world to believe that it is a pioneer in distance learning. He currently lives and works in the country’s capital, a city fondly described by local inhabitants as the country’s “biggest village.”