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Voldemar Tomusk - Harvesting on the Fields of Ignorance

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 at 12 pm
Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies Lecture

"Harvesting on the Fields of Ignorance: On the Blessings of Not-Knowing and Not-Understanding in the Post State-Socialist Reforms of Higher Learning," with Voldemar Tomusk, deputy director, Higher Education Support Program, Open Society Institute, London.

Sponsored by the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies, Center for European Studies-European Union Center, and Center for Russian and East European Studies. 1636 International Institute/SSWB.


The author argues that higher education reforms in post State-Socialist Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been incomparably less radical than initially proposed or demanded. Ironically, considerable energy and resources have been spent on reform projects of limited or no outcomes. The simple sociological lesson from this is that institutions still matter. In the context of ongoing pan-European higher education reform initiatives, the question of the direction of the latter relative to the direction of the transition is intriguing. It sometimes appears that we are not that far from the point we started 20 years ago. However, this does not mean that universities in Central and East Europe should not be strengthened, but rather that there is more than one force they should be strengthened against, and that there is no quick fix. Approaching higher learning from the both sides of the modern project--communism and capitalism--might allow us to reach a better understanding of the life of mind and its institutional basis.

Speaker's Biography

Voldemar Tomusk is the deputy director of Open Society Institute's Higher Education Support Program (HESP), based in London, UK. He holds a doctoral degree in Social Sciences in Sociology of Education from the University of Turku, Finland and a postgraduate certificate in European Studies from the Central European University, Prague. Prior to joining Open Society Foundation in 1995 he served as head of the Higher Education Division and acting director of Higher Education and Research in the Estonian Ministry of Education. He is the author of a few dozen papers on higher education and higher education reforms. His recent works include a book,The Open World and Closed Societies: Essays on Higher Education Reforms "in Transition"(2004), and an edited volume, Creating the European Area of Higher Education: Voices from the Periphery (2006).

Listen to the lecture here. Read the paper here.

Discussion Summary

Voldemar Tomusk's presentation inspired discussion around the ways in which notions of progress in higher education, qualities of contest over its direction, and resources enabling that trajectory might be identified. In some ways, pro and anti-Soviet dispositions don't seem, any longer, to establish orientations toward these evaluations; instead, a pervasive bitterness might inform new divisions around social issues. Is Western support also critical for establishing higher quality scholarship in some arenas of higher education, notably in gender studies or cultural studies? And what problems does that sponsorship suggest? Moreover, in some ways, the question of who sponsors may be less important than considering how that investment inspires excellence and openness toward learning, moving certainly beyond what is good for careers and economic benefits, and rather toward how higher education might contribute to the foundations and extensions of the open society itself. That can be expensive, but in the end, it should be considered a necessary investment. Foundations are often tempted to focus on how these initiatives might be "self-sustaining," but these questions should be rethought. For example, one might consider some interventions, as in the Southeast European Student Initiative, as intentionally short-lived, but having enduring impact through the training offered these students in evidentially based social critique. Other islands of excellence, as in New Bulgarian University's program in cognitive science, are supported in ways that US universities might recognize, by having undergraduate education help to support intensive graduate training. Finally, however, we might move beyond all of these locally articulated examples of institutional excellence, on the one hand, and commercially driven extensions of higher education on the other, to consider how ideas might themselves travel, and what conditions might allow the insights of scholars from Thailand to Poland about their own societies enter into the global social science imagination about better futures for us all.