Rethinking Academia (Part 2) — Sarajevan professor and author talks ‘Academic Charlatanism,' nationalism in education and the far-reaching collapse of academic standards.
In a recent interview, when asked about the state of democracy in her native Turkey, writer Elif Shafak warned of how the lack of independent academia, among other issues, is one of the components of a “damaged and broken” democracy.
Looking at the rest of the Balkans and at the state of democracy and academia, it’s a statement that strongly resonates. Around the region, universities are faced with the same complaints and challenges: the misuse of universities by political elites, a questionable quality of education, opportunism among the academic staff, a decline of ethics and the so-called “brain drain.”
Wanting to explore this situation further, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent intellectuals from the region. In this special series of interviews with academics from seven Balkan states, all of the professors agree that academia in the Balkans is not independent.
In the second part of our “Rethinking Academia” series, K2.0 sat down with Nenad Veličković, a professor in the Department of Literatures of the Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Philosophy and a writer, who has recently published a book titled “Academic Charlatanism — Literary Theory and University in Transition (An Ethnographic Approach).”
Veličković discusses political interference in academia, the role of academic staff in society and how Bosnia’s education system functions in a transitional context.
K2.0: Your book “Academic Charlatanism” is a sort of case study based on your long-standing teaching experience, you having been a university lecturer in Sarajevo for two decades. What is that experience like?
Nenad Veličković: The book shows that the experiences are bad. When I came to the University in 1999, shortly after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was still some optimism regarding the role of the department and of literature studies, even euphoria at times. There was this lingering belief that things would look up.
As soon as I settled down and entered this discourse, all the while carrying out my regular duties, the university — namely, the faculty of philosophy, including my department — fell under the sway of Bosniak politics. Staff selection, curriculum development, treatment of students and the so-called unwritten learning outcomes, all of this was aimed at the solidification of capital earned during the war.
What was acquired during the war needed to be consolidated, validated, explicated, and consecrated through the university and the authority held by science.
The result is that less and less people ask questions they used to ask. Some abnormal things have become completely normal, not in the least since scientific authority frequently has come to assert that what is not [true], is indeed [true].
Which means that it becomes the truth by itself?
That is correct. It owes to the fact that there is some kind of a scientific authority behind all of this. In my book, I try — and quite successfully so, I believe — to prove that what is presented as literary science is not science at all. The people who have read the book agree, together with the ones who helped me write it.
The book is not written in dry academic language. Rather, it is polemical, revolving around the facts and events that you have come across so far as a lecturer. Among other things, you point out that some serious anomalies manifest in ethnicized academic education.
When it comes to the book itself, the problem of ethnicity is not in the forefront — at least that is how it appears to me. Because within the academic community, the first and foremost priority is the rigor of thought, the focal point being facts. The quality of analysis, the accuracy of synthesis… these are the elements that I consider standards of scientific thought. And these standards are the same in every discipline, be it physics, mathematics, or literature.
Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.
Naturally, the scientific approach is not the only means of engaging with literature. There are many other, less restrictive ways of dealing with it. However, since we have set up a specific scientific framework for literature, certain titles and authority stemming from it — and privileges, by the same token — we ought to respect some standards that go hand in hand with science as well.
I have proven that these professionals, particularly the people in my department, deviate from these standards and if you read my book, you can see that the same applies to the dean’s office, the academic council and the university senate.
Unfortunately, there are clear indications that the situation is not much better outside of Sarajevo or Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole.
The most boring, yet the most important part of the book encompasses proving that people who present themselves as scientists are not scientists — with respect to what they do and how they do it — because they do not meet the aforementioned scientific standards.
Academic ranks are held by apparatchiks whose mission is to work for the ethnic groups they belong to.
If the reader gets this impression, if I gain their trust based on the evidence that I put forth, for them, these people will lose credibility as scientists in the public sphere. It will become clear that these people’s careers are ideological rather than scientific projects, that academic ranks are held by apparatchiks whose mission is to work for the ethnic groups they belong to, or, to be more precise, for the parties that portray themselves as advocating the respective interests of ethnic groups.
As per literary science in particular, what is the biggest issue in your department, bearing in mind how the number of students interested in enrolling there is decreasing? To what extent has the overall atmosphere at the Faculty and what is offered as knowledge contributed to that?
The trend is that the number of students is in decline. Nevertheless, I would say that the reason for the fact that only three people applied in this year’s first enrollment period, is an obsolete and rigid national program coupled with professors who do not bring anything refreshing to their lectures. The majority of them are untalented, not only in writing, but also in reading literature.
It may be true that the word has gotten out about how previous generations of students are disillusioned. When they reach their fifth year, students feel that they have idled most of their time, especially when and if they get a job at school afterwards. In that case, they come to realize that a significant amount of knowledge acquired at the university is practically inapplicable in class.
There are many ways in which literature could be examined, but in this department, one can neither learn how to read or write, nor grow to love these faculties, since there is no such objective. Besides, one cannot become a good teacher because there is no such objective either.
Technically, this is a sort of brainwashing whereby future teachers are forced into an identitarian narrative and trained to reiterate it only as it is, as the only narrative, being professionals who are to teach new generations of pupils and students. It is no surprise that many students perceive this as pigeonholing and a squander of their time — spending five years on something that should take only two.
Regardless of the fact that as a whole it has been marginalized in our culture, literature is still being fervently used as an ideological instrument, principally at the university. Why do you think literature is suitable for use as a weapon of ideological indoctrination?
The so-called national parties keep a tight grip on various institutions, primarily educational ones, since they can carry out indoctrination through them. Even though its importance among children is diminishing, education is met with dozens of different challenges. In spite of this, school remains a space where some image of reality is formed.
So, even if children do not believe in this image, they are nonetheless told that it is indubitably real. This image is created by the means of telling stories — chiefly those tackling the past, good and evil, the organization of societies, relationships between individuals, things that shape a community — and literature becomes important because it still manages this storytelling very well.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, we have no thriving film industry, or television, or a production that could enable visual content to push literature aside, as is the case in other parts of the world. A school that has not yet been transformed into a modern institution does retain its authority, making use of literature by default, and this is where its undeserved significance lies; perhaps I overestimate it, though.
Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.
Upon entering a school, one should take a look at what is hanging on the wall, what pictures there are in classrooms and elsewhere. All of these constitute an important body of information on the ideology behind education. This is what I wrote about in one of my previous books, “Sludgeducation” (Školokrečina).
What I do not cover in that book — but I do in this one — is the environment in which such a concept of education is produced. In the domain of literature, the origin thereof is indeed the department of literature at the university. The positions that the people from the department occupy in decision-making processes speak for themselves.
I will mention one glaring example — “Reader for Diaspora,” a textbook for the supplementary education of children living abroad. The institutions that took part in its production were the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Ministry of Civil Affairs as well as the Language Institute, a renowned institution under the umbrella of the University of Sarajevo. The reader is a disgrace. However, its reviewer — one of the lecturers from our department — praised it, so I dedicated an entire chapter in “Dilettantism” to this case only.
In your new book, you say that professors’ and scientists’ authority is essentially proscribed in today’s context, but at the same time, the quality of an academic professional’s knowledge is not discussed. If an academic title is to be used as a principle of sorts, irrespective of one’s words and actions, it ought to be an indisputable confirmation of knowledge and expertise — yet, in practice, this does not seem to be the case?
The fact is that this simplified understanding of postmodernism has snuck into universities, has relativized science and shaken the reasonable belief that something is true while something else is not. There are now mechanisms within which it is thought impossible to determine how accurate findings in research papers are, if the paper is pertinent to the humanities.
In “Charlatanism,” I question these mechanisms. When someone gets a job at the university as a teaching assistant, the chances for them to stay there until they retire are incredibly high. The thing is, they need to meet certain formal, quantitative conditions, but the quality thereof is not examined. Our choices are utterly inert.
Are you trying to say that only a specific norm should be conformed to, no matter whether it brings to the table any actual content in terms of original discoveries, achievements, findings, insights?
I can immediately hear the other side asking questions: What would constitute real knowledge? What is a scientific breakthrough? In this book, I try to demonstrate that real achievements can be measured as per how recent, authentic and useful they are when it comes to understanding a problem and potentially solving it.
The book shows that a work that someone presents as scientific may be pure nonsense that is entirely redundant and useless to everyone.
The book shows that a work that someone presents as scientific may be pure nonsense that is entirely redundant and useless to everyone. However, the amount of deafening foolishness creates an impression that some sort of a serious production is taking place, while, essentially, we witness the same old things being put forward, flimsily corroborated and logically questionable.
It is precisely at universities where we should criticize such productions, such procedures and such lecturers and figures of authority — but universities are closed to criticism. A free and well-argumented questioning of real and concrete scientific contributions is nowhere to be found. To me, this is important — what the use of someone’s academic work is and who can use it; what the real progress entails.
The explanations for these breakthroughs are more often than not rather sketchy and formalistic. There are fossilized constructions and repetitive phrases, and no passion nor conviction or energy. But over the course of four, five, six years, people climb major steps in their careers. As they receive more titles, their influence grows, and so does their income. Who else besides them benefits from this is brushed aside.
In this respect, it is interesting to think about the responsibility of the media. Daily affairs cause quite a stir in the media, so the first thing they do is ask for a statement, an expert opinion, and then they publish it, paying no heed to its content, as if it is beyond any doubt by itself.
In one section of your book, you mention that university should be society’s corrective, in a manner of speaking. Do you think that it could generate some processes and inquiries, that it could become a zone where freedom and critical thinking could be retaken?
That is true. In the Sarajevo Canton, the Law on Textbooks was recently adopted. It was created by some legal charlatans, while other people who worked on it were probably competent, but drowsy.
Publishing houses — the ones who make textbooks and who know something about all of that — had a myriad of objections to that law. Based on the explanatory memorandum of the law, it can be seen that some anonymous committee gave very arrogant answers to the majority of these comments, in such a way that they merely rejected them without any argumentation.
It goes without saying that representatives in the Assembly — for the time being, let us not talk about how they got there and what their predispositions are for such a responsible position — cannot know every single thing regarding the matters that they make decisions on or that they regulate through laws. The same goes for the people who do not have enough time to take these matters into consideration on a daily basis, and the ones who lack a basic understanding of them. Be it as it may, there are people who are paid by that precise community to know something about it.
The Sarajevo Canton pays all of my colleagues and me not only to hold classes but also to deal with some other things. My 40-hour work week foresees only five hours of lecturing; everything else entails some other form of work. A great deal of it is scientific research, which prompts me to follow developments in my field.
I am interested in textbooks in particular, so I have been going through them for the past 10 years. Therefore I know where the issues are in printing and in reviewing, what the issues are with pushing forward bad textbooks, where and how political parties meddle in this, how corruption works…
All of this has been examined, analyzed and proven. Everything can be checked since it is based on verifiable and accessible facts, everything is documented, photographed… It is what I have worked on as a university lecturer and I perceive it as something that society pays me to do. It is my duty.
So two years ago, when the Law on Education was passed, I analyzed it for a month, getting a grasp of legal things so as to learn that language. That was my duty and the duty of academia. That knowledge is not only mine — it should be a resource belonging to a community that we are paid by and at whose disposal we stand.
Would you therefore say that a time shall come when the university itself could be privatized?
I suppose that could happen, but not very soon. Should most of the people here really buy into the fact — like many younger friends and students of mine — that privatization is the solution to every issue in terms of knowing who the boss is and what belongs to whom, then the solution for this country would be to privatize itself. That way, we could live decently.
Can this situation change? Realistically speaking — and I think this is what my book shows as well — it cannot, at least not now, or anytime soon.
Meanwhile, what is evident is the fact that because of all of that, it is society in general that suffers the most, particularly young people, pre-university and university students, who are employed as extras in plays directed by nationalists and others compatible with nationalism.
Can this situation change? Realistically speaking — and I think this is what my book shows as well — it cannot, at least not now, or anytime soon.
The problem with university is that there are no standards and that relevant laws are bad. The environment is such that quality is not favored. Charlatans already occupy key positions in decision-making processes. Hence, every change would be met with obstructions. Yet, this does not mean that [the university] could not become a space where serious discussion or debate could take place, say, come tomorrow.
You have spent some time working with your associates on creating primary school textbooks. How did that project go?
Three out of five of these textbooks were authorized for use and these can be used by any teacher. However, it turns out that although our textbooks are quality materials, most teachers have relied on much worse ones.
So, for the most part, these criteria are determined by ideological and financial factors?
Of course, it is always the money that is behind all of this, since textbooks are first and foremost a good investment. You produce something, you name the price and then you make people buy it. Whoever enters this business are bound to profit.
One usually gets this job by virtue of a political party, which can also ensure placement through a network of politically vetted school directors. A directive was obviously there, because how else would you explain the fact that 80% of teachers have chosen the worst of all textbooks available to them? This includes the one that keeps the identitarian and national narrative in the forefront.
In your book, you write: “We have traded the rational for the national.” How do you explain that statement?
Perhaps I have not put enough emphasis on this chain.
At our university, we train teachers for an ethnic reading of literature. Then we provide them with textbooks that support such a reading. These are in turn reviewed by the people from our department, this job having been given to them by their colleagues, ministers.
It is obviously a chain, and I believe the book has made it clear that the responsibility for this lies with political parties.