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Review & Outlook - 09/01/2003

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ACADEMIA AND NATIONAL INTEREST: CAN THEY BE RECONCILED?

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 1, 2003

By Asbed Kotchikian


In Armenian reality the issue of integrating all aspects of life into
a common and mainstream national rhetoric is an obsession. This is not
surprising since like many small nations, which have faced mass
extinction and managed to avoid it, national or nationalist rhetoric
seems to provide some comfort and at the same time explain things in
simple terms for mass consumption.

The Western academia (mostly social sciences) is one of the main
challengers of any conventional wisdom and national rhetoric. Because
of its nature of constantly questioning and reexamining issues, social
sciences is in a constant flux where ideas or issues are questioned,
discussed about and reformulated. Since the independence of Armenia
the need for a common rhetoric has become more pressing and raised
many questions in the Armenian communities and in Armenia about the
`destructive', `non-conformist' and `heretic' approach of many
academics in the United States regarding Armenian related issues. This
article is an attempt to analyze these issues and tries to raise some
questions relevant to the topic.


THE PROBLEM OF SOCIAL SCIENCES

Despite the `science' in their name, social sciences are far from
being scientific. Unlike mathematics, physics or chemistry the
variables that social scientists deal with are not predictable or are
incontrollable. This is even truer when one talks about history or
political science as the two fields, which face far too many variables
and are the ones more frequently brought under the microscope of the
society or the public.

Mark Twain is credited to have said, `Everybody talks about he weather
but nobody does anything about it'. By reformulating this saying it
could be safe to say that `everybody knows about politics but no one
understands it.'  This is one of the main problems of social sciences
since political issues and situations SEEM to be within the realm of
everyone's `specialization'; everybody expresses ideas and has opinion
about it. This does not mean that it is only political scientists who
can understand or analyze politics. On the contrary, politics and
political understanding is almost a gift which many people develop
over time. The one advantage that academics have over policy makers is
that they are trained over the years to utilize tools and methods to
observe, collect information and analyze various situations and
policies.

One of the foundations of Western and US scholarship is the ability of
an individual to gather information from as many sources as possible
and be able to present an issue from as various positions as possible.
Just as in real life there are no absolute `rights' and `wrongs' in
academia there is no single answer to any given question. The fact
that the persons who interpret the facts are physiologically,
psychologically and mentally different has a tremendous influence on
how the fact is presented or explained. Consequently, objectivity -
which is highly claimed and cherished in academia - is something that
is unachievable. What an academic could hope for is to be as less
subjective as possible and to isolate herself/himself from the various
factors that may influence the outcome of the research.

One of the other problems that academia (and especially the academia
in the United States) faces is the `marriage' of interests and
scholarship. It is not a secret that many businesses, companies or
governments constantly attempt to `recruit' academics, chairs or even
departments to propagate their own agendas and present various issues
under the guise of academic integrity and objectivity. The nature of
the US academia is set up in a way that research is dependent on
various sources of funding and because of that many researchers or
departments pursue a specific agenda to appease their patrons.

This does not mean that any idea coming from academia is biased and
should be discredited. On the contrary, some of the most vocal critics
of government policies and subjectivity come from academics who take
upon themselves the role of public educators and at the same time
criticize any attempt by their colleagues to fall into the trap of
being `agents' of various interests.

One of the merits and at the same time frustrating shortcomings of the
social sciences (at least from the less biased or less subjective
social scientist) is that it can never provide concrete and final
answers to issues. On the contrary, social scientists are always in
the process of raising more questions concerning a topic and try to
address those questions. That is why the academia is a collective
where the various specialists interact with each other and exchange
ideas to learn from each other's experiences and try to bring up new
approaches to view and try to explain situations.


AN ARMENIAN VIEW OF THE ACADEMIA

Like many small nations in the modern world, Armenians are very keen
to produce a coherent and united approach on all issues from their
history to `globalization' (whatever that means). This drive to
coherence and singularity in views and perspectives stems from the
fact that Armenians view themselves as a small nation, which once had
a tremendous impact on world history. Consequently the only thing left
today from that ancient splendor is their glorification of the past
and so they derive strength from it. In Armenian reality, there are
set ideas and rules that one is brought up believing in and they
constitute the world-view of most Armenians.

Based on the above-mentioned statement, it is not surprising that
Western (US) scholarship constitutes one of the main challenges and
rivals of Armenian national rhetoric and conventional wisdom. Most
Armenians look at various issues as either black or white. The
simplicity of labeling issues in a binary `good' or `bad' helps the
community to make sense of and understand controversial topics.

The challenge to the generally accepted views and concepts by
academics (be it Armenian or non-Armenian) has and still creates a lot
of controversy within Armenians. In most cases non-Armenian academics
who do study and question Armenian-related issues are labeled as
`foreigners who do not understand the Armenians.' Armenian academics,
on the other hand, do not get off so easily. They are readily labeled
as `heretics', `unorthodox' and in extreme cases as `traitors'.

This phenomenon of bashing non-conformist Armenian academics is not
the sole characteristic of the Armenian communities in the Diaspora.
The reaction in Armenia is more or less the same. The fact that under
Soviet rule, social sciences were treated as yet another method to
justify the glory and success of Marxism-Leninism has taken away a lot
from the methodologies and objectivities of social sciences. In many
instances today, most social science venues in Armenia are the
remnants of the Soviet era `certainty' that a political scientist or a
historian has to have answers. Whereas in the past it was the
communist `truth', today it is the Armenian nationalist one.

It is not surprising that many academicians in Armenia view their
Diasporan counterparts as people who have betrayed the Armenian
national cause and instead of engaging in original scholarly work,
they tend to enforce their views and discredit those of the
`unorthodox' scholars. As mentioned above, this could only be
explained by the inferiority complex that small nations with
`glorious' histories face.

The overall assessment of Western and US academia and academics in
Armenian reality is negative. Unless a scholar links the Armenian
nationalist agenda with academic work, she/he is in danger of being
ostracized or marginalized by the Armenian community. In a state of
mind where the whole world is categorized into either friends or
enemies, the ability to debate or even listen to controversial ideas
still eludes mainstream Armenians. As a result of which, many
Armenians academics are faced with the tough choice of either
reiterating the nationalist rhetoric and being accepted by the
Armenian community, or sticking to more `unconventional' methods of
explaining Armenian history and current realties and being labeled as
`traitors' by their own people.

CAN THERE BE A COMPROMISE?

The issues raised in this article do not in any way mean that the
nationalist rhetoric is wrong or `unorthodox' academia is right. On
the contrary, if businesses, industries or governments utilize the
academia for their own purposes then so can small nations. However to
be able to accomplish that role, a dialogue between the nationalist
and the `non-nationalist' components in the Armenian reality need to
engage in a dialogue.

The goal or outcome of such a dialogue should not be to prove or
convince the `opposing' sides of the validity of an argument. On the
contrary the foremost benefit of such cooperation is to develop a
habit of listening without prejudice. The main problem that both sides
in this issue face is not so much of a difference in views and beliefs
as it is the absence of lines of communications.

The nationalist side within the Armenian community should view
academics as trained professionals who are waging a war of words and
ideas in the tough world of academia. The capability of questioning or
reformulating conventional wisdom would be of paramount importance for
updating and strengthening the glue that has kept Armenians together.
Any condescending or patronizing view of academics by various elements
in the Armenian communities or in Armenia could be attributed to the
narrow mindedness and the insecurity that stems from the fact that
most people cannot accept academia as an `orthodox path' for explaining
issues, and that they are unable to assess the value of critical
thinking and separate fact from myth.

In their turn, academics and scholars within academia should
understand the sensitivity and importance of national rhetoric in the
psyche of Armenians.  In fact the reformulation and dismissal of
ideas, which have sustained Armenians for many ages could prove to be
very dangerous and might create voids that would be difficult to fill
with a purely academic perspective of things, especially considering
that the voids that might be created will be on issues which have
taken decades or sometimes even centuries to formulate.

No matter how the process of dialogue and debate starts, the important
thing is that it has to start. The mutual alienation of many academics
and most of the community serves no other purpose than weakening the
already weak Armenian positions vis--vis major world processes. The
upgrade of Armenian conventional wisdom to face current realities is
of utmost importance for the successful presentation and defense of
Armenian national interest. In a world where knowledge is power and a
tool to disseminate ideas and opinions, Armenia and Armenians cannot
afford to keep utilizing outdated methods of communication.

Communities, organizations and nations endure because of their ability
to adapt to new realities. Armenians as a nation, community or a state
have to accept that if they do not modernize their mentality or the
methodology of their mentality, they will fall behind in the race for
spreading their opinions and ideas. This is one race that they cannot
afford to lose.

--
Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston
University and an instructor at Wheaton College. He spent two years
(2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at
the local universities. Comments to the author may be be sent to
asbed@bu.edu.

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