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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-à-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 email@example.com.