We gather at in a building humbly known as the Museum of the Defenders of the Polish Post Office. It's not far from the Museum of the Second World War
and we're hungry. We didn't have breakfast. The catering is on the light side. We wait for an hour for the next panel to start: a group discussion on the ambiguous, abstract topic mentioned above. Expectations: high.
The moderator, Maria, introduces the panelists. They all seem to be academics – Aneta's curating an experimental museum, Tomasz is knee-deep in theory and Mariusz is rather big on local government.
She sets the tone: education is important, obviously. But we see it operate through a framework or nationalism: a focus on the nation-state as something that can give us identity and meaning. Then we have cosmopolitanism, this idea that we're all on the same boat and the only identity that matters is the one we can make together (excluding, depending on who's talking, those nationalists). So, she asks Aneta, tells us about cosmopolitanism.
She's not having any of this – cosmopolitanism, as a word, is super problematic. In her opinion it's classist, inaccessible and nobody actually knows what it means. She prefers a term like transculturalism, which she defines as a positive kind of blurring cultural lines. One that leads to a certain freedom.
Another thing she's big on, in the sphere of education, is being transdisciplinary. Meaning we stop thinking so much about our particular methods when it comes to teaching or research. We shouldn't see the production of knowledge (itself a super-buzzword these weeks) as something narrow or rigid. Resisting nationalism is linked, for her, with resisting academic boxes.
She makes a distinction between strategy and tactics. For her, strategy is a kind of rigid structure. It's quickly defeated because it's predictable. Tactics, on the other hand, are like guerrillas. It knows how to move, it adapts to its surroundings, it's unpredictable. Major thinkers for her include Michel de Certeau, a Jesuit scholar. Among other things he suggests not to be a screen that other people (in this case: systems, power structures, hierarchies) can simply project their ideas on.
He says we have a crisis in thinking when it comes to seeing things in terms of nations. As in, he thinks it's not the greatest thing we could be doing. It's conducive, in his mind, to starting to think about people being split into races, or by the Republican or the Democrat in us. We're divided right down the middle of our communities in ways that are difficult to manage. He describes it as a crisis of imagination – this is an issue of togetherness. Or the lack thereof. He links this crisis of togetherness with a crisis of democracy. Terms like 'political imaginary', the way we think of/create/embody our political systems, get thrown around.
So we have a lot of problems to face even just on the level of how we think.
When we try to place education in all this, we return to an idea of cosmopolitanism as a response. But at the same time he agrees with Aneta that it's a dubious concept – we don't really know what it means. But it fits very well in a vacuum, in a gap we have in the world we live in, and it feels like it addresses issues of globalization and these divisions between us. But what's missing, for him, is the political factor of common space. Like, a common political space that encompases the whole world, but we can't imagine a way of governing global issues in a coherent way. We don't have a global government and the UN doesn't work. Christianity doesn't work that way. Islam doesn't work that way. No religion can organize a global imaginary or come to terms with the ethical responsibility involved.
We don't have an image of something really cosmopolitan, of something that could truly help us take responsibility for our issues in a coherent way. But, if we don't have a system for managing these things globally, we still are vulnerable to forces that already exist in a transnational economy. Think corporations that effectively lie beyond legal responsibility, for example. Or the presence of a global economy and global culture that are not controlled by the people living in communities affected by them. They aren't the ones defining that gets produced in pop music, hollywood, the internet or Instagram – it's global. And sometimes meaningless for people who want to identify themselves with local communities. We certainly do have tools that can help us come to grips with culture, but not on a global scale
Cosmopolitanism can come into a discussion like this as a quick-fix – let's just organize ourselves globally to correct certain imbalances. Let's be a unified humanity. But again we run into the problems mentioned above – and like Aneta said, we typically only unite ourselves when there's a conflict with someone else. The only time in any movie where the planet's stood united is when the Martians happen to swing by.
And we can't solve things magically with education. Yet we still can't overestimate the ability of education to address these issues. It even betrays us a little bit, because it's become so hooked to the economy – think job markets, competitiveness, reforms driven by competition – and less driven by the political and ethical responsibilities of togetherness. This, for him, is why nationalism can be seen as an enduring model: it can give a sense of togetherness (belonging, identity, meaning, collective responsibility) that cosmopolitanism hasn't. That, and it can be a reaction to the helplessness people feel in globalized world of transnational interests, control and corporations.
For him, a lot of these global issues affect people locally and so it's in the local sphere that we have to act. Sure, there might be many aspects to all this but it's at the local level that people experience these problems. It's too easy to get lost in theorizing and cosmopolitanism and nation-building and whatnot, but the problems we face are the problems of everyday life and they are here, right now. So what's happening right here, right now?
In Gdansk they recently completed a development strategy and learning (the education in the panel title) has been a key principle for future development. They don't know yet where that's going to take them, but they know this is where they need to be focusing.
But in the past we had an educational model where what you had in front of you was all you needed. Now it's going past the academy – we're constantly learning and we're doing it through apps and new tech. That, and we need to learn, democratically, new procedures for political life. Because we're learning to live in a changing world with increasing migration and integration – but in all this the consequences of all this are still local.
And so if it's not the local government that steps in to take responsibility, then who will it be? The nation? The UN? The Church? Eventually, and sometimes unwillingly, municipalities are taking part in this, trying to help us in this new life-learning process, governing a city in an era of social media and post-truth. It all touches us on a regular basis.
Yes, we can look at things like a common-polis, bringing everything to the local. We are living in physical, material spaces, we cannot grasp what the cosmopolis means without common-polis approaches. We're looking for something in and among national and cosmopolitan imaginaries that can help us find good solutions, hybrid solutions for global problems.
He don't know what our impressions are about the museum, maybe we've had some open discussions about it already [we haven't], but when he visited (just the one time, he reminds us, and before the exhibition was changed) something surprised it.
It was a kind of transparticularism, which is academicese for the idea that a particular, concrete object found in a particular, concrete culture can still somehow remind us of our common humanity. Think of a dollhouse from a Berlin bomb shelter, a wedding dress made from a Japanese parachute, forks and spoons from somewhere else. Everyday artifacts from all over the globe. These are very specific, very dramatic, very connected to particular human bodies that lived at that time and you can still see something universal in that. A universality of traumatic experience: what it means to be bombed, what it means to be concerned with preserving your life, the universal fate of ordinary people. And it resists the nationalist rejection of the other as well as giving us something more in-the-flesh than abstract cosmopolitan conversations about universal human rights, government or whatever.
Through the material you get connected to experiences that would otherwise be unimaginable. Obviously in the middle of conflict it's hard to become attached to people who are not us, but here we see an education experience in seeing people as people
where propaganda tells you to only see enemies. This kind of ethical transparticularism can have an impact. Maybe someone can say the effect it has on society might not be that strong, but at the same time it makes things more difficult for someone to tell you, no, it's actually all black and white. We're the victims and they're the perpetrators. We're the heroes in this story. And maybe this is how education can fit in when we talk about nationalism and cosmopolitanism.
Maria asks her to talk about the museum she's curating and how it fits in with everything we're talking about, and how it fits as an alternative institution. Aneta reminds us that, as a museum, it's still a government institution and so calling it alternative (in its form) can be a bit misleading. but what can be alternative within it is their position.
So about the museum – but first, some theory.
A museum can sometimes be seen as a kind of scientific institution crossed with an educational institution – when the machine is well oiled there's a one-way dissemination of knowledge. Public needs are interpreted through the frame of the museum's narrative, and this to her seems stifling or unideal. What's interesting for her is tactical pedagogy.
They're not trying to build a tower of knowledge but are moving swiftly between what the institution proposes as a structure (a certain repository or collection of information) and the awareness of how, at the same time, the whole system as such can be a problem. But while problems can be opportunities to solve things, sometimes there's a need to just remain aware that there are problems, just exist in that fact.
She says we don't want to become a two-dimensional picture of knowledge – we need to constantly renew ourselves and our sense of meaning. And the work of pedagogy (education), for her, is to see ourselves through an internal critical perspective. We are always the problem. And at the same time we are seen as experts and things are taught as disciplines and it's accepted by everybody in different layers of society as something we should just be on board with. Like it's a template. But reality is changing and our job is to be tactical, she says, to refresh ourselves in relationship not so much with what we already know but to an unknowing.
Oh, and about the museum.
Maria mentioned it as something alternative. Aneta had been working for years in associations that have also been labeled as alternative so it came as a surprise that she was given responsibility over an international museum.
When we speak about the tactility that Tomasz was talking about, the idea that feelings are always local and bring historical/political matters to a basic human level, she's reminded very much of the fact that the museum doesn't have a space yet. It's a website for now. They will probably open a space next year.
For her, their role is somehow to take this local experience, to think of this as a curation of the local context, and then speak not only to local publics but to the international public. There are, she describes, something called 'counter-publics' in the shape of other museums [she could be referring to museums with limited or exclusionary frameworks (what some would call narrow-minded), but I could be wrong] and they need to be addressed. This can be done with exhibitions, knowledge production, contact with artists and so on.
She's interested in a kind of tactility, and the ability to touch something comes from her interest in ethnographic museums. She doesn't want people to need to be theorists to engage with a museum as a space – there can be a direct emotional relationship. If you create a direct connection you don't need an expert.
There was an experiment they did called Choir and it had a group of different people working as tour guides in the exhibitions. They came from different backgrounds, so some were dancers, for example, and they didn't talk about art or history so much as go into the installation and see how the space feels. They explore what the body feels in that space, or how the space is in the presence of bodies. There are lots of different ways to think about things. It doesn't have to just be about economy or sociology or the psychology of perception, because our body has other ways. And so for her it would be a task to involve other senses and this would be the working mode in the museum. It's not just about collecting or studying things and displaying their research so much as providing different possibilities of encounter. We can go beyond the model of expert knowledge being transferred from one group to another.
With the growing trend of museums going digital (the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art starting initiatives with VR, for example) we may soon see very different types of museum and knowledge-sharing. That makes it more important to deal with artwork as we have it now, because maybe we'll be deprives of this physical space in the future. Maybe we'll all go to museums in some kind of Second Life. The time for the directness of this experience might be now or never.
We can also think about whether or not we can call Gdansk itself, as a locality, a place of education. Obviously we can think about schools, universities, kindergartens, preschools and the whole institutionalization of the education process, but there are lots of other things happening right now. New changes. Technologies are in your pocket, and in some cases kids will have better knowledge than the teacher. So this will be a challenge for teachers in knowing what to teach, and we need a more critical education these days. Different approaches to different types of knowledge.
Updating and modernizing schools is difficult, and teachers sometimes still see themselves as the primary importers of knowledge into the classroom. Obviously teachers are different when it comes to that, with some being foxes and others like frogs. Foxes, of course, moving around quite quickly and frogs sitting in one place. Our system can be a bit of a frog – some parts we inherited from the twentieth century, some from the nineteenth century. Our world is changing much faster than that.
Physically speaking, it's easier when we're building a new school to make it, pedagogically, innovative. Like with museums. The city has a bit more room to develop and plan, to work with different spaces and maybe management systems, but in old schools reforms are harder. There's only so much you can do in a building over a hundred and fifty years old.
She asks what it means to create a commonality – and by that we're talking about making the public sphere alive, where we're all the producers of public goods and our shared value of them. How do we build this into schools, or incorporate education into new public spaces? And how do we create space for the renegotiation of memory, collective memory, collective ghosts of the past? And how do we do it in ways that escape cliche binaries?
But then they take questions from the audience. One being on the perception of elitism in these kinds of conversations.
In her experience in Scandinavia, particularly in Finland, an education in contemporary culture needs to start from kindergarten. Art and all this may seem unapproachable, but it's a language like any other language. It can be learned. But there's a problem in her opinion with not having equal, democratic access to education. This isn't just with higher education, but just with the fact that art history, for example, isn't in schools. So there's a lack of access in learning how to approach or engage with art. There's a need to develop broad competencies when you're young, not to specialize too soon. You don't need to go to university to be a theatre fan. You just need to learn that it can be fun. And somehow this is a problem.
He stresses that there's a problem when we equate education with efficiency, and that as a result it becomes less meaningful. Because it becomes less attached to cultural meaning. He links this with neoliberalism and being post-critical – post-critical meaning that anyone can challenge anything and even established methods of learning or understanding come under threat. Personal experience is key, learning becomes commonplace, and this hyper-democratization can be a problem because then everything devolves into who's got more likes.
So when we talk about building competencies in people to understand and engage with art & culture (so they don't feel alienated by conversations like these), maybe we need to resist this easy-learning model, this me-first/me-only model. Maybe sometimes teachers should be strangers, force people to think of new things. New shapes. Why would people go to theatre if Insta is more fun? Maybe there's space for teachers in this issue.
A major thing education can do is challenge people, expose them to otherness, other peoples and cultures, and it moves against the notion that learning is an aspect of my person or all about me. It's too easy to be trapped in a narrow selfhood, in an imaginary that the whole world is like me and everything else is stupid. For him, digital culture is certainly not the response.
I raise my hand and ask them about how we're building this space as something that's partisan space, one that itself is polarized against a 'them'. The them
in question being the kind of people often dismissed as populists or whatever. How we can create a commonality if we talk about commonalities in liberal language that leaves out large sections of the population.
They dodge the question but Tomasz does offer an aside that's thoughtful and generous. He says there are reasons people are drawn to the nation as an ideal or identity. That it's existed as an archetype for a reason, that maybe people need to live and belong and be together and feel safe and this is how they do it. He doesn't mention it outright, but approaching things this way can be a foundation for active compassion and empathy. And this is something that, in a way, has been missing from the proceedings so far.