Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Macedonia’s Minister of Education Cleans Academe’s Augean Stables

Category: Mind Change

Finally, a true reform: Macedonia’s youthful and intrepid Minister of Education is attempting to overhaul the country’s bloated academic institutions by introducing basic principles, long accepted everywhere else in the appointment and tenure of professors: publish or perish; merit over nepotism; and rating by both peers and students. Inevitably, this moderate effort raised heckles and vitriol among the would-be affected, out to defend their sacred sinecures.

But the problems in Macedonia’s education system are far deeper and more intractable.

Start with academic degrees. There are no accessible databases of dissertations and theses. Sam Vaknin’s doctoral dissertation is availble for all to see via the website of the Library of Congress. But, where would one get hold of a copy of the doctorate and defense, let’s say, of Macedonia’s former Minister of Finance and one of its guiding economic lights? And how can you be sure that the professors in Macedonia’s umpteenth universities have obtained their degrees without resorting to corruption and in a transparent manner?

Consider the following, regrettably representative, case:
Mira Markovic is an “Honorary Academic” of the Russian Academy of Science. It cost a lot of money to obtain this title and the Serb multi-billionaire Karic was only too glad to cough it up. Whatever else you say about Balkan cronies, they rarely bite the hand that feeds them (unless and until it is expedient to do so). And whatever else you say about Russia, it adapted remarkably to capitalism. Everything has a price and a market. Israel had to learn this fact the hard way when Russian practical-nurse-level medical doctors and construction-worker-level civil engineers flooded its shores. Everything is for sale in this region of opportunities, instant education inclusive.

It seems that academe suffered the most during the numerous shock therapies and transition periods showered upon the impoverished inhabitants of Eastern and Central Europe. The resident of decrepit communist-era buildings, it had to cope with a flood of eager students and a deluge of anachronistic “scholars”. But in Russia, the CIS and the Balkans the scenery is nothing short of Dantesque. Unschooled in any major European language, lazily content with their tenured positions, stagnant and formal, the academics and academicians of the Balkans are both failures and a resounding indictment of the rigor mortis that was socialism. Economics textbooks stop short of mentioning Friedman or Phelps. History textbooks should better be relegated to the science fiction shelves. A brave facade of self sufficiency covers up a vast hinterland of inferiority complex fully supported by real inferiority. In antiquated libraries, shattered labs, crooked buildings and inadequate facilities, student pursue redundant careers with the wrong teachers.

Corruption seethes under this repellent surface. Teachers sell exams, take bribes, trade incestuous sex with their students. They refuse to contribute to their communities. In all my years in the Balkans, I have yet to come across a voluntary act - a single voluntary act - by an academic. And I have come across numerous refusals to help and to contribute. Materialism incarnate.

This sorry state of affairs has a twofold outcome. On the one hand, herds of victims of rigidly dictated lectures and the suppression of free thought. These academic products suffer from the twin afflictions of irrelevance of skills and the inability to acquire relevant ones, the latter being the result of decades of brainwashing and industrial educational methods. Unable to match their anyhow outdated knowledge with anything a modern marketplace can offer - they default on to menial jobs, rebel or pull levers to advance in life. Which leads us to the death of meritocracy and why this region’s future is behind it.

In the wake of the downfall of all the major ideologies of the 20th century - Fascism, Communism, etc. the New Order, heralded by President Bush, emerged as a battle of Open Club versus Closed Club societies, at least from the economic point of view.

All modern states and societies must choose whether to be governed by merit (meritocracy) or by the privileged few (oligarchy). It is inevitable that the social and economic structures be controlled by elites. It is a complex world and only a few can master the knowledge it takes to govern effectively. What sets meritocracy apart is not the number of members of its ruling (or leading) class, usually no larger than an oligarchy. No, it is distinguished by its membership criteria and by the mode of their application.

The meritocratic elite is an open club because it satisfies three conditions:

The process and rules of joining up (i.e., the criteria) are transparent and widely known.
The application and membership procedures are uniform, equal to all and open to continuous public scrutiny and criticism.
The system alters its membership requirements in direct response to public feedback and to the changing social and economic environment.
To belong to a meritocracy one needs to satisfy a series of demands, whose attainment is entirely up to he individual. And that is all that one needs to do. The rules of joining and of membership are cast in iron. The wishes and opinions of those who happen to comprise the club at any given moment are of no importance and of no consequence. Meritocracy is a “fair play” by rules of equal chance to derive benefits. Put differently, is the rule of law.

To join a meritocratic club, one needs to demonstrate that one is in possession of, or has access to, “inherent” parameters, such as intelligence, a certain level of education, a potential to contribute to society. An inherent parameter must correspond to a criterion and the latter must be applied independent of the views and predilections of those who sometimes are forced to apply it. The members of a committee or a board can disdain an applicant, or they might wish not to approve a candidate. Or they may prefer someone else for the job because they owe her something, or because they play golf with him. Yet, they are permitted to consider only the applicant’s or the candidate’s “inherent” parameters: does he have the necessary tenure, qualifications, education, experience? Does he contribute to his workplace, community, society at large? In other words: is he “worthy” or “deserving”? Not WHO he is - but WHAT he is.

Granted, these processes of selection, admission, incorporation and assimilation are administered by mere humans and are, therefore, subject to human failings. Can qualifications be always judged “objectively, unambiguously and unequivocally”? Can “the right personality traits” or “the ability to engage in teamwork” be evaluated “objectively”? These are vague and ambiguous enough to accommodate bias and bad will. Still, at least appearances are kept in most cases - and decisions can be challenged in courts.

What characterizes oligarchy is the extensive, relentless and ruthless use of “transcendent” (in lieu of “inherent”) parameters to decide who will belong where, who will get which job and, ultimately, who will enjoy which benefits. The trouble with transcendent parameters is that there is nothing much an applicant or a candidate can do about them. Usually, they are accidents, occurrences absolutely beyond the reach or control of those most affected by them. Race is such a transcendent parameter and so are gender, familial affiliation or contacts and influence.

In many corners of the globe, to join a closed, oligarchic club, to get the right job, to enjoy excessive benefits - one must be white (racism), male (sexual discrimination), born to the right family (nepotism), or to have the right political (or other) contacts (cronyism). And often, belonging to one such club is the prerequisite for joining another.

In France, for instance, the whole country is politically and economically run by graduates of the Ecole Normale d’Administration (ENA). They are known as the ENArques (=the royal dynasty of ENA graduates).

The privatization of state enterprises in most East and Central European countries provided a glaring example of oligarchic machinations. In most of these countries (the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia and Russia are notorious examples) - state companies, the nation’s only assets, were “sold” to political cronies, creating in the process a pernicious amalgam of capitalism and oligarchy, known as “crony capitalism” or privateering. The national wealth was passed on to the hands of relatively few, well connected, individuals, at a ridiculously low price. The nations involved were robbed, their riches either squandered or smuggled abroad.

In the affairs of humans, not everything falls neatly into place. Take money, for instance. Is it an inherent parameter or an expressly transcendent one? Making money indicates the existence of some merit, some inherent advantageous traits of the money-making individual. To make money consistently, a person needs to be diligent, resilient, hard working, to prevail and overcome hardships, to be far sighted and to possess a host of other - universally acclaimed - traits. On the other hand, is it fair when someone who made his fortune through corruption, inheritance, or luck - be preferred to a poor genius?

That is a contentious issue. In the USA money talks. Being possessed of money means being virtuous and meritorious. To preserve a fortune inherited is as difficult a task as to make it in the first place, the thinking goes. Thus, the source of the money is secondary.

An oligarchy tends to have long term devastating economic effects.

The reason is that the best and the brightest - when shut out by the members of the ruling elites - emigrate. In a country where one’s job is determined by his family connections or by influence peddling - those best fit to do the job are likely to be disappointed, then disgusted and then to leave the place altogether.

This is the phenomenon known as “Brain Drain”. It is one of the biggest migratory tidal waves in human history. Capable, well-trained, educated, young people leave their oligarchic, arbitrary, influence peddling societies and migrate to less arbitrary meritocracies (mostly to be found in what is collectively known as “The West”).

This is colonialism of the worst kind. The mercantilist definition of a colony is a territory which exports raw materials only to re-import them in the form of finished products. The Brain drain is exactly that: the poorer countries are exporting raw brains and buying back the finished products masterminded, invented and manufactured by theses brains.

Yet, while in classical colonialism, the colony at least received some recompense for its goods - here the poor country is actually the poorer for its exports. The bright young people who depart (most of them never to return) carry with them an investment of the scarce resources of their homeland - and award it to their new, much richer, host countries. This is an absurd situation, a subsidy granted reluctantly by the poor to the rich. This is also one of the largest capital transfers (really capital flight) in history.

Some poor countries understood these basic, unpleasant, facts of life. They extracted an “education fee” from those emigrating. This fee was supposed to, at least partially, recapture the costs of educating and training the immigrants. Romania and the USSR imposed such levies on Jews emigrating to Israel in the 1970s. Others despairingly regard the brain drain as a natural catastrophe. Very few countries are trying to tackle the fundamental, structural and philosophical flaws of the system, the roots of the disenchantment of those who leave.

The Brain Drain is so serious that some countries lost up to a third of their total young and educated population to it (Macedonia in South-eastern Europe, some less developed countries in South East Asia and in Africa). Others were drained of almost one half of the growth in their educated workforce (for instance, Israel during the 1980s).

Brains are an ideal natural resource: they can be cultivated, directed, controlled, manipulated, regulated. They are renewable and replicable. Brains tend to grow exponentially through interaction and they have an unparalleled economic value added. The profit margin in knowledge and information related industries far exceeds anything common to more traditional, second wave, industries (not to mention first wave agriculture and agribusiness).

What is even more important:

Poor countries are uniquely positioned to take advantage of this third revolution. With cheap, educated workforce - they can monopolize basic data processing and telecommunications functions worldwide. True, this calls for massive initial investments in physical infrastructure. But the important input is the wetware, the brains. To constrain them, to disappoint them, to make them run away, to more merit-orientated places - is to sentence oneself to a permanent disadvantage and deprivation.

This is what the countries in the Balkans are doing. Driving away the best part of their population by encouraging the worst part. Abandoning their future by dwelling on their past. Caught in a fatal spider web of family connections and political cronyism of their own design. Their factories and universities and offices and government filled to the brim with third rate relatives of third rate professors and bureaucrats. Turning themselves into third rate countries in a self perpetuating, self feeding process of decline. And all the while eyeing the new and the foreign with the paranoia that is the result of true guilt.

But, there is an even more serious problem. Consider again the aforementioned professors, members of the current, entrenched elite. They have acquired a great deal of their education, such as it was, in socialist institutions, under a socialist regime which adhered to socialist economic tenets. Can such people now teach capitalism?

Capitalism cannot be “learned” or “imported” or “emulated” or “simulated”. Capitalism (or, rather, liberalism) is not only a theoretical construct. It is not only a body of knowledge. It is a philosophy, an ideology, a way of life, a mentality and a personality.

This is why professors of economics who studied under Socialism can never teach Capitalism in the truest sense of the word. No matter how intelligent and knowledgeable (and a minority of them are) - they can never convey the experience, the practice, the instincts and reflexes, the emotional hues and intellectual pugilistics that real, full scale, full blooded Capitalism entails. They are intellectually and emotionally castrated by their socialist past of close complicity with inefficiency, corruption and pathological economic thinking.

This is why workers and managers inherited from the socialist-communist period can never function properly in a Capitalist ambience. Both were trained at civil disobedience through looting their own state and factories. Both grew accustomed to state handouts and bribes disguised as entitlements, were suspicious and envious at their own elites (especially their politicians and crony professors), victims to suppressed rage and open, helpless, degrading dependence. Such workers and managers - no matter how well intentioned and well qualified or skilled - are likely to sabotage the very efforts whose livelihood depends on.

When the transition period of post-communist economies started, academics, journalists and politicians in the West talked about the “pent up energies” of the masses, now to be released through the twin processes of privatization and democratization. This metaphor of humans as capitalistically charged batteries waiting to unleash their stored energy upon their lands - was realistic enough. People were, indeed, charged: with pathological envy, with rage, with sadism, with pusillanimity, with urges to sabotage, to steal, to pilfer. A tsunami of destruction, a tidal wave of misappropriation, an orgy of crime and corruption and nepotism and cronyism swept across the unfortunate territories of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Transition was perceived by the many either as a new venue for avenging the past and for visiting the wrath of the masses upon the heads of the elites - or as another, accelerated, mode of stripping the state naked of all its assets. Finally, the latter propensity prevailed. The old elites used the cover of transition to enrich themselves and their cronies, this time “transparently” and “legally”. The result was a repulsive malignant metastasis of capitalism, devoid of the liberal ideals or practices, denuded of ethics, floating in a space free of functioning, trusted institutions.

While the masses and their elites in CEE were busy scavenging, the West engaged in impotent debate between a school of “shock therapists” and a school of “institution builders”. The former believed that appearances will create reality and that reality will alter consciousness (sounds like Marxism to me). Rapid privatization will generate a class of instant capitalists who, in turn, will usher in an era of real, multi-dimensional liberalism. The latter believed that the good wine of Capitalism can be poured only to the functioning receptacles of liberalism. They advocated much longer transition periods in which privatization will come only after the proper institutions were erected. Both indulged in a form of central planning. IMF-ism replaced Communism. The international financial institutions and their hordes of well-paid, well-accommodated experts - replaced the Central Committee of the party. Washington replaced Moscow. It was all very familiar and cosy.

Ever the adapters, the former communist elites converted to ardent capitalism. With the fervour with which they had recited Marxist slogans in their past - they chanted capitalist sobriquets in the present. It was catechism, uttered soullessly, in an alien language, in the marble cathedrals of capitalism in London and Washington. There was commitment or conviction behind it and it was tainted by organized crime and all-pervasive corruption. The West was the new regime to be suckered and looted and pillaged and drained. The deal was simple: mumble the mantras of the West, establish Potemkin institutions, keep peace and order in your corner of the world, give the West strategic access to your territory. In return the West will turn a blind eye to the worst excesses and to worse than excesses. This was the deal struck in Russia with the “reformists”, in Yugoslavia with Milosevic, the “peacemaker”, in the Czech Republic with Klaus the “economic magician” of Central Europe. It was communism all over: a superpower buying influence and colluding with corrupt elites to rob their own nations blind.

It could have been different.

Post-war Japan and Germany are two examples of the right kind of reconstruction and reforms. Democracy took real root in these two former military regimes. Economic prosperity was long lived because democracy took hold. And the ever tenuous, ever important trust between the citizens and their rulers and among themselves was thus enhanced.

And this is where most countries in transition are at right now. To a large extent, it is the fault of their elites. Providing orientation and guidance is supposed to be their function and why society invests in them. But the elites in all countries in transition - tainted by long years of complicity in the unseemly and the criminal - never exerted moral or intellectual authority over their people. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, allow me to quote myself (from “The Poets and the Eclipse”). Replace “intellectuals of the Balkan” with “intellectuals of the countries in transition”:

“The intellectuals of the Balkans - a curse, not in disguise. a nefarious presence, ominous, erratic and corrupt. Sometimes, at the nucleus of all conflict and mayhem - at other times (of ethnic cleansing or suppression of the media) conspicuously absent. Zeligs of umpteen disguises and ever-changing, shimmering loyalties.

They exert no moderating, countervailing influence - on the contrary, they radicalize, dramatize, poison and incite. Intellectuals are prominent among all the nationalist parties in the Balkans - and rare among the scant centre parties that have recently sprung out of the ashes of communism.

They do not disseminate the little, outdated knowledge that they do possess. Rather they keep it as a guild would, unto themselves, jealously. In the vanity typical of the insecure, they abnegate all foreign knowledge. They rarely know a second language sufficiently to read it. They promote their brand of degreed ignorance with religious zeal and punish all transgressors with fierceness and ruthlessness. They are the main barriers to technology transfers and knowledge enhancement in this wretched region. Their instincts of self preservation go against the best interests of their people. Unable to educate and teach - they prostitute their services, selling degrees or corrupting themselves in politics. They make up a big part of the post communist nomenclature as they have a big part of the communist one. The result is economics students who never heard of Milton Friedman or Kenneth Arrow and students of medicine who offer sex or money or both to their professors in order to graduate.

Thus, instead of advocating and promoting freedom and liberalization - they concentrate on the mechanisms of control, on manipulating the worn levers of power. They are the dishonest brokers of corrupted politicians and their businessmen cronies. They are heavily involved - oft times the initiators - of suppression and repression, especially of the mind and of the spirit. The black crows of nationalism perched upon their beleaguered ivory towers.

The intellectuals of the Balkans failed miserably. Terrified by the sights and sounds of their threatened territory - they succumbed to obscurantism, resorted to the nostalgic, the abstract and the fantastic, rather than to the pragmatic. This choice is evident even in their speech. Marred by centuries of cruel outside domination - it is all but meaningless. No one can understand what a Balkanian has to say. Both syntax and grammar are tortured into incomprehensibility. Evasion dominates, a profusion of obscuring verbal veils, twists and turns hiding a vacuous deposition.

The Balkan intellectuals chose narcissistic self absorption and navel gazing over ‘other-orientation’. Instead of seeking integration (as distinct from assimilation) - they preach and practice isolation. They aim to differentiate themselves not in a pluralistic, benign manner - but in vicious, raging defiance of ‘mondialism’ (a Serbian propaganda term). To define themselves AGAINST all others - rather than to compare and learn from the comparison. Their love affair with a (mostly concocted) past, their future-phobia, the ensuing culture shock - all follow naturally from the premises of their disconsolate uniqueness. Balkan intellectuals are all paranoids. Scratch the surface, the thin, bow tied, veneer of ‘kultur’ - and you will find an atavistic poet, fighting against the very evil wrought by him and by his actions. This is the Greek tragedy of this breathtaking region. Nature here is cleverer than humans. It is exactly their conspiracies that bring about the very things they have to conspire against in the first place.

All over the world, intellectuals are the vanguard, the fifth column of new ideas, the resistance movement against the occupation of the old and the banal. Here intellectuals preach conformity, doing things the old, proven way, protectionism against the trade of liberal minds. All intellectuals here - fed by the long arm of the state - are collaborators. True, all hideous regimes had their figleaf intellectuals and with a few exceptions, the regimes in the Balkans are not hideous. But the principle is the same, only the price varies. Prostituting their unique position in semi-literate, village-tribal societies - intellectuals in the Balkans sold out en masse. They are the inertial power - rather than the counterfist of reform. They are involved in politics of the wrong and doomed kind. The Balkan would have been better off had they decided to remain aloof, detached in their archipelago of universities.

There is no real fire in Balkan intellectuals. Oh, they get excited and they shout and blush and wave their hands ever so vigorously. But they are empty. It is full gas in neutral. They get nowhere because they are going nowhere. They are rational and conservative and some are emotional and “leftist”. But it is all listless and lifeless, like the paces of a very old mechanism, set in motion 80 years ago and never unwound.

All that day of the eclipse of the last millennium, even the intellectuals stayed in their cellars and in their offices and did not dare venture out. They emerged when night fell, accustomed to the darkness, unable to confront their own eclipse, hiding from the evil influence of a re-emerging sun.”

A Note on Resistance to Learning

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

The denizens of the Balkans resist learning. They reject newfangled knowledge not because they are traditionalists - but because they are craven and because they are pragmatic.

Craven first:

In the paranoid and surrealistic landscape of the former Soviet Bloc, to admit to ignorance is to publicly acknowledge a deficiency, a personal defeat, and a shortcoming. It is to hand your foes a weapon. It is not only a narcissistic injury (and that it is), but also a guaranteed professional suicide.

Thus, in the interest of self-preservation, it is more advisable to invent “facts” than to search for them; to claim education than to seek it; and to feign erudition than to acquire it. Ill-informed professors pass on their half-baked notions and inane “theories” from one molested generation to another in a vast conspiracy aided by the lack of access to foreign texts and outside experts.

Insecurity bred by nescience yields conformity and rigid “conservatism”. Toeing the line is a survival strategy, not rocking the boat a religious principle, the boorish quid pro quo of Luddites, quacks, and conspiracy theorists the only form of “higher education”.

Inevitably, as a purely defensive posture, a monopoly of “learning” has emerged in all these geographical domains. Real knowledge, propounded by genuine (typically, Western) experts threatens to unravel this unholy cartel, counteract the vested interests it reifies, and shatter the ersatz “scholarship” it is founded upon. Hence the fierce objection to any outside “interference” and “intrusion”. Provincialism and obscurantism are elevated to the level of an ideology.

Nor is there a grassroots movement of minds eager for intellectual edification and cross-fertilization. Education is a loss-making proposition. Formal training goes unrewarded in these nether regions. Nepotism and cronyism reign supreme. One’s advancement, future prospects, and career depend on one’s connections or family of origin. One’s peers are perforce disqualified to judge one’s progress and accomplishments, having been educated by the same inapts and oil snake salesmen that here pass for “professors”. Indeed, why bother with textbooks and exams when social networking gets you places faster and far more securely?

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