2005 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media.
All Rights Reserved.
“No facts—only comments!” Conformity returns to Belarusian universities
By Natallia Kulinka
Global Beat Syndicate
MINSK, Belarusian State University—I have always had a dream to be a professor at an American university. And my dream became even stronger after my brief first visit earlier this year to an American university—the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.
Once, some years back, my friend brought me books on the theory of journalism and mass communication from United States. The books were rather old, published in the 1970s. One, entitled “Discovering the News. A Social History of American Newspapers,” by Michael Schudson, became my favorite. Shudson made it obvious how practical journalism and the theory of journalism were able to develop and change, depending on a country’s political, social and economic processes.
Here in Minsk, we are far behind in our understanding of journalism and mass communication, and are slow to grasp that “objectivity” can be ideology. It is the coexistence of different viewpoints in American academic knowledge that impressed me most, and movement toward that in Belarusian academic institutions is now being stamped out. This academic uniformity has its consequences for every day life.
I remember the first years after Mikhail Gorbachev announced “glasnost” (opening up). We were exposed to western style journalism. Editors and reporters started talking about “facts” as the essence of journalism. “No comments! Only facts! Reporting facts helps us to be objective,” became a mantra. Nobody asked what a fact meant, why something became a fact while something else did not. Nobody analyzed the words we chose to report the facts. Our mass media assumed that they had found an antidote to Soviet propaganda.
Everybody believed in “fact,” and academics doing media studies wrote about “the fact” as if it had a certain sense. But there are no Belarusian studies that explain how mass media influence audiences. Most of our people, living in more rural areas, think the mass media reflect reality, and rely heavily on everything presented in print and broadcast. As it was when Communist government controlled the media, journalists here have unlimited power to spread and promote their ideas. The difference now is that it is done on in the name of “objective facts.”
Thus, unnoticed, one pair of lenses has been changed for another. One “right” way to happiness has been replaced by another. For 70 years, we were told there was only one (communist) road to happiness. Now we are told another road leads to happiness, and that we must line up and march to the bright future. And we march…
The worst legacy of the Soviet era is uniformity. It gave birth to people with a totalitarian mentality, and they do not accept varying points of view, knowledge, and life styles.
And while it may be difficult to survive uniformity in most walks of life, it is intolerable in academe. But now, open inquiry in our universities prompts contempt and worse, not collegial support.
One professor here complained to the dean that I am teaching students “wrong things.” My “fault” is that I use American and Western European textbooks, and I am being told to use our Belarusian textbooks, most by one author, and that in lectures, I should simply rehash what is in the textbooks. Instead, I help my students to become open minded, accepting of diversity, questioning of uniformity in the march to happiness.
University authorities know what independent academic thinkers like me are doing. And government authorities here are afraid of this diversity in knowledge and attitudes, and they fight it furiously. The European Humanities University in Minsk was closed because it offered students different, western knowledge. President Aleksander Lukashenko says that if professors of state universities do not accept ideas declared by the government and the president, they should not apply for jobs at state universities.
This demand for academic uniformity is aggressive because authorities learned well the Marxist-Leninist principle that that knowledge cannot be neutral—and control over “knowledge production” is always a control over minds. Now Belarusian authorities are closing universities and discharging professors, as well as using less direct pressures. Requiring all students to take a new core course, “Basics of Ideology of the Republic of Belarus” is designed to restore that mind control. Soon, more heavy-handed methods will not be needed.
Every kind of culture, business or political, constructs borders, limits, and rules for its employees or citizens, and people must learn to live within these regulations. But academic success is based on intellectual diversity, examination of varying points of view. That is why American universities are so attractive to so many people; America has intellectual freedom and gives people intellectual choices.