Big mistake

Read in ‘Red Plenty’ (2010) of Francis Spufford:

What’s wrong with Russian society? Also with the West? Only after reading ‘Red Plenty’ of the British writer Francis Spufford I really understood. It’s the withering of social sciences. Spufford’s book, which I can recommend everybody, is a lively, dramatised history of the postwar years of the USSR, partly facts, partly dramatized. In part III he explains what happened with universities and science after Stalin took over. In 1930 the Soviet emperor abolished all universities in the country. Research and education were split up. Research moved to secret science cities, education, taught in Moscow, Leningrad and the other soviet cities, was from that moment on mainly focussed on technology. The curriculum became ‘fiercely utilitarian’. No liberal arts anymore. No social sciences. “Philosophy died, anthropology died, sociology died, law and economics withered: the Party regarded ‘social sciences’ as its own private technology, to be taught to cadres within the Party itself, and dispensed to college students in the form of compulsory courses in Marxism-Leninism.” Poor country. But wait.

The result we still can feel. More than we think, Russian society is still soviet based, due to a lack of social researchers, which means: thinking “of culture as something operating top-down, an enlightenment spread to the many by the educated few: and what was the Bolshevic mission but an elite’s twentieth-century effort to raise lumpish Russia high?” The spirit is one of engineering a society. “It has always been prone to believing in panaceas, in ideas that could solve every problem all at once; and what was Bolshevism but the ultimate key to open all locks, the last and best and greatest system of human knowledge?” So after reading and rereading this great book, I not only understood the enduring problems in Russia, but also the coming problems in het West. More and more we, in Europe and the US, are also thinking technology is key. Engineers are our new magicians.  Humanities and social sciences wither. Research wins, education loses. We think we can find solutions top-down for everything. We are becoming fiercely utilitarian. ‘Comrades, let’s optimise!’ It is a big mistake.






One response to “Big mistake”

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    Indeed questionable if we would want to have such top-down solutions. Google’s recent announcement about a new company (Sidewalk Labs) to improve upon city life by using technology (and big data) seems to have the same foundation as in the USSR at that time. An undesirable future, if you’d ask me.

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