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Nov 10, 2015

The Collaborationist's Dilemma

While quite a bit has been written about democracy and education, little is known about education in a contemporary autocratic society. Let me consider the “collaborationist's dilemma”: Despite its recent autocratic tendencies, the Russian government carries out a significant agenda of educational modernization. If we, the liberal university types, help out, this will strengthen the ruling clique’s grip on power, because the government can show its modernization credentials. If we do not collaborate, the country’s educational system may deteriorate and the worst kinds of policies are more likely to be adopted. If we’re not there, the nationalistic and simply incompetent people will fill the void.

A similar dilemma exists in democratic societies, where one may choose to collaborate with an authority without necessarily sharing its ideology. This happens often when a party you do not support wins an electoral cycle. Locally, such authorities can be quite autocratic. Many of those working in education, faced with the dilemma while considering collaboration with a local or federal department of education. Some academics and government staff may not share all of their reformist agenda, but are ready to be a part of the process. The reasoning is very similar – if we do not help out, worse things can happen.

There should be a threshold criterion, a difference between autocratic and criminal regimes; and it may be OK to collaborate with the former, but not with the latter. I don’t know what exactly that is, but in my view, the Russian political regime is not criminal. It is autocratic and many parts of it are corrupt, but it does not seem to be criminal in a sense of Nazi or early Soviet regimes.

There may also be a difference between a technocratic collaboration and an ideological one. One may offer selective assistance, working on positive modernization agenda, while withholding assistance on ideological political tasks. Many people around me seem to be doing exactly that, to the extent possible.

Most importantly, hybrid regimes retain a possibility of peaceful transition to democracy. They are more like huge political machines a-la Richard J. Daley’s, than like the North Korean totalitarian state. The level of modernization (wealth, education, urbanization) does - in the long run - correlates positively with the likelihood of a democratic transition. Therefore in the long run, the collaborationist dilemma is not much of a dilemma: working for modernization is working for democracy. The Chinese leaders may have gotten it exactly right – first modernization, then democratization. If you reverse the order in an underdeveloped country, democracy is very likely to fail. There are exceptions, of course, but the probability of such a development is high. In fact, the failure of the first wave of Russian democracy in the 1990-s is a typical example. It did not happen in Eastern Europe, because of the wise policy of EU expansion. Russia was too big for EU to swallow, and too fragile to maintain a democratic form of government.

What works well in the long run is not always in the short run. The time horizon of a single human life makes it difficult to collaborate with an undemocratic regime, even though rationally one may believe it is the best choice. However, in education we always deal with longer perspective, much longer than one political elections cycle, and quite often, longer than a single life span. So, I guess those of us who work in education, have a little more leeway in collaborationist dilemma.

1 comment:

  1. In the US we can no longer claim the virtues of an enlightened integration of democracy and education. Capitalization looms as a potential third factor in this model, and I wonder if it now transcends the evolution of nation states.