Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Museum of Brave Questions

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Photo by Hans Kundnani
        When I was in Poland last month, I had a day to spare in Warsaw, which I spent visiting the city’s newest and long-awaited museum, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The museum opened, but only part-opened, in spring this year – visitors can tour the striking building, designed by Lahdelma & Mahlamaki architects, but the main exhibition will open in 2014.

            I stood in the main hall, which looks like a cave in the Judean desert, with an orange sticker on my coat, waiting for my tour to begin, and flicked through one of the glossy booklets distributed by museum staff. It was entitled ‘the museum of brave questions’, and opens with a thoughtful preface by Andrzej Cudak, the museum’s current director. “This museum tells a history which is important for us all. The Polish Jewish past not only shaped contemporary Poland and its inhabitants, but also the face of present-day Europe, and the wider world… Our museum does not have a monopoly on the truth. We don’t offer ready-made answers, we encourage independent thought, the posing of bold questions and the expression of different views. Let’s have the courage to ask, to debate…." (my translation from the Polish).

            A lot – indeed, the best of – modern historical scholarship has been about deconstructing histories, about pulling apart familiar narratives, exposing comforting myths, revising what we thought we knew, particularly what we thought we knew about the history of nations and their nationalisms. This is what we teach our students: to think iconoclastically. Such values, however, can be rather difficult to capture in a museum. It’s hard to tell a coherent story to your visitors, while also communicating how open to challenge, how contingent, how subject to multiple perspectives (almost?) any narrative about the human past is. It’s hard, in other words, to create a museum which embodies historical revisionism. But Andrzej Cudak’s brave preface made me think that this cutting-edge, imaginative Warsaw museum might well be able to pull off just that. Museums often simply reflect prevalent historical narratives and approaches, but this new institution might yet help to forge new ones – by providing a dynamic space, in the heart of the old Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish, Polish and Polish-Jewish history can be revisited, retold and debated afresh. The airport style security in the museum entrance shows how necessary, and how risky, this kind of frank history of the Polish lands is.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Educating for what?

The Oxford spires
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger 
 Last week, the academic Fellows at Somerville College were asked to think about the qualities they believe that we as an institution should be nurturing in our undergraduate students. With Finals season drawing to a close, and another generation of students about to graduate, this seemed an apt time to be asked.

            We are used to talking about the skills which students should possess – there is an official list of the skills we are looking for in potential History students at admissions stage, e.g. historical imagination, enthusiasm, originality of thought. When dons sit with big piles of exam scripts before them, there is also a Faculty mark scheme which lists the skills which a good script will show evidence of – precision, originality, analytical power, range of issues addressed etc. Skills and qualities overlap, but not completely. So what I jotted down in my response to the survey of college tutors, on a train whizzing through the Chilterns, was this… When my students graduate from Oxford, I would like them to have, or aspire to, these qualities:

·        -   imaginative & innovative thinking
questioning, iconoclastic mindset
·         -  ability to formulate new ideas, insights & visions.
·         -  ability to really hear & take on board alternative viewpoints
·         -  thoughtful about the wider implications of their ideas/actions on society, & thoughtful more generally about -      their engagement with society
·        -  committed to the pursuit of excellence
·         - ambitious to make the most of their talent
·         - thought leadership, seeing things other people don't see & explaining them in a compelling way
·         - clarity of thought & expression, as a way of inspiring others

Maybe that list is simply the Finals mark scheme rewritten in more general terms, or interpolated with implicit moral and social concerns. The question of what we are educating our young people for has always been a political one. In the Renaissance republics, which constantly looked to the ancient world, education was preparation for active, responsible citizenship; in Renaissance principalities, it was there to equip you to serve the prince and /or commonweal. Oxford humanities education is risky in so far as it doesn’t seek to teach specific values, loyalties or beliefs (which might helpfully hold a society together), but rather encourages their rigorous challenge – a society testing itself.

Brainstorming that list of qualities on the train, I wondered what kind of job it might be a description for. Strategy consultant, army officer, school teacher, politician, academic? Do Oxford dons themselves, as a professional group, live up to these same aspirations? I await with interest to learn what my Somerville colleagues put in their lists.