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The late Václav Havel, on 19th anniversary of Velvet revolution in Prague.

Voices / Viewpoint

Václav Havel’s prescient warning

In the U.S., the extreme right has had it in for modern-day liberal education. They also did in Hungary, where the government has just ordered the closure of Central European University.

David B. Brown writes in response to the recent announcement by the Hungarian government that they would be closing Central European University, where he taught in the 1990s. The Commons published excerpts from his book, East European Diaries, a couple of years ago, and Brown has had articles published in other newspapers and magazines.

Halifax

For some time, I’ve been reading about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s threats toward Central European University (CEU), a U.S.-affiliated institution where I had the privilege of teaching in the late 1990s.

But I never really believed the Hungarian government would be foolhardy enough to shut it down, as was recently announced.

I would have hoped — and, a couple of years ago, I would have expected — the U.S. government to do everything in its power to prevent the Hungarian government from following through on this rash act.

* * *

I’d sent my resume to CEU as something of a lark when I was teaching law at Anglo-American University in Prague.

A number of our top students had gone on to attend graduate school at CEU, but a number of my colleagues were unable to get a foot in the door despite having more teaching experience and far better credentials than I did. I had no reason to expect to be hired at what was far and away the most prestigious educational institution in the region.

But much to my surprise, I heard from Csilla Kollonay-Lehoczky, the head of the legal department at CEU, relatively quickly.

She wasn’t calling to offer me a traditional position as an assistant professor; due to a last-minute opening, she wanted to hire me to teach legal writing and research under the auspices of George Soros’s Civic Education Project (CEP), a sort of Peace Corps of higher education.

* * *

Typically, CEP participants found themselves in impoverished regions of Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union. A position in Budapest was like applying for the Peace Corps expecting to be sent to a Third World country and being assigned to fill a cushy administrative position in Washington, D.C. instead.

Some might have preferred a more traditional destination, but it was clear to me that CEU was a plum assignment, and I jumped at the opportunity, freeing myself from my obligations at AAU as soon as I could.

Arriving in mid-semester, CEU was everything I could have hoped for. The international collection of professors were topnotch, and the students the crème de la crème of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Even with talented students, teachers sometimes complain, and one day I was grumbling to a professor about a couple of students who I didn’t think were performing up to their potential.

Professor András Sajó gently chided me by reminding me that although George Soros provided the students a free ride at CEU, many of them came from homes and had families still living without heat or enough food to eat. He suggested I keep this in mind and cut them a little slack.

A few years later, I was delighted to read that Professor Sajo, who intermittently teaches at New York University School of Law, had been appointed to the European Court of Human Rights.

One of my students had previously been a soldier defending the people of Sarajevo from onslaught. One of my female students became minister of education for Estonia at the ripe old age of 26.

* * *

The commencement speech that year was given by Václav Havel, at the time the president of the Czech Republic. His opening words referenced the fact that the Czechs had won the Ice Hockey World Championships that year (as if there was anyone in the audience who didn’t know), prompting a predictable mixture of good-natured cheers and hoots.

But almost immediately, Havel took this seemingly offhand remark and turned it on its head.

He did so by exploring the fine line between good-natured national pride and patriotism and the ugly Serbian-style nationalism that threatened Europe at the time and that looked to threaten other places in the future: How does one become the other, and what can be done to insure against creeping nationalism?

Not only was it the most entertaining political speech I’d ever heard. Sadly, it turned out to be the most prescient.

* * *

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could find fault with an institution like CEU, but there’s no denying that Hungary is not the only place where too many are motivated by the anti-Semitism that George Soros was subject to, or threatened by gender equality and liberal democratic values.

Although government mandating the closing of a top university in the U.S. might sound farfetched, it would be hard to miss the point that, as is the case in Hungary for some time, the extreme right has had it in for modern-day liberal education.

The far right seeks not necessarily to destroy the universities but to change them to the point they would be all but unrecognizable. In recent years, institutions from the University of California, Berkeley to Middlebury College were so targeted.

At the time, this was seen by many as purely a First Amendment issue, a matter of coddled students not wanting to be exposed to speech they opposed and found offensive.

Having clerked for the American Civil Liberties Union in law school, and being a card-carrying member ever since, I take no back seat to anyone in defense of free speech, but surely this was a caricature of a more complicated situation.

It’s like saying that Trump’s strategy of attacking the judiciary, the Justice Department, and the media is a First Amendment right — nothing more, nothing less.

What appears obvious in hindsight is the college campuses were but an opening skirmish, as is not uncommonly the case, of what today is a society-wide assault on democratic values, the rule of law, and the very notion of objective truth.

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Ruby Bode
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Ruby Bode (Westminster, Vermont, US)

If attempting to have speakers that may challenge the students’ views is attacking higher education, and preventing, even violently, engagement with such speakers is protecting it, then we have definitely lost the plot.

 
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Originally published in The Commons issue #492 (Wednesday, January 9, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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