The Faculty of Humanities: Liberal Arts United

The 20th issue of The HSE Look is devoted to the Faculty of Humanities, another big department formed in the course of the university-wide structural reorganization, launched at HSE in December 2014. We talked to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Alexey Rutkevich. He discussed the new opportunities and challenges connected with the foundation of this large faculty and the general situation concerning liberal arts education in Russia.

– What is the overall state of affairs in humanities in our country now?

– The context that we inherited from the Soviet times was very different. Of course, humanities were saturated with ideology during the Soviet era. Mathematics was very well financed mainly since it was needed to support our military programmes. The situation was the opposite in the liberal arts sphere. There was a joke from Khrushchev’s time coined by the then President of the Academy of Science, Mstislav Keldysh: ‘There are natural sciences, not natural sciences and unnatural sciences.’ But as strange as it may seem, the situation in philosophy was not as bad as in economics for example. Our Rector, Yaroslav Kouzminov, said that at the time of the collapse of the USSR there were about 200 people that knew economics at a bachelor’s level. Philosophy was heavily biased with ideology, but the overall situation was better. We had more scholars who were advanced in certain areas – the history of philosophy, symbolic logic and other areas.

Unfortunately, in the 1990s we lost a lot of positive things that remained following the Soviet period. Some people moved to the West, others left science and took up business. Today philosophy in Russian universities is often taught by people who are not qualified to teach this subject. Can you imagine  mathematics being taught by someone who has no mathematical education whatsoever? Yet, philosophy is often taught by those who have never read a page of Kant, Hegel, or Husserl – former political commissars, secretaries of the Young Communist League, instructors of Marxism and Leninism. What can all these people know about philosophy?

Nevertheless, there are some decent liberal arts faculties in Russia at the moment and we belong to this limited group of institutions that have strong academic teams with no pseudoscientists to speak of. So we deserve to be included in a rather small group of Russian universities. As for philosophy the strongest schools are Moscow State University, the Russian State University for the Humanities, and the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, and outside the capital, the philosophy faculties in Yekaterinburg, St. Petersburg, Rostov, Saratov and Novosibirsk. Internationally the HSE School of Philosophy is, of course, not at the level of the best universities in France, Germany, Great Britain or the USA, but we belong in the top third of the best universities in terms of quality. We are not as good as the Sorbonne, but we are far ahead of Rouen and Reims. I would say we are somewhere at the level of Lille and Marseille.

– What connected our humanities departments before they were united in one big faculty?

– I can speak of ties that were already in place as well as other situations where they were lacking. The new structure of the large faculty is not only about uniting departments, but also about dividing some of them into units. Philosophy and cultural studies used to work together and now they are separate. Philologists and linguists used to be one department as well and now they are ‘divorced.’ Just like any divorce, it is not easy – departments have to divide up their possessions. There are networks that have became closer though. For example, historians and art historians are developing even closer connections with each other. We need to reset the cooperation and networks that existed before the reform and continue collaborating in this changed environment. I see some new obstacles that could make it harder to continue with some of our collaborative projects, but also a range of new opportunities that have emerged as well. The gist of this reform is to allow us to launch several multidisciplinary Master’s programmes taught in English and Russian.

One of the planned Master’s programmes is in ancient studies. Students will study philosophy, history, and philology, as well as having the opportunity to master foreign languages. Prominent professors will teach in this programme and I would also like to invite several senior scholars from abroad so that the graduates can receive an education of international quality.  Another idea is a Master’s programme on religious studies targeted at undergraduates pursuing philosophy and religious studies. We are carrying out this project in cooperation with our colleagues from overseas and the Russian Orthodox Church, so it will include divinity studies as well.

And why not start a programme on Italian studies or Germanic studies? These fields of study in our country are currently very poor even in universities where they used to be quite strong. For students who have developed an interest in Italy during their bachelor studies it would be a good option to get a deeper insight into the history, culture and language of this country. Master’s students enrolled in such a programme would receive a basic knowledge of Italian philosophy, history and literature, and during the second year of their studies they would be able to choose a narrow specialization – some would go for the language, while others would study Petrarca and Dante, or Da Vinci and Italian neorealism of the 1950s and 1960s. At HSE we have very good instructors in German studies and Italian studies and we believe there is a lot of potential in this area.

– What is your strategy in terms of human resources? What is the balance between hiring our own graduates and inviting people from outside?

– The western tradition of not hiring one’s own alumni, in order to foster circulation and competition is not so common in Russia. Here, universities try to encourage the best students to stay and work for their alma mater. At the former Faculty of Philosophy there were senior people who came from the Academy of Science together with me. And I was also hiring younger people – I was happy to invite graduates of Moscow State University, the Russian State University for the Humanities and other universities. Some of our younger colleagues graduated from European Universities, some of them studied at HSE.

In the humanities, our situation with academic staff will become healthier within one generation, after elderly professors retire and younger scholars that have received a completely different education and have had different experiences come in and take their place. When this new blood flows in, a more competitive environment will appear. We are now witnessing this sense of competition entering our faculty, but it has not fully developed yet.

As for international faculty recruitment, I am, of course, a proponent of it, but I am not so sure that our current strategy is effective. We have hired good specialists from the international market, but they are at the same level as our local academic staff. I think it would make more sense to invite several senior professors in their 60s or 70s that have a great deal of experience and weight in the academic world and seniority in the eyes of younger colleagues.  Alternatively, we could hire more postdocs, young academics who can develop an interest in Russia and stay to work at the faculty on conditions equal to the rest of the faculty members.

– What do you think about internationalization in higher education in general?

– There are a lot of myths about this. For small countries, teaching as many courses as possible in English might be good. In larger countries – let say, Germany or France, the countries I know best – internationalization in higher education is a huge exaggeration. They don’t strive to do everything in English there. In the case of applied mathematics or economics at HSE a complete switch to the English language would probably not be catastrophic. There are good and bad sides to it: a portion of the graduates will go to the international market. However, many will stay in Russia and their employers will see that they don’t know all the terms in Russian because they studied everything in English. The majority of our students when they graduate will stay in the local job market. What they need is several courses in English, which would help them broaden their worldview and practice the language. But that is enough. Ultimately you can’t conduct a course on Russian philosophy to Russian students in English! A complete switch to using the English language would not be possible for us. At the same time, I am keen to promote the idea that all humanities students must speak several foreign languages. English is a must, but also speaking German or French could be a requirement.

– What are the priorities for the new faculty? What needs to be done in order to start working at full capacity?

– HSE has got ahead of itself with this reform. This is what in Russian we would describe as putting the cart before the horse.  We have to deal with many administrative questions while we don’t have our budgets yet. And in order to obtain the money we have to produce some regulations that can be approved by commissions that in turn need to be appointed by the academic council, which doesn’t exist yet. Everything has been done in a great hurry, but we have to work with it. At the moment we are mostly concerned with organizational and financial issues. There is also a lot of work that needs to be done to this new building we have just moved into.

– Is there any time left in your schedule for philosophy?

– I do have time for philosophy, but not enough. It is enough to write and publish a number of articles. But the thing is, as a historian of philosophy I need to spend a lot of time in the archives. The texts I work with have not been digitized and so I need to read them in libraries in Germany and France. Presently I live on my old reserves, so to say, and write based on what I have read before. In order to start a new topic I would need a lot more time, of course.

Alexey Rutkevich was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) where he studied at the Faculty of Philosophy (Ural University) headed by his father, a Soviet philosopher and sociologist. The family moved to Moscow and Professor Rutkevich continued his undergraduate and later graduate education at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Upon graduation he remained devoted to philosophy as a scholar at the Academy of Science. Professor Rutkevich speaks fluent English, German, French and Spanish and is known for his numerous translations including Camus, Jung, Freud, Ortega y Gasset, Fromm, Simmel, Spengler and Cassirer. His own publications include articles and monographs on the history of contemporary Western philosophy, philosophical anthropology, hermeneutics and psychoanalysis. Professor Rutkevich created the Faculty of Philosophy at HSE from scratch in 2004 and is now the Dean of the newly launched Faculty of Humanities. He is also a chief scholar at the Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities at HSE.

 The full text of the issue can be found in The HSE LooK 3 (20), March 2015. If you are not on our regular mailing list yet, please subscribe and get fresh issues of our bulletin every month!