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Fresh Perspective:
About the Project

A large and diverse range of people study and work at HSE University. A Fresh Perspective series introduces some of the newest members of this extended community. Each brings a unique background, worldview and understanding of how a modern university should be organised. Regardless of whether you agree with them or not or find their ideas controversial, they offer a fresh perspective on HSE University.

Is a political scientist a true scientist and should political scientists be categorised as either theoreticians or practitioners? Why is Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’ a ‘must read’ and is there any point in communicating with someone who has stopped learning? Can a modern university fence itself off from the world around it, and what does critical thinking have to do with it? These are some of the subjects we touch on in our conversation with Alexei Chesnakov, School of Politics and Governance professor with the Faculty of Social Sciences.

 

You began working at HSE this September and currently teach a Political Expertise course for fourth-year bachelor’s students. What is your impression of the students?

The students are great. Of course, I could be an ‘old fogey’ and complain that they lack knowledge in some areas or are not completely prepared. But that would be pointless. After all, they came to the university to obtain knowledge and skills. The vast majority of HSE University students have their own views on the processes taking place in the country and the world, their own vision of the future and a great sense of humour.

They fall into three distinct groups. There are the ‘pragmatists’ — those who came here to get a diploma. There are also ‘waverers’ — those who are unsure about their chosen field: after all, there’s no sense denying that politics can scare some people away. And there are the ‘single-minded’ — those who are certain they’ll become political scientists, politicians and so on.

Had you done any teaching before?

My teaching experience at the MSU Faculty of World Politics was very important. But there, I worked with highly trained master’s students who had a clear focus on foreign policy work. I am more interested in domestic politics and that is why I was happy to accept the offer to work at HSE University.

Do you think your political science students understand what that profession involves?

I don’t even have a definite idea of what it involves because politics has become a part of today’s new technologies and, conversely, those technologies are blurring our understanding of politics. So, I wouldn’t want to have any set ideas in this regard.

A political scientist today can be both someone who classifies political regimes as well as someone who analyses political videos on YouTube

I would not want to confine political science within the standard limits of the field. A political scientist is a specialist who studies politics in different ways. Politics itself has become much broader in scope. Politics is no longer just relations between the authorities and society or between the state and citizens. It concerns the authorities in the broad sense of the word, hierarchies (including ordinary structures), linguistics, etc.

I recently asked students whether they were more interested in classifying political regimes or predicting how useful it would be to use augmented reality in future political ad campaigns. I personally think the latter is far more interesting and promising! I hope I have planted seeds of doubt in their minds.

There has been a lot of talk recently about expanding the use of Big Data, but it overlooks the fact that new forms with mass audiences greatly change the perception of politics. One example is TV series such as House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Boss, Wag the Dog, etc. Even some children’s cartoons carry political information.

Another area is political psychology and work with the emotional dimension. We live in a time when it is possible and necessary to understand the growing problems in professional activity. Machines will rob political scientists of their ability to earn a living no less rapidly than they will economists, financiers, etc. But there are areas that machines will not affect for a long time yet, and it would make sense for the youngest specialists to focus on those.

Wherever something must be calculated or compared, humans will lose out to artificial intelligence. People don’t have a chance. A robot can do that work faster and better than we can. I am certain that if AI continues progressing at its current rate, within 15 years, the demand for many research-related and especially technical operations that are currently considered classic elements of political science will simply disappear.

Photo by Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

In the meantime, as it says in the university’s development programme, ‘Computational political science is the vanguard of world research and development in political science…’

For now, yes. I am not prepared to call it the vanguard or the pinnacle of knowledge about politics, but it must be admitted that AI can already do many things better than specialists can. We have not yet mastered enough knowledge to take some things to the digital level, but it will happen eventually: machines will learn to calculate quickly the connections in fuzzy political sets that are currently undetected. Work is already being done in this area and it leaves no room for students. They already need to see themselves outside of these processes.

In terms of university development, I would very much like HSE to have its own school of political science — a school as an intellectual environment and a system of views and approaches

A university is foremost a school. Why do many people, though not all, attend university? Because they want to receive an education in that particular institution and not a generic education that they could get anywhere, such as the university closest to home. Why are future political scientists attracted to HSE University? What does it offer of value? Is it the opportunity to meet prominent people in the field, unique competencies or something else? Answering this requires very serious work, including an internal discussion at the university.

In your opinion, does a school of political science exist anywhere in Russia at present?

No. There used to be, though, during Soviet times. Then, MSU applicants knew why they wanted to attend the Department of Scientific Communism or the Faculty of Philosophy. They knew why they wanted to study at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations or the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives. But now… Why do people apply to HSE University? I have not yet found a satisfactory answer from my conversations with students.

Is it right to compare the level of political science in Russia with that overseas?

We are far behind. We’ll catch up at some point. We have strong research that the older generation maintains. But for now, the main part of Russia’s political science is a garbage discipline. Ninety per cent of domestic scientific research on politics is downright trash — as compared to history and sociology that have excellent research. The proof is straightforward: almost no Russian political research is translated into English.

Have you ever spoken or worked with HSE graduates?

Yes, I’ve met some. But ‘HSE graduates’ is an artificial concept. It all depends on the specific major. I am not inclined to evaluate experts’ professional and personal qualities as a group: everything is very individual. I have had dealings with very good political scientists who were decent people, and those who were just so-so — but it was also interesting to work with them. I can say that the strongest HSE graduates had a definite desire to acquire new knowledge and were intellectually flexible.

Is this an important quality for you?

Yes. I am also trying to learn. It’s senseless to communicate with a professional who has stopped reading, does not study new disciplines and does not find anything new for himself. These are intellectual corpses, as the saying goes: ‘Died at 25, buried at 75.’ One should make every effort to avoid such ‘experts.’ Another important aspect is the ability to change or if you will refine one’s point of view. The ability to admit mistakes. Science involves the withering away of obsolete views. How can you reason with someone who is firmly convinced he is right, that he already ‘knows everything’? If he is unable to change his point of view, there is nothing to discuss with him.

There are great intellectual figures, people with whom communication provides a powerful emotional charge, a sense of involvement in the outstanding intellect of the era. But this is not always a dialogue. It’s like going to the museum to see a masterpiece.

A professional who does not reflect or discuss methods and prospects for developing his discipline and making it better is uninteresting. Unfortunately, this problem often comes up in practice.

The horrendous volume of information coming at us also leads to many problems. What’s more, many people consider it more important to know this information than to be able to process it. I sometimes joke that we should recognise the finger as the most advanced intellectual device that nature has given us. We open the browser on our smartphone and find all the information we need. But what should we do with it? How should we process it, analyse it and present it? These are specific skills that should be taught especially. By the way, machines already possess these skills.

We no longer need people who possess encyclopedic knowledge. We need people with encyclopedic skills who can manage the process of searching and processing the necessary information in real-time

That’s why I don’t like presentations in which the student is given a ready-made matrix, structure, finished picture: first, second, third… Most students accept this structure uncritically. But when you train a professional, you need to have him critically evaluate loads of data and help him develop the skill to independently structure that information, classify it, find the hidden connections, etc.

First, our notions are sometimes mistaken. Second, this field will not develop with the help of ‘cookie-cutter specialists.’ We need to create professionals with a variety of skills. If an instructor graduates specialists who all think alike and possess identical skills, then his efforts have been in vain.

Photo by Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Which three books — not textbooks — do you think every person should read?

It is impossible to respond to such questions with the wisdom of Caliph Omar. Forgive me, but we still have universities because their graduates cannot imagine such monstrous limitations. Anyone who graduates from a university should know and love numerous books, live with them and reread them several times. And these should include books from outside their major.

There are non-political books that any political scientist should know. For example, ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin. This is a 'must-read.' The Bible. When we speak about what a monarchy is, how it arose and how it was interpreted by previous generations, we cannot help but return to the conversation between Saul and Samuel about royal authority.

Among contemporary works in the field of practical political science, ‘Essence of Decision’ by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow uses the example of the Caribbean crisis to show how political decisions are made.

As for the classics, everyone is obsessed with ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli, but at the same time, they don’t know ‘Arthashastras,’ ‘Kalila and Dimna’ and others. When we say that a professional should be able to analyse the motives, actions and behaviours of people in politics, I always cite the example of ‘Three Kingdoms,’ ‘Lushi Chunqiu,’ etc. And how can we talk about politics today without analysing the works of Lenin? The whole world recognises Lenin as one of the theorists of revolution and the party: this is an important point to understand.

A political scientist is not simply obligated to read “The State” by Plato. He should also know the allegory of the cave — and not so much for political analysis as for understanding one of the most important intellectual traditions that have shaped European culture for centuries. On the other hand, if he knows only the one dialogue but does not understand “The Apology” of Socrates, the meanings of “The Symposium” or “Phaedrus,” even his interpretations of political subjects will surely be limited in meaning

And how can you not know Russell, Orwell or Golding? I could continue this list for hours.

Should a person be an authority? Is there someone in your profession whom you consider an authority?

Some concepts are ‘empty’: democracy, authority, patriotism. The more meaning you can squeeze into a concept, the emptier it becomes. Some consider General Vlasov a patriot while others view him as a traitor.

When we use empty concepts, we find ourselves hostages of semantic constructions with which it is impossible to work

Russell and Popper are authorities — and not because they authored popular and politically significant works. They managed to combine three important qualities: practical political activity, vivid creative individuality in the field of political analysis and deep methodological analysis of social processes based on their own interpretations of mathematics, logic, etc. They were harmoniously developed personalities.

Nowadays, almost every professor is considered an authority, and he or she uses that authority for manipulation. Political science is not normative: it cannot tell us, as citizens, what we should do. When a political science professor says that political science requires us to vote, that is heresy. That is an academic using their authority for a personal political objective.

Scholars should not dictate behaviour to citizens. They can offer recommendations, but no more than that. And trying to justify it with science is manipulation

Do you draw a distinction between political science theorists and practitioners?

A good practitioner understands theory, and a good theorist knows how things work in practice.

There are many good, professional, impressive, interesting, sought-after and recognised specialists who know ‘how to do things.’ But when you start working with them, it becomes clear that they do not actually understand. They know how to treat the illness, but do not know the nature of the malady.

Trying to interpret motives behind behaviours can lead to a lot of problems. Science has always struggled with this, and particularly now. Therefore, to interpret motives, I regularly recommend that students turn to classics, to traditional works and history. If you know how the politicians of many centuries past drew their conclusions, it is easier to understand current relations, motives and interests.

Nor can we toss Thucydides’ ‘Melian Dialogue’ overboard. You might have lots of numbers, but if you do not understand motivations, interests and values, if you are not versed in political philosophy, you cannot understand the basis of politics as a form of activity.

Photo by Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

To what extent do you think the university reflects the processes at work in society?

I’m not sure I can answer that without first being immersed in university life for some time. I think it is important to preserve the classical university in which instructors are not bound by a large number of technical parameters or by the requirements of supervisory authorities. Of course, it could be arranged such that the professor ‘provides services’ and ‘works for the student,’ but that wouldn’t work. A true scholar needs students not as a source of income, but as heirs to the intellectual tradition to which he has devoted his life. That might sound overly pompous and corny, but it’s true.

I am opposed to the instructor ‘reading a course.’ This made sense before textbooks were available because students could not find the information they needed and the teacher had to ‘read’ a certain amount of information. Now instructors should engage more in discussions with their students and speak to them about things that the textbooks do not address.

The culture of dialogue, thinking and the formation of meaning are another thing. Here we have problems. Schools provide a poor education in basic subjects, in logic and rhetoric, but students should have mastery over these basic subjects before they reach the university. Students should come to the seminars already prepared. What sort of education schools actually provide is a whole other question. Universities should probably formulate new objectives for schools.

We have many discussions outside the university. However, they are conducted according to strange rules: it is enough, for example, to turn on the TV or log onto social networks

Discussions among mass audiences are too broad a topic. The number of public debates will only increase. The skills for such debates must be learned in a special way. I’m not sure that all academic political scientists would even need these skills, although they are definitely important for politicians.

We will have to teach these ‘strange rules,’ as you call them, to political science students because some of them will go into politics and civil activism after graduating. It is not the responsibility of the university to educate such activists, but we cannot deny students the right to choose such a path. And if politicians and social activists cannot speak persuasively, of what use are they? This means, by the way, that it is necessary to teach them not only the ability to uphold the truth but also to prevail. Not everyone is ready for this, but these are the rules of the media show.

We live in a “society of spectacle”

Photo by Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

The spectacle unfolding beyond the university’s walls proceeds according to one set of rules, but we would no doubt prefer that the university function according to different rules…

According to which rules? The university is caught up in the same things as society and the world at large. There is no reason to create artificial boundaries: enough already exist without adding more. It’s enough that we divide specialists into practitioners and academicians who monitor and analyse processes, and teachers who explain what’s happening. There are rules for scientific discussion. These boundaries are important because without them the university would cease to exist. Its social function would change.

The university prepares not citizens, but professionals. These days, a good citizen who is a bad professional poses a danger to society. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. A person can be either a good or a bad citizen, but he cannot be a good or a bad professional: he is either a professional or he isn’t

I don’t like it when teachers refer to their students as children. How are they children? They have already chosen a profession, are full-fledged citizens, can work jobs and so on! You want them to be able to perform miracles, and yet you speak of them as underdeveloped beings. That’s wrong. They are already at the university and, therefore, they are not children. They are not as highly trained as their teachers but they have already formed their own opinions that should be reckoned with, or criticised based on reason — and without ‘cutting them slack’ for their age.

I do not have an unequivocal answer to the question you posed regarding the university and what is happening outside its confines. I think we cannot build any types of walls in today’s world. To do so consciously would lead to the diminishment of the university. Of course, I don’t want to lump too much together, but it is unlikely that the ‘purity’ of the university would be upheld by using your fingertip to create both education and policy on one and the same smartphone.