Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mini University: Day 4

We finally got around to playing Sink the Biz at Nick's last night, but I swear I was totally alert when classes started at 9 a.m. today. And I'm glad I was, because my morning class was about the fall of Communism in Europe, a potentially dry subject that was presented in a fascinating way.

Our instructor discussed the ingredients that caused the Communist collapse of 1989, such as economic breakdown, human rights pressures from the West, changing consumer expectations, and Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland. He also discussed key events in the Communist downfall, such as the 1989 Polish elections (which took place on the same day as the Tienanmen Square massacre) and the Velvet Revolution in Prague.

Most interestingly, however, he addressed the question of why some former Soviet republics have succeeded as democracies while others are still struggling. The answer, he said, is that democratic traditions must be built over many years; in Poland, for example, the Solidarity movement practiced democratic principles such as election and compromise during its decade as a subversive, underground organization. When Communism fell, Solidarity members already knew how to run an organization. To really succeed, therefore, a new democracy needs a history of democratic grassroots activism -- not a good sign for fledgling democracies in places like Iraq.

My second class focused on the future of book publishing, but it was a real dud. Taught by Janet Rabinowitch, who runs Indiana University Press, the lecture focused entirely on university-based publishers. Rabinowitch had no information on commercial publishing, which meant she had to answer question after question with "I don't know." I wish she had done some background research or perhaps had a co-presenter from the commercial publishing industry.

My final class of the day was taught by Amy Cook, an assistant professor whose research is focused on why theater-goers react the way they do. Why do we cry when Cordelia is hanged, when we know perfectly well that it's all a performance? Cook's lecture today focused on the theory that performances activate something called mirror neurons, which fire when we perform an action but also when we watch that action being done by someone else. The lecture was a strange combination of scientific details and Hamlet clips, but it was interesting nonetheless.

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