Promoting Polish Studies in the 21st Century

by Brian Porter-Szücs, University of Michigan

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 NewsNet

Many of us remember the “good old days” when it was relatively easy to get fellowships and grants to study Poland. Of course, those days weren’t really good: the money was available precisely because Poland was a member of the Warsaw Pact and the federal government wanted to encourage study of “the enemy” (or the friend stuck behind enemy lines, as Poland was usually cast at the time). Thanks to the capacious understanding of what qualified for funding under those Cold War imperatives, even those of us who researched topics with no direct (or sometimes even no indirect) relevance to national security could often get the money we needed to carry out our work. We shouldn’t idealize those days: there was still plenty of competition for resources, and the job market for specialists on Poland only looks good in retrospect because it is so horrifically bad today. But it can’t be denied that Polonists had a convenient “national interest” trump card that we could play in conversations with university administrators, donors, and students.

Barring the unlikely transformation of Poland into a national security threat, those old arguments are gone for good. But this need not result in a gradual slide towards oblivion for Polish Studies within the US academy. In an important essay in East European Politics and Society, Clare Cavanagh has offered one approach to this problem, grounded in an appeal to the inherent merits of Polish culture. These strong arguments, unfortunately, aren’t always available for those of us in less aesthetically oriented disciplines, but we also have reason for hope. The first step forward, I argue, requires a reorientation in the way we think about our topic. It’s time to challenge our own inferiority status, our tacit acceptance of the categorization of Poland in the world—and Polish Studies in the academy—as peripheral and obscure. Obviously we can’t just wish our way into the front row of scholarly interest, and nothing we do will bring us to a position alongside our colleagues specializing in Iran, Syria, China, or other countries of obvious centrality to policy makers and business leaders. But neither is Poland stuck at the bottom next to the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, and our tendency to assume that it is can become a selffulfilling prophecy. Donors and university administrators react well to the rhetoric of growth and success, which is not a style we Polonists are accustomed to. It’s time to change that.

Poland has probably never been in better shape. We often speak of the Wirtschaftswunder that brought West Germans prosperity after WWII, but that accomplishment merely involved returning an economic powerhouse to its pre-war status. While few have noticed, Poles are currently enjoying their own cud gospodarczy, but one that promises to bring a once-impoverished country firmly into the ranks of the “first world.” I don’t want to downplay the monumental problems that Poles still face, but they are enjoying an unprecedented level of domestic prosperity and international prestige. Although gross domestic product has been justly criticized when used as an all-purpose measure of prosperity, the improvement in Poland’s per capita GDP can’t be dismissed, having more than doubled in a mere 20 years. From a position at 40% of the EU28 average in 1995, Poland now stands at 67% of that norm. Poland now has the 6th largest economy in Europe, and (depending on which figures one uses) one of the top 25 most productive economies in the world.

Even more striking than these GDP numbers is the fact that Poland now ranks 30th in the UN’s Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index, out of 145 countries measured. This number is particularly useful because it adjusts the figures for countries with great aggregate wealth but extreme inequality. Despite the sharp inegalitarian tendencies of recent years, Poland gains by this measure and now stands only two places behind the United States. The rapid growth of the Polish economy has taken place without extreme dependency on fickle natural resources (as in the case of Russia) and without relying on abusively low-cost labor (as in the case of China or Brazil). In almost every category Poland is quickly closing the gap with Russia, which has for so long cast a huge shadow as the dominant country in ASEEES and in the many (aptly named) “Russian and East European Studies” centers. Poland’s per capita household consumption is now larger than Russia’s, and even the country’s aggregate GDP is more than a quarter the size of its vastly larger eastern neighbor. Of course wages in Poland are lower than in Western Europe, but they remain much higher than any other country with a comparable rate of economic expansion. And they are going up: using a constant purchasing power standard, the median income in Poland is now $8,630, compared to $4,755 a mere decade ago.8 I don’t want to exaggerate any of this: Poland remains much poorer than Germany, France, or the UK. But the country’s skyward trajectory (unbroken by the Great Recession) is undeniable. Scholars from different disciplines and theoretical perspectives will debate exactly why Poland has been so successful, but it is clearly worth studying (and drawing lessons from) these accomplishments.

Poland’s rise is not limited to economics. The country’s primary and secondary education system has been hailed as one of the world’s best, with PISA scores in the global top ten in reading and science, and a composite ranking that is now higher than Germany’s (and far above that of the US). Poland’s diplomatic importance was recognized in 2014 when Donald Tusk was named President of the European Council. The consensus in Brussels is clearly bullish about Poland, which became evident in 2012 when the EU budget provided more funding for Poland than any other country. Even Poland’s soccer team beat World Cup champion Germany last October, and now stands at the top of its group in the UEFA Cup qualifying round! Of course many aspects of Polish life are troubling: the country’s higher education institutions have struggled in comparison with European peers, the health care system is plagued with serious deficiencies, and the continued reliance on coal has weakened Poland’s environmental record. Worst of all, the gaps between Poland’s wealthiest and poorest regions is cavernous. The Mazovian region (around Warsaw) now boasts a per capita GDP that is 107% of the European average, compared to 44% for the Sub-Carpathian region. This constitutes the most threatening obstacle to Poland’s continued success.

Elsewhere I’ve described Poland as “among the weakest of the mighty and the mightiest of the weak, among the poorest of the rich and the richest of the poor.” In virtually every global ranking Poland is now classified as a “highly developed country,” though it often sits towards the bottom of that category. This position actually gives Poles (and those of us who study Poland) many distinctive opportunities. Polish policymakers and social activists confront problems that are significant but not Sisyphean, because they have access to resources that will almost certainly expand in the future—not something that we can say here in the United States. Investors see in Poland a country with vast areas for market expansion and a population that is rapidly becoming wealthy enough to constitute a significant consumer base. And scholars see a country that offers a unique condition of dynamic liminality. It is quickly becoming apparent that Poland’s muchvaunted transition from socialism to capitalism is actually part of a much bigger and potentially even more momentous story: a transition to secure membership in the club of first-world nations.

Polish Studies has grown right alongside Poland itself, despite all the funding cutbacks we have endured. Doctoral dissertations in this field rose from 28 in the 1980s to 50 in the 2000s. So far this decade 28 dissertations in Polish history have been successfully defended, which puts us on pace to produce a record number by 2020. Even if we stopped admitting all graduate students in Polish history now, there are still at least 17 in the pipeline. The number of scholarly articles on Polish topics in major North American journals has also been increasing, and the biennial article prize of the Polish Studies Association had a record 55 eligible nominations during its last competition in 2013. The PSA itself has grown exponentially, tripling in size over the last decade. H-Poland, our field’s international and interdisciplinary online forum, now has nearly 500 subscribers, after fewer than five years of existence. Recently that service has been joined by an exciting new European counterpart called Pol-Int. Although my own experiences at the University of Michigan may not be representative of any larger trends, I have seen an undeniable growth in undergraduate enrollment in my modern Polish history class (48 in 2011, 72 in 2012, 87 in 2014, and 93 this semester). While I would be delighted to attribute this to my effective teaching, that conclusion is undermined by the fact that all my other classes have been shrinking. Academic jobs in Polish studies remain scarce—though no worse than in many other fields. And even that dismal topic gets a little bit of sunshine by the addition over the past decade of newly-endowed chairs in Polish history at several major universities.

The rhetoric of success that is so popular in business circles is obviously problematic, and it does not come naturally to us academics—particularly those of us who study Poland. Most of the time our pessimism serves us well. Our primary job is to stand apart and offer critique and analysis, not to engage in boosterism. Moreover, we have sustained our field for decades with tales of Poland’s unique history of tragedy and suffering, and it is awkward for us to start telling stories of success. But we do not compromise our values if we ensure that university administrators, donors, and policy-makers recognize that we Polonists represent an extraordinarily dynamic field, and that we study a country that is quickly rising to a position of prominence. We can’t solve our problems with happy-talk alone, but we are certain never to solve them if we continue to perceive our own subject as marginal and obscure. We should internalize the unfamiliar but undeniable fact that Poland is ready for prime time.

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