Elzbieta Matynia’s reflections on one of the great projects of The New School for Social Research, marking the twentieth five years of the Democracy and Diversity Institute in Poland. We worked together on this even before the Institute was established, working with independent intellectuals, academics and activists in the Democracy Seminars. The project is as pressing today as it was back then and during the intervening years. -Jeff Goldfarb


25 Years of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies: From Krakow to Wroclaw…

Not so long ago it seemed as though the peaceful transformation of autoritarian systems into democratic ones would sharply distinguish the politics of our times from those of the past. And it was those developments in 1989 that inspired the New School to formalize its hitherto semi-clandestine collaborations with dissident intellectuals of the region, known as the Democracy Seminars, and to build upon them.

For many universities the end of communism, military dictatorships, and apartheid not only made it possible to observe an unprecedented and massive experiment in the building of a democratic order, but also opened up an extraordinary intellectual opportunity: to grasp and to compare what had previously been neither graspable nor comparable. And since the processes of democratic institutional design at the local, national, and regional level were occurring in different geographic locations throughout the world, the initial East and Central Europe Program established at the New School in 1990 evolved into the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS). At its core were the questions arising from local concerns and strategies in designing democratic institutions and processes which — though marked by their regional particularities, both historical and cultural — were no longer impossible to communicate and share with outsiders.

Working within The New School’s emblematic tradition of scholarly excellence, civic engagement, and an ethical commitment to the larger world, TCDS creates intellectually unique opportunities for graduate study, advanced research, and cross-cultural collaboration for outstanding students — both Americans and their peers from other regions.

Amid all the conferences, workshops, joint research and teaching projects, and publications involving social science scholars from different regions of the world (see a partial selection below), our flagship program is the annual Democracy & Diversity Summer Institute. Launched in 1991 in Poland (first in Krakow), theD&D Institute, which in the meantime has settled in Wroclaw/ Breslau, will celebrate this July — indeed hard to believe — its 25th Anniversary ! (Its sister institute in South Africa is a bit younger.)

Widely admired as an intimate international forum for lively but rigorous debate on critical issues of democratic life, the Institute brings an interdisciplinary, comparative, and highly interactive approach to the social, political, and cultural challenges facing today’s world. Over the years the Institute has gained an exceptional international reputation as a major transatlantic bridge that brings Americans and Europeans closer to ideas generated in both parts of the world. And  though we like to think of ourselves as critical thinkers, we have to make allowances and admit that through some mysterious alchemy a remarkable esprit de corpsseems to re-emerge like clockwork every year…

Our overseas alumni are an impressive and accomplished community: they run major research and educational institutes, publishing-houses, and TV networks. They teach at excellent universities, publish exciting books and articles, and edit important journals; they are members of the European Parliament, or diplomats representing their respective countries abroad. While we continue to serve as a touchstone and base of support for our alumni, we learn from them every day and owe them our gratitude. Two years ago they established the NSSR-Europe Collective, and those of you who can join us for our anniversary events on the weekend of July 16-17 may be able to meet some of them when they visit us in Wroclaw.

By a happy coincidence, this year Wroclaw has been designated a Cultural Capital of Europe, which we hope may further encourage you to join us for our anniversary  weekend. We have designed a rather extraordinary string of events, including a very timely Shrinking of Democracy Conference/Unconference, featuring our alumni from the region, with a keynote address by Professor Agnes Heller and a concluding talk by our alumnus, Dr. Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. Our own Richard Bernstein, who is co-teaching this year in Wroclaw with Professor Carol Bernstein, will be separately honored with a special Professorship of the City of Wroclaw and the launch of his classic book, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory, newly translated into Polish and published in the Library of Contemporary Social Thought, a series edited by TCDS alumnus and NSSR/Europe member, Professor Lotar Rasinski.

Among this year’s guest speakers at the Institute will be the poet Adam Zagajewski, of the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago; and a leader of the Polish movement known as the Committee in Defense of Democracy. We will be hosting Ada Ushpiz, director of the recent highly acclaimed documentary on Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, and she’ll be with us for a Q&A.   Judith Friedlander, author of a forthcoming book on the New School, and a former Dean of the New School for Social Research, will be giving us an advance talk on her book; and finally, The NSSR Europe Collective will present its second Courage in Public Scholarship Award.

As happy as we are to be celebrating our 25th Anniversary, recent developments taking place in various parts of the world prompted us to settle on this year’s theme at the Institute — In Unsettling Times: An Effort in Understanding. Needless to say these developments are clearly sobering, and we intend to return to them once we are back in New York, at this Fall’s first installment of our Global Dialogue Fellowships program.

See you in Wroclaw !  And see you at the New School !