Rekindling the passion: Paul Thom responds to Robert Dessaix

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Robert Dessaix, in his fine piece “Russia: the end of an affair” documents the sad decline of Russian language studies in this country since the late nineteen-fifties. Dessaix, who for many years taught Russian at ANU, sees its rise and fall, not in terms of the economic categories of supply and demand, but in erotic terms. He writes: “when I was a student in the early sixties, we wanted both to possess and be possessed by this infinitely strange, complicated other world. We wanted to take on its subjectivities as our own, to be galvanized by its vitalizing currents.” He puts forward the idea that in the heyday of Russian studies what motivated students was a strong desire — a desire to identify with an alluring ‘other’, and thereby to experience a kind of personal transformation. Dessaix offers a number of explanations for the waning of that desire over the past forty years.

This type of analysis of what motivates people to engage in study is not new. It derives from Plato’s Republic — where the acquisition of knowledge is characterised as a ‘turning around of the soul’ — and his Symposium — where the pursuit of knowledge is characterised in explicitly erotic terms. The idea does seem to capture something important about what drives people to engage in courses of study. It’s not an idea that one hears much in Universities these days, but I’m glad to see it revived. It promises a deeper understanding of student motivation than is offered by the jargon of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’. It encourages us to look inside the minds of students, and to speculate about what stirs them.

If we follow this line of thought, however, we can only conclude, in the face of the collapse of most Russian language programs in our Universities, that students are no longer stirred by the idea of Russia, its culture and its language. The flames of passion are all but extinguished. Certainly, that conclusion is indicated by recent events at ANU.

At the time when first year Russian was cancelled at ANU on March 10, there were nine students officially enrolled in the unit. That is simply not enough to warrant the resources in time and money that go into mounting a full-year course of study. Given the Faculty of Arts’ extremely limited resources, the question had to be asked, Is it better to use these resources in this way or in some other?

Giorgio Armani recently went ahead with a fashion show in Paris, even though there was no audience. He and a handful of colleagues watched as the models went through their routines, with lights, music and the full spectacle. He can afford to do that. The Arts Faculty at ANU is not Giorgio Armani. If the students don’t enrol, we can’t afford to offer the course.

True, Russian is a world language. True, the riches of Russian culture are in no way diminished by that country’s current woes. True, Russia will one day resume a leading place on the world stage. These are the points urged by the champions of things Russian. But by themselves these truths do not justify maintaining a Russian course. Something more is required. The passion that moves the advocates of Russian studies must also stir a sufficient number of prospective students. That is where we must look for a rekindling of desire.

Paul Thom is the Dean of Arts, Australian National University, Canberra.

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