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Intellectuals from across the globe took part in a three-day online conference to raise funds for the Center for Civic Engagement, a newly established project at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
“‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is true only if all the people with the swords die and the books remain in print in the interim period,” Canadian writer Margaret Atwood said during the conference titled “What Good Is Philosophy? – The Role of the Academy in a Time of Crisis.”
“Although the pen has some influence, which is why these (totalitarian) regimes want to get rid of writers who aren’t toeing the line plus musicians and anybody else not doing the party song and dance, they have no actual power. They have influence but not power.”
Hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto on March 17-19, the conference featured many eminent intellectuals, among them Margaret Atwood, Timothy Snyder, Mychailo Wynnyckyj, and Volodymyr Yermolenko.
The Center for Civic Engagement plans to address the evolving needs of Ukraine’s academia by offering institutional, intellectual, and financial assistance for students and scholars in Ukraine.
According to Ukraine’s Education Ministry, as of late February, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has damaged 3,151 educational institutions and completely destroyed 440 of them.
Russia’s war against Ukraine also forced many teachers and scholars to relocate or join the military.
“I believe that if there were more academic freedom, more access to education, and critical thought in Russia, quite possibly, this invasion would never have occurred. Things like this happen when you have a brainwashed, docile population,” Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at University of Oxford, said in an interview with the Kyiv Independent.
“And if you have a free intellectual inquiry and high levels of education, it’s harder for a leader to lead a population into something as awful as what Russia is doing now.”
Ukraine benefit conference
“Ukraine needs to reimagine what their future is going to hold, and this is what the academy does—they think about the hard problems, about how our society is going to be organized, they’re participating in these debates about what the future holds, how we’re going to act,” said Aaron Wendland, a fellow in public philosophy at King’s College London and the conference’s organizer.
“If you’re moving to an EU sort of Western liberal democracy, you need institutions like education and the media functioning. They’re essential for liberal democracy, so you want to keep them going in Ukraine, and you want to keep building them.”
The full list of experts who participated in the conference raising funds for the Center for Civic Engagement included Jennifer Nagel, Quassim Cassam, Sally Haslanger, Philip Pettit, Elizabeth Anderson, Jeff McMahan, Kieran Setiya, Agnes Callard, Dominic Lopes, Jonathan Wolff, Jason Stanley, Seyla Benhabib, Kate Manne, Barry Lam, David Enoch, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Peter Adamson, Angie Hobbs, Melissa Lane, Timothy Williamson, Simon Critchley, and Tim Crane.
While some talks focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine, others concentrated on broader philosophical topics, tying back to the question in the conference’s name, “What Good Is Philosophy?”
Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, discussed freedom in wartime and explained something that he calls “Zelensky’s Paradox”— the belief of President Volodymyr Zelensky that he didn’t have an option of fleeing Ukraine even though nothing restrained him.
“It’s precisely being a free person over time which generates that sensation at certain critical moments of life that there’s really only one thing that can be done,” Snyder said, referring to Zelensky’s decision to remain in Ukraine.
He also spoke of why many people abroad thought that Zelensky would flee.
“If you think that your freedom and your democracy depend on larger forces, and then you meet a shock where it turns out that the larger forces aren’t going your way, what do you do?” he posed the question to the audience. “You run. That’s all that you’ve got left.”
“Freedom (and) democracy have to be a matter of taking thoughtful risks,” he added.
Another of the conference’s headliners, Ukrainian philosopher and Ukraine World Editor-in-Chief Volodymyr Yermolenko spoke of how ideologies can be weaponized to kill, using an example of the false narrative that “Russia is an empire that needs to expand and Ukraine is a non-existent state” as an example.
“Once you say, ‘Ukraine doesn’t exist or doesn’t have a right to exist,’ the next step is to say, ‘Ok, we should eliminate the idea of Ukraine and all the people who bear this idea,’ and this is a direct step to genocide—what is happening right now,” he said.
In interviews with the Kyiv Independent, some speakers also discussed the vitalness of education.
“You can’t have a lost generation. It’s terrible enough to be in a country at war, but you cannot lose educating that generation,” Angie Hobbs, professor of the public understanding of philosophy at Sheffield University, said. “They need the skills to then rebuild the country and to work for a better future.”
The horrifying thought of Ukraine being unable to teach the young generation of Ukrainians due to Russia’s war is something that both Hobbs and McMahan considered as a driving force behind their motivations to participate in the event that fundraises for civic institutions in Ukraine.
Raising funds for Center for Civic Engagement
The Center for Civic Engagement at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, for which the conference was raising funds, seeks to help internally displaced Ukrainian academics to continue their research and teaching while also serving as a hub for international collaboration to keep academia in Ukraine functioning.
After Feb. 24, 2022, Kyiv Mohyla Academy’s Culture and Arts Center, which used to run cultural programs, turned into a hub of public outreach initiatives, ranging from giving public lectures on Russian and Ukrainian history, providing psychological assistance for people from Bucha, helping elderly people, and working with veterans.
“(Kyiv Mohyla Academy) had the infrastructure to house the Center for Civic Engagement. So we are building on the work that Ukrainian academics are already doing and giving them some support,” Wendland said.
“And because they have the infrastructure, we could potentially provide some housing for Ukrainian academics from Mykolaiv, or Kharkiv, or Donetsk, or these other places, where they might be able to do some work at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, instead of leaving (for abroad).”
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“I want to express my gratitude to the Ukrainian Armed Forces for their enormous effort every day to liberate each meter and each square kilometer of Ukrainian territory,” Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada Yulia Kovaliv said during closing remarks. “And many members of Ukrainian Armed forces are coming from the academia sector — these are the teachers, the researchers, and the young students who should have spent their time in universities, but instead of that, they are spending their time in trenches, protecting our country and democracy all over the world.”
Kovaliv emphasized the importance of human capital for post-war reconstruction and thanked everyone who supports academia in Ukraine.
“The important thing is that academia is keeping on education because education, as we see in this war, is a very important tool for us, most to share with the world for what we are fighting for, but also to deal with massive Russian disinformation that is spreading both in Ukraine and many countries,” she said.
“Each and every contribution will make not only Ukrainian students, not only Ukrainian teachers but also the broader Ukrainian society stronger, both resisting the aggressor (and), after our victory, on rebuilding Ukraine.”