PLENARY SPEAKER: JAN URBAN
Education Abroad: The Cure to Cultural Despair?
The totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century succeeded in ruling over hundreds of millions of people less than a century after the industrial revolution and the birth of a nation state. Continuity became a cursed word and “cultural despair” helped to radicalize the search for new identities. From then on, each new young generation has experienced the intoxicating feeling that the “old world is dead” and “old” knowledge and values require reinvention from scratch. Each new young generation ever since believes that History begins only with them. Old forms of human identity, dictated predominantly by location of one’s birthplace – had already been replaced during industrialization with a model of “belonging to somebody” – an employer or a nation state. The unsolved 19th century issue of “the politics of cultural despair” is becoming even more complicated and destructive today with inevitable societal changes created by social media technologies. Within the lifetime of the last three generations we have witnessed the march from educating an international elite to closed national mass education. In a large part of the world it was accompanied by national self-isolation and indoctrination. Today, education abroad is among the most effective tools for reopening the world, offering different perspectives, recreating what was lost along the way, and restoring much needed respect towards intellectualism in every society.
Jan Urban, who has recently worked on several projects in Iraq training journalists and working on building reconciliation measures through the reconstruction of cultural heritage sites, was one of the leading dissidents in Czechoslovakia before 1989. In 1974, he graduated with a degree in history and philosophy from Charles University. From then until 1989, Urban, forbidden by the communists to continue his academic career, worked as a schoolteacher and a manual laborer. He was one of the founders of the Eastern European Information Agency, a dissident network. He also worked with underground newspapers and as a reporter for Radio Free Europe and the British Broadcasting Company. In November 1989, he helped found the Civic Forum, the movement that led to the eventual overthrow of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and was placed in charge of its logistics and management. In 1990, Urban was elected as the Civic Forum’s spokesperson and leader. He led the Civic Forum to its victory in the first free democratic elections in June 1990.
He resigned from all political positions one day after announcing the electoral defeat of Communism and returned to pursue his career in journalism. He studied post-conflict societies in Central America and won two international human rights awards from Humanitas, San Francisco, in 1991 and Centro Demos in San Salvador in 1995. Urban also served as a war correspondent in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993 through 1996 and was the publisher of Transitions magazine from 1997 to 1999.
More recently, he has made two documentary films, one of them on the Kosovo conflict. He is the author of three books, two of them on the war in Bosnia and one on a major corruption case in the Czech Republic. He is currently working on a book of interviews with the founder of the People in Need Foundation, Simon Panek. He has taught at NYU Prague since 2000.