Krzystof Czyżewski – practitioner of ideas, writer, philosopher, culture animator, theatre director, editor. Co-founder and president of the Borderland Foundation and director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations” in Sejny, Poland. Teacher and lecturer, professor at the University of Bologna. Among his books of poetry and essays are: The Path of the Borderland (2001), Trust & Identity: A Handbook of Dialogue (2011), Miłosz – Dialog – Borderland (2013), Miłosz. A Connective Tissue (2014), A Small Center of the World (2017), and Toward Xenopolis (2019). We are publishing the keynote speech she gave at the International Conference on Multicultural Education organized by LOJA Centre. The photos accompanying the text are related to activities of the Borderland Foundation (photographer: Wieslaw Szumiński).


By Krzysztof Czyzewski

We created in our region, for schools, what we called “Glass Bead Game” – which of course refers to Hermann Hesse’s famous novel, but for children.[1] This program is a very special game they can practice in schools. It is based on telling stories about different personalities, architectural objects, religion, and culture from your region, your art, with images helping you to build the story, to tell the story to the others. Now, this is not how you win the game. The way in which you win it, is how you can combine the set of your images with that of someone else, how you connect your story with the other, how you find influences, interdependence, palimpsest, within different stories, narratives, histories. It can develop competence on building connected issues. This is mostly lost in our education system, which is based on specialization of different realms, of different disciplines. That’s what we did within our universities. Look what has happened. We have towers inside of these ivory towers, towers of disciplines with specific languages difficult to understand for the others from neighboring disciplines. From a very basic level, from primary school, engaging children in the kind competence that I mentioned, the competence of overcoming your own story, of finding connections, this art of building bridges is very important, I think.

In addition, what we need for a borderland is not only a negative language about our conflicts, culture wars, clashes on ethnic or religious ground. What we need is very much about a positive language by which we could name and express commonality, something we share together, something we want to do with the others, and the empathy we feel. We have a problem with this language also in academic and school level. This was mainly my work with the students in Bologna University. I taught there political science and European studies. My students were future diplomats and clerks of EU administration. The problem with positive language, telling for example the history of Europe, is to find a credible language, which will be needed for cooperation, for connection, for building something together, sharing something together. Our academic language is based on the borderline criteria. We easily can speak about conflicts; we easily find thousands of books describing these conflicts. The same is with the media. We call it media oriented message. It is very good for the media, it works. However, if you try to speak about something that is positive, some good traditions, some good memory, something that you created together, then the problems appears. On the academic level, for my student in Bologna, it was quite challenging to write a thesis, to write a final year paper, to describe for example borderland people who are bridge builders. A credible language to express these experiences is very difficult and new.

What else we need for the borderland is the Agora, the place that we lost in our multicultural societies – you can call it the Balkan Charshia, or in Ukrainian, Maidan – the common space. In spite of different neighborhoods, of the different mahallas, in spite of this richness of cultures and religions that we have, we can still have the Charshia, the common responsibility, or in other words, the responsibility for the common, for something that we share together. We take the responsibility not only for our mahalla, but also for the whole city, for the whole community. This is the challenge we face today. The Agoras are possessed by confronting ideologies coming from different sides. We have problems with this space. We are talking about how we understand multiculturalism; we are talking about how we understand interculturalism, but let us think also about culture, culture as such, just culture, which is Agora, which is Charshia. It is something that from inside we understand as mine, as ours, in spite of any border and division. The way in which we will use the word “ours” is crucial, I think, for our education and culture in the future. We should open it from inside. We closed our cultures, religions, identities, strictly within our borders. As a solution for that, establishing intercultural dialogue is not enough, I think. This is something that Dragan Klaić said: cultures are somehow addressed to be in clash with each other. However, there is something at the bottom, which is simple culture, which is something that we have in common. I think it is a very important challenge for our education to think about school, about university, opening from inside: how we understand culture, how we feel and practice our memory, our history, our religion, and so on.

Understanding that we have around us these divisions and that there is something positive in them, there is an example with children coming to our “Borderland” center. They come in from a kindergarten level, and they are becoming more Old Believers[2], Lithuanians, and Poles, than they were before. They are asked by others: “Tell me your story… teach me your songs… teach me your language”. This is the beginning. They are going back to their families and ask their grandparents: “Tell me, because I am respected by my difference; the others want to know about my religious traditions more, so I’m becoming more interested about my Old Believer tradition than I was before”. The main thing is that this is not the end of the story. You engage them in that, you respect these divisions. You don’t think about erasing borders, but you engage them in something common, in creating common stories, in cooperation, in opening their own cultures from inside. Finding in the traditions elements of tolerance inside their own traditions, finding the seeds of opening from inside. There is something I want to refer to the cosmopolitan ideas. There are the nationalist ideologies of modernity, and in opposition to them, we created a cosmopolitan response: we are citizens of the world, we are cutting off our traditions, going to big cities, to metropolis, and becoming citizens of the new world. Nevertheless, it has the price of being uprooted, of closing our eyes towards the past, the traditions, the differences. Because of the human nature, I don’t think this will work in a long term. There is a need of being rooted, there is a need of a connection, there is a need of continuity. The answer is not in escaping. The answer is how to build the continuity, how to develop all these towards an open world, towards modernity, towards the future, rather than to ignore the bridge behind you. That is the problem, I think, with the cosmopolitan ideas. After all, we witness nowadays the crisis of these ideas as well. The reaction is very dangerous, because it takes back to nationalism, to racism and so on. If we have too much of this abstract openness to the world, this longing for being rooted is strong. My concept is to find a third way, to think of being rooted as a chance for openness, for being critical, self-critical. You cannot be self-critical if you escape from your background. You can be self-critical only if you are an insider of some kind of traditions, of ideas you want to develop and defend. I don’t know all the answers but we are, I think, on that way now, a third way. To find something after nationalism and after cosmopolitanism, a citizenship which would be more natural for the new circumstances.

[1] In Hermann Hesse’s homonymous novel, whose plot is situated in the future and in unspecified place, a community of highly knowledgeable scholars plays the “Glass Bead Game”. It consists in the combination of coloured glass beads representing different themes from history of culture, mathematics, music, etc., trying thus to achieve essentially an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences (Editor’s note).

[2] In Eastern Orthodox Church history, the Old Believers are Orthodox Christians who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Russian Church as they were before the reforms of mid sixteenth century.