Democracy, Citizenship & Education: Reflections on Krzysztof Michalski’s Legacy


by Maria Leao

Krzysztof was an inspiring teacher and mentor. He was also a very special friend.

After the unexpected news of his death last February, it took me a long while to accept that his departure was indeed final, that we would never again engage in exciting conversations about politics and the challenges of democracy, or any other topic. It took even longer to figure out how to weave all of the memories unleashed by this news into a coherent story, to comprehend and assess the many ways in which his work had influenced other lives, including my own.

Naturally, those of us who met Krzysztof will each have our own unique perspective, depending on when and how our lives intersected. My recollections date back to a chance encounter in a philosophy seminar in Boston twenty-five years ago, the first in a series of learning experiences that had a profound impact in my intellectual education and deep influence on my life.

As a teacher, Krzysztof was rigorous and methodical. Sitting in his classes, one would be struck by the intense focus on the text at hand; how paragraphs were dissected through rigorous analysis; his deep respect for ideas and philosophical reflection. However, there were other ways in which he exerted a powerful impression on his students, even then; a unique sense of purpose, his boundless energy, and unwavering dedication to the objectives he set for his own life. In Boston, we would catch glimpses of his other activities, but could hardly appreciate their reach. It was only after spending time in Vienna, and after observing Krzysztof in the wider context of his work for IWM, that I understood the depth of his talent, and true ambition of his project.

The details of Michalski’s extraordinary biography have been chronicled extensively in the many tributes published since February. Here I wish to highlight his contribution to Boston University, not just as a brilliant, inspiring professor of philosophy, but also as the leading force behind the IWM junior fellowships, which created amazing learning opportunities for American students. More than one hundred BU graduates from multiple disciplines have benefited from this extraordinary program since its inception in 1989, sometimes in ways that no one could have predicted. As one of the first students to travel that Boston-Vienna bridge, I want to share some personal observations about my experience as a junior fellow, and the many interesting lessons learned along the way.

During my graduate studies, I enjoyed three extended stays in Vienna under the auspices of the BU fellowship program: in ‘89, ’90, and again in ‘95.

Coming from an environment where philosophy was narrowly defined in terms of a career, IWM felt like an oasis; here we could indulge our intellectual curiosity and pursue different interests and strands of research unencumbered by the institutional pressures that inevitably afflicted graduate students back home. The breadth and scope of the projects pursued by IWM fellows and guests, representing multiple fields, were a tremendous asset to any visiting scholar. Most importantly, in this remarkable community, divisions of age, status or academic rank never stood in the way of genuine intellectual exchange, and one would learn as much from casual conversations over lunch as from the many formal events (conferences, lectures, debates) organized by the institute. Whether focusing on the big philosophical questions, patterns of migration, or the impact of health policies, discussions were always challenging and fruitful.

Outside the walls of IWM, there were other learning opportunities, equally compelling. BU students interested in history, art, or politics, in any order, would soon discover that Vienna was a fascinating place to explore and had a lot more to offer besides the classical music and charming café culture (great as these were) for which it was renowned internationally.

In less than three decades, the city’s geopolitical status had undergone a momentous transformation from the power center of a vast empire with a vibrant intellectual and cultural life to the capital of a small country in a divided Europe. Straddling East and West, and still visibly humbled by defeat, the Vienna I first encountered in ’89 was deeply uneasy about its past, a place where symbols of high culture co-existed, uncomfortably, with symbols of bloodshed and destruction.

Walking through the city’s neighborhoods was like peeking into the convoluted history of the 20th century and its fierce battles, real and ideological. From imperial palaces (vestiges of past grandeur) to bare cement façades (reminders of brisk postwar reconstruction); from large proletarian tenements (samples of social democratic ideals) to indestructible bunkers (embarrassing leftovers of the Nazi era), many of these buildings harbored interesting, important stories—as well as inconvenient truths.

Whether scrutinizing urban landmarks, reading the great Viennese writers and thinkers, or listening to its famous composers, Vienna’s complex and rich past offered a fantastic platform for historical and cultural explorations, especially for American students visiting Central Europe for the first time.

Finally, for those of us lucky enough to be in Vienna in ’89 and ’90, there were other, unexpected, benefits, for, as we know, these were no ordinary times. After decades of political repression and economic stagnation, the broken regimes of Eastern Europe were finally imploding—one after the other!

No words can quite capture the sense of relief and excitement that the unraveling of the communist regimes unleashed across Europe (and beyond). With the end of the 20th century fast approaching, it was (finally) possible to envision a new Europe, to start building a new chapter for a continent long divided by ideology and mistrust, a more harmonious and more integrated community of nations, freed at last from its old quarrels. Yes, big challenges lay ahead, but for a brief moment the mood was exuberant and celebratory.

Given IWM’s mission to promote East-West dialogue, the institute was in a unique position to host numerous guests and fascinating debates about the future of post- totalitarian societies, and what their (presumed) transition to democracy would entail. Listening to those debates was a bit like having a front row seat in a historical drama, except that this was a real life drama, with far-reaching consequences for millions of people in a continent where the scars of war and conflict still ran very deep. Like unsuspecting witnesses, we listened to stories of success and failure, digressions on governance, and arguments about policy and policies.

I believe I speak for all of the visiting fellows present at that time when I say that we knew how uniquely privileged we were, to be in this place at this time, as politicians, intellectuals and leading figures from different reform movements and nations crisscrossed through Vienna. In the context of those discussions, as old dissidents and emerging leaders explored possibilities and grappled with the many challenges that lay ahead, ‘ideas’ and ‘ideals’ gained a whole new significance; they were the anchors around which these broken societies wanted to rebuild themselves, the guiding principles upon which they would try to shape their futures. In this sense, we understood that philosophical ideas are powerful tools, that they can indeed influence the course of history.

These experiences were truly invigorating — and certainly very different from the type of intellectual exercise a philosophy student would ever have experienced in Boston. On some level, they were unique, fascinating lessons in politics and history. On another, more personal level, they were transformative; inevitably, they would impact decisions that we, as students approaching the end of our graduate studies, would soon be facing about our own future. Indeed, we could not walk away without questioning anew the choices that lay ahead for each one of us. Back in Boston, would we still be satisfied to practice our profession within the narrow confines of academia? Wouldn’t that feel somehow irrelevant, or at least somewhat insufficient?

I learned some important lessons in Vienna, and not just about revolutions, the impact and importance of ideas, or what it means to be an intellectual. I also learned a lot from observing Krzysztof in action, his extraordinary dedication to IWM and indefatigable commitment to democratic ideals. The course he had charted for his own life exemplified very clearly that the path of philosophical inquiry is not incompatible with the path of action and politics, but that they complement each other in an essential way; that study, rigorous analysis and self-reflection are essential precisely because they help us articulate the principles and convictions that underlie our practical pursuits.

Looking back on Krzysztof’s work and legacy today, I want to focus on two ideals that stand out as strong beacons in his life and were, in my view, absolutely central to his vision: democracy and citizenship.

Like other East European dissidents, Krzysztof knew all too well that democracy requires a strong civil society, and strong, independent institutions; that the successful implementation of a social contract based on human rights depends on its agents’ ability to forge compromises among competing views and interests, and create effective systems of accountability. Always shy of its ideal, and facing ever new and unexpected challenges, democracy requires constant vigilance and re- evaluation.

By the same token, those who live in democracy have to take responsibility for their lives, as well as the communities they build together. As citizens, we are expected to review and recalibrate priorities, assess strengths and weaknesses against principled objectives, re-examine and re-assert basic values. In this sense, democracy is inextricably linked to (responsible) citizenship; its very preservation is fundamentally dependent upon the participation and active engagement of its citizens—the ultimate guarantors of its success (and survival).

Along these lines, I think Krzysztof understood, almost in a visceral way, how critical it is to educate and nurture young generations, for they embody the promise of the future. This explains the multiple programs set up at IWM designed specifically to support apprentice scholars, including the BU fellowships, which offered young men and women a unique opportunity to develop habits and patterns of behavior, intellectual and otherwise, that promote reflection, engagement and dialogue, that is, an opportunity to hone the very skills required to participate and live in democracy.

If responsible, participatory citizenship is central to the preservation and advancement of the democratic project, what then is the role of education in our societies? What lessons can we extrapolate from Krzysztof’s exemplary commitment to democracy and citizenship?

Today, when many learning institutions in the United States are focused on expanding math and science as the engines behind economic growth and questioning the value of teaching the humanities, Krzysztof’s work reminds us that this is a false dichotomy, that this very question reflects a lack of appreciation for the crucial role of civic engagement and civic responsibility.

As (future) citizens responsible for shaping public debate and charting the course of their own societies, young students need more than the practical skills required to pursue a trade or a career and to become productive, self-reliant individuals in an economic sense. Fundamentally, they also need the knowledge and skills required to become responsible members of their communities, capable of understanding the challenges of their times, and thinking through and articulating a vision for their future.

In other words, if we think about human needs and aspirations solely in terms of physical well-being, and define education as the platform that helps communities meet their socio-economic goals, then history, literature, or philosophy may indeed be treated as ‘cosmetic’ pursuits a society can dispense with, or leave on the margins for the benefit of a few privileged scholars.

If, on the other hand, self-inquiry and reflection are central to our humanity, central to what defines us as human, then education has to encompass the foundational questions of meaning. Most importantly, such deliberations do not occur in a vacuum; they rely on traditions of thought, picking up threads of conversations, lost and rediscovered, that stretch back decades and centuries.

From this perspective, the task of educating future generations cannot neglect the existential questions that ultimately lend meaning to our practical endeavors (whichever path is chosen); delving into, exploring and reflecting on the inherited traditions against which, as historical beings, our lives unfold—and which we inevitably reshape and redirect—is therefore central to its function. More than elite research disciplines, then, it is precisely through the study of the humanities that the fundamental questions of meaning are raised anew; seeking answers to those questions is an essential intellectual exercise, for it helps us define who we are and where we want to go.

In closing, I would like to share a few personal observations about Krzysztof.

Many have remarked on his selflessness and humility; how he was motivated by ideals, not accolades or personal gain. Maybe this was the other side of the purposefulness that guided his endeavors. He was also fiercely private and apt at shielding some aspects of his life from the public eye. Like his illness, for example, which remained secret to all but a very small circle of confidants. True to character, perhaps he felt this revelation would have placed an undue burden on his friends, or somehow deflect attention from the goals at hand.

However, when greed and corruption cast a dark shadow over our (fragile) democracies, and threaten the very fabric of our societies, it is worth noting not just Krzysztof’s civic leadership, but also his intellectual and personal integrity, that he was someone who never compromised his principles or his vision.

Having to navigate the waters of national and international politics in ceaseless fundraising efforts, he fought long and hard to preserve IWM’s independence from the multiple pressures donors try to exert, one way or another. It takes courage and great skill to resist such pressures. The extraordinary institution he worked tirelessly to build and preserve, which truly embodies the democratic ideals of community, reflection and dialogue, is, in a very important sense, the ultimate testament to his determination, talent and integrity.

For those of us whose lives were influenced by his work, I believe there is no tribute more fitting than to ensure that his vision endures and that his legacy continues to inspire others in the choices they make about their own lives. Krzysztof’s untimely departure is a great loss for all of us who knew him and cherished his advice. We are all a little poorer without his wisdom. I will miss our conversations, and his humor. Above all, I will miss his friendship.

It was a privilege to have known you, Krzysztof!


Maria Leao holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University. She was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM in 1989, 1990 and 1995. She lives in New York.