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Georgia On Our Minds

By Josie W. Chen
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Georgia is coming to Harvard. No, not where Justin Bieber gets his peaches — the country in the Caucasus region. The country’s Ministry of Education and Science has awarded Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies $2.3 million to establish a program for Georgian Studies at the University. The program is the first of its kind: a center dedicated to Georgian study outside of Georgia. Proclaimed as “historic” for Harvard and Georgia alike, this center represents fairly uncharted territory for Harvard’s academic community, and aims to open up Harvard students’ intellectual and physical access to the region.

We could’ve scarcely guessed that the next international center at Harvard would choose to zero in on a former Soviet republic with a smaller population than the homonymous U.S. state. Still, we are hopeful that the niche subject area is rife with exciting intellectual opportunities. The initiative’s academic output could prove rewarding, particularly if it allows academics to take a nuanced approach that is potentially critical of the Georgian government under the auspices of free speech. We are eager to see our scholarship bear fruit.

But abstract academic potential aside, why, of all possible places, is Georgia entering our syllabi? And why is that decision meaningful?

For better or worse, what we teach in Harvard classrooms matters. Our university has long-standing ties to the highest levels of the U.S. federal government and an array of direct connections to the upper echelons of one of the most powerful polities on earth. Our lectures and handouts can thus carry more geopolitical significance than we’d care to admit, shaping elite scholarship and influential views. The questions we choose to explore and the networks we help build stand in stark opposition to those stones (or countries) we leave unturned; the center for Georgian studies, with its definitional focus on a single 3.7-million-inhabitant Caucasus country, is no exception.

That doesn’t, on its own, mean that the new center nor the attached donation are somehow undesirable. Gifts from foreign countries aren’t negative in impact just by virtue of their status as foreign, even if that status warrants an extra degree of scrutiny. Rather, as we’ve argued in the past, each donation deserves to be inspected thoroughly and in good faith. Any new academic venture — particularly those that rely almost entirely on the support of a single, political donor — should be assessed with rigor and approached with continuous, healthy skepticism. Harvard must be willing to evaluate donations on their own merits and in accordance with our broader institutional values of truth and integrity, irrespective of their national origin or of how tempting their price tag might initially be. Money can rarely be separated from its motives.

The Program for Georgian Studies is also an interesting example of how what we study — where we direct our attention — is guided by where there is power, and with it capital. We are reminded that the centers and spaces we see represented on campuses like Harvard’s tend to be the ones that relate to the interests of those who can afford to fund them into existence. We know of a few very clamored-for alternatives in need of institutional support, yet a place will be carved out for scholars of Tbilisi. While Georgian studies certainly offers unique and exciting prospects, our excitement is tainted by the knowledge that other similarly fascinating nations and fields of study will remain uninspected.

The continued lack of an Ethnic Studies program, in particular, comes to mind as a bitter reminder of the scholarship we fail to fund, despite its popularity. It is yet another example of our institutional priorities becoming at least partially contingent on philanthropists’ whims, of gifts coming to define more than our budgets.

None of the above negates the program for Georgian Studies’s academic worth, and there is no doubt that it will prove thrilling for many of our peers, particularly for those from Georgia or with Georgian heritage. We look forward to seeing how this scholarship can lead to concrete improvements to our intellectual life domestically and abroad.

But if Harvard is genuinely committed to pursuing truth through education, it must pursue all that needs to be known, not merely what comes funded. After all, not all worthwhile research lies behind neatly packed, generous gifts.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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