Dialogues With Alexander Asmolov. Part 2: Rectorium as a “Place of Energy” and a “Runway” for Rectors “Without Brakes”

This is the second part of our conversation with Alexander Asmolov, Professor, Head of the Psychology of Personality Department of the Psychology Faculty Psychology at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, Director of the School of Anthropology of the Future at the Institute for Social Sciences of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), Full Member of the Russian Academy of Education, Doctor of Psychology. He is a founder of a unique communication platform, Rectorium.


Eduard Galazhinskiy:

- Our conversation made me remember one thing that I unexpectedly discovered for myself a while ago. There are issues that are always very important for psychologists, such as ourselves. They are associated, as a rule, with the maturity of a person, the formation of his or her lifeworld, awareness of life, and creativity. However, when I became Rector of TSU, I decided not to peddle my professional interests. Although for me personally, it has always been obvious that the formation of a person - self-determination, self-awareness, and self-development - is the key role of a classical university. It seemed to me then that this was a purely psychological approach to defining its essence, which should not be imposed on the entire community of Tomsk State University. After three or four years at the rector's office, I became bolder and began to discuss this topic with Georgy Mayer, President of TSU. He is a physicist, was the rector of our university for almost 20 years and is a guardian of our traditions. Imagine my surprise when he agreed that for a classical university, the topic of shaping a person is perhaps the most important thing. It is no less important than the formation of a research mindset as the basis for future researchers.


We gradually moved to the logic of transfession as a movement across professional boundaries while maintaining the depth of knowledge and the formation of professional skills. By now, the concept of transfession has become part of our everyday life. We have started to conduct scientific conferences on transfession. As a result, the idea of shaping a person began to be promoted at the university as one of the main strategies for its development. We have made several relevant educational programs and elective courses. In collaboration with Sberbank, an online course on self-knowledge, self-development, and self-realization is being created. And we see that there is a real demand for that. This is exactly the submerged part of the iceberg of higher education that is not visible if you look at education only as a service.

Service is just the tip of the iceberg. The question "Who is your client?" - is sound logic, which should also exist in the university discourse. But it is not the only one, because we are dealing with young people who come to us completely immature in terms of personal experience. Our goal is to form a system of "true" values and a personal civic position towards the world in general, the country, and the people around them, as well as the ability to be responsible for their actions. This deep transformation of a person is the main thing that is happening at the university.

Alexander Asmolov:

- You are absolutely right. It is not that I agree because we have been friends for many years, but because I found myself in a similar situation once. Herman Gref, the CEO and chairman of the executive board of Sberbank, asked me the same question: "Who is your client?" He said: "Today the main thing is soft skills and knowing who your client is." Then he saw my skeptical smile and he continued: “And you are going to start talking about some kind of ‘eternity’ of yours. In education, in contrast to business, attention is often focused on side issues." Then I asked him: "What is more important: the question about a client, about soft skills, or the question "Why?" Here is a quote from Nietzsche: “If we have our own ‘why’ of life we shall get along with almost any ‘how’”." Frankl, who created the most human system in the most inhuman conditions, reaffirmed this belief: “He who has a 'why' to live for can bear with almost any 'how'”."


I repeat these words like a mantra, because today the rector of the “university as a universe”, in fact, is also faced with the question WHY. The WHY question is always about what Kurt Lewin called "action research". When he created the Action Research Center at Harvard in 1945, it was underestimated by many. Then it turned out that all the programs on leadership and other advanced areas of management came from there. Why has business started raving about so-called social and emotional intelligence? Because this is where the main secret lies: if you want to win in business, start with the question WHY and with the motive! You can also do this: if you want to win in business - UNDERSTAND the other person.


- In this sense, Russia is a country with a unique scientific culture. In particular, with unique schools of psychology that seriously substantiate the issue of meaning, self-realization and raise the question "Why".


- And you are going precisely in this direction when you speak of transfessionalism as a movement across borders. I have a book by Boris Pasternak Over the Barriers on my table. For the university, Pasternak's logic is the normal logic of life. The term transfessionalism is related to the term about which Jean Piaget said in a discussion with mathematicians in 1972: “We do not need interdisciplinary fields of knowledge. We have already reached the point when we need transdisciplinary fields of knowledge." He made transdisciplinarity an approach to construct the future. Hence, the university is, by and large, a spontaneously developing gestalt, about which the great psychologist and philosopher Max Wertheimer spoke. We remember two definitions of gestalt: one that has entered modern textbooks: "Gestalt is a whole, not reducible to the sum of its parts"; and the other is the one given by Max Wertheimer - "Gestalt is a whole, within which the elements begin to possess new supernatural properties." The university is a gestalt that generates supernatural systemic properties within its system.


- Thank you so much for such an excellent metaphor that reflects the essence of a real university and at the same time the horizon of its development!


- Education and the formation of meaning for us are extremely important, and therefore we do not need to be modest and hide away your doctoral dissertation on self-realization, so that they do not think that you, as Rector, want everyone to engage in this topic. You just need to rejoice at such a coincidence, since the rector is a leader who sets the zones of proximal development (ZPD) of his employees or zones of their nearest self-realization. You will never set and achieve these zones if you act only within the framework of specific pragmatic tasks. Therefore, even those people who seem to be pragmatic sometimes begin to set tasks which are not entirely pragmatic. Remember Alexei Kudrin, Chairman of the Accounts Chamber, who suddenly decided to create the Reserve Fund for the Development of the Russian Federation. First, people thought he lost his mind. So much money went into it, but why? When the dark times came, it was this "safety pad" that saved the country's economy.


- If we understand the university as a complex multidimensional system and rectors as people responsible for its development, then it turns out that such development is impossible without partners and companies living in a similar logic. However, up to a certain point, it seemed to me that it was simply not a characteristic of our domestic business mentality, since we have very few visionary companies like Sberbank. But recently I had a conversation with representatives of the EFKO company. What struck me the most was their philosophy of holistic development. They believe that new nutrition can only be created with technologies that work in the logic of sustainable development and reduce social inequality. This is a completely different approach in business and they are looking for like-minded partners.



- Two years ago, I came across an interview with Sergei Ivanov, the head of the company you are talking about, and wrote to my colleagues: “Look, he is a real master of preadaptation, he works with uncertainty, and thanks to this he will create complete systems”. I was simply amazed that somewhere in Belgorod there are people who are building a large and unique system.

To have more people with a similar philosophy in the university environment, we recently held a seminar for rectors and realized a wonderful thing described by Umberto Eco in his satirical novel Foucault's Pendulum. He called it "The School of Comparative Irrelevance". The main task of this unique educational institution was to train personnel capable of exploring as many new non-essential issues as possible. They studied modern Sumerian literature, self-government in special boarding schools, the wheel in the technologies of pre-Columbian civilizations, and so on. Accordingly, the leading department at this university was the Department of Oxymoronics. This wonderful university served as a model for my Rectorium platform.


- At the beginning of our conversation you said that only a rector “without brakes” can “take off”. Can we say that your Rectorium is a place of power and at the same time a "runway" for such rectors? They get the energy there, take off so that later they create such places of power in their universities as runways for young people.


- Yes, your image is absolutely accurate, and this is the whole point of the Rectorium. By the way, the ancients also understood the "universe" as "space". Today we need other - "cosmic" - logics of education, pedagogy, and management. Otherwise, you and I will end up narrow tracks over and over again.


- At the university we have built and are building similar platforms: a university league; a league of deans; strategy sessions, where a variety of issues of education and education management are discussed. But these are our local initiatives. Today, the national education system needs “takeoff sites” and “spaceports” of various scales, where both rectors and all members of the university community, including, of course, students, could be fed with energy and creativity.


- Unfortunately, we often underestimate energy, but nothing ever happens without it. An energetic person is a completely unique phenomenon!


- Yes, without the energy of inspiration, a person comes face to face with the system and administrative routine.


- If we have energy and inspiration, then we, digital migrants, will not have to think about how far we have lagged behind the new generations of digital natives. You and I must abandon the ridiculous task of probabilistic forecasting of the future. We clearly understand that the future can only be constructed. Every time we, like now, have any conversation about the future, we are already constructing it. This is not utopianism. I will repeat my favorite expression: "A person does not come to the present directly from the past, but builds their present as a realization of the image of the future." This is what we are doing with you. And only in this way will we not lag behind our children and even grandchildren!


Eduard Galazhinskiy,

Rector of National Research Tomsk State University,

Acting President of the Russian Academy of Science


Translated by Snezhana Nosova