Four Questions for Dimitry Anastakis
Since joining Trent University’s Department of History in 2004, Dr. Dimitry Anastakis has established himself as one of the premier lecturers at the university and has earned a reputation as a leading scholar in post-Second World War Canadian economic and political history. His seminal work on the Auto Pact established new points of departure for research into modern Canadian economic, political, and cultural history; more recently, he has collaborated with some of the leading scholars in the field to produce fresh research into the cultural and social changes that shaped Canadian society through the 1960s and 1970s. He was recently named Chair of the University’s Department of Canadian Studies. Dr. Anastakis took some time to speak with Thought Out Loud about some of the most important issues in education and politics in Canada and around the world.
Thought Out Loud: As a leading scholar of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s in Canada you are well-placed to respond to what we have seen in various global hotspots in the last 18 months. Social and political change in the Middle East and northern Africa, protest in the UK, massive economic turmoil and protest in the United States, and a general dissatisfaction with establishment politics have created an atmosphere of global uncertainty. How do you characterize the atmosphere of the time we live in? Is the world changing as rapidly as it appears to be? Are we facing a global “1960s”?
Dimitry Anastakis: What I think we’re seeing is a twofold reaction, on the one hand to neo-liberal policies that have dominated Western democracies for the last three decades, and on the other hand to repressive regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Both of these movements are driven by an unrelenting economic unhappiness which sees income inequality and a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few. This is no less true of the Occupy Wall Street protests as it is at Tahrir Square. These movements are further fuelled by the technological revolution, and a demand for accountability in the system, which are both directly related to the 60s. In some ways, the recent events not only echo the 60s’ attacks on “the establishment” across the globe, but are directly descended from these ruptures. At their core, however, there is a desire to redistribute power and wealth, and to demand rights. Whether or not this movement continues to grow is another question, however.
TOL. To move from the contemporary and global to the historical and specific, many Canadian commentators, including this magazine, have recognized that the sort of public furor that swept Barack Obama in to office shared much with the rise of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Before “Obamamania,” there was “Trudeaumania.” At the same time, but at the opposite end of the political spectrum, figures like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry have turned personal charisma and public fascination into lasting political influence (and possibly the presidency). What is your response to the phenomenon of political populism? Why is it that “we” (the fragmented segments of “the public”) seem to get swept off our feet periodically by charisma, good looks, and often vapid ideas from certain political leaders?
DA: Populism reflects a yearning by ordinary people to feel connected to broader events and changes. In some ways, there are two kinds of populism—left and right populism. On the one hand Trudeau and Obama reflected a desire for change, and a progressive pulse to leave one type of politics behind, and embrace a hope for the future. On the other hand, conservative populists—be they Palin, Perry or even people like Preston Manning —want to use the same language and discourse, but for far different purposes. They reflect the desires of people to return to a past that is often gone, but at their core they want to resist change, as opposed to embracing it. They simply cloak their movement as a notion of change, but it is in fact an effort to dismantle or reverse policies that they question. Both kinds of populism often come to the fore in challenging times—economic difficulties, or social upheavals.
TOL: In one capacity or another you have been teaching for a long time now. Since your arrival at Trent, you have no doubt seen the impact of technology on the lives and habits of students. When you started, no professor had to resign him or herself to the likelihood that a good percentage of the class was Facebooking during a lecture (or, more irritatingly, a seminar). How have students changed, from your time as a student to now? Is technology making us better, more versatile learners, or should we lay off updating our status and just read a bit more?
DA: I think that technology can be positive for students—there are many different ways of learning, of gaining information, and of interacting through technology. When I first started teaching, there were virtually no computers in the classroom; now, many if not most students have a computer. While that is helpful in taking notes, or checking facts, it can also be distracting—when a student is in a classroom, they think they can multi-task by taking notes and doing all kinds of other things, but what they are actually doing is lesser-tasking: doing a few things unwell, as opposed to concentrating and learning well. That’s the problem with technology: it’s not like it is not useful, because it is, it’s just that it should be used when appropriate. When you are in the lecture hall taking notes, that’s really what the focus should be on. Otherwise, it’s simply a distraction.
TOL: It is hard to pursue a career as an academic. Prospective doctoral candidates are often told there are simply no jobs and yet, invariably, post-graduate programs continue to grow and PhDs continue to be conferred. What advice can you offer students considering a doctoral program? What is the upside of an advanced degree (specifically in the humanities) when “there are no jobs”?
DA: Students who are thinking of taking on a PhD need to remember one thing: you have to really love your work, be passionate about it, and just follow your heart. It’s impossible to know what a job market is going to look like in five or six years, which is the usual time it takes to do a PhD. So don’t worry about it, because you can’t control such a thing—if you really love your work, then that’s what you need to do. The upside of having an advanced degree is that you have a skill set that is highly desired by employers, and while many PhDs may not get jobs in the academy, they do find all kinds of interesting and rewarding employment. But if you are interested in pursuing a PhD, you should be because you love the work, not because you think it will get you a job at the end—if securing employment is your first priority, grad school is not where you should be.