Questionnaire on Polish Studies

In April 1994, Sarmatian Review began printing answers of concerned academics to a questionnaire on the state of Polish Studies in the United States. In this issue, we print the comments of Donald Pienkos, Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Professor Pienkos:

I recently completed my third tour of duty as chair of my University's Polish Studies Committee. It has six faculty members, four of whom are regularly engaged in teaching and research. Two others have retired from their regular duties but continue to be active in our program. They are Michael Mikos, Professor of Polish Language and Literature; Victor Greene, Professor of History specializing in American Ethnic Groups and Social History; Neal Pease, Associate Professor of Polish and East Central European History, and myself, a specialist in Eastern European and Russian Politics. Historian Kamil Dziewanowski and Geographer Barbara Borowiecka are our Professors Emeriti. The Committee was formed in 1979 and it owes its existence to the efforts of the Milwaukee Polish American community and cooperative university officials. They jointly established two state-funded, full time, tenured faculty positions in Polish History and in Polish Language and Literature. Professors Mikos and Pease occupy these positions presently.

We should compile a Polonia version of E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.

Each semester, members of our team teach a number of courses on Polish and Central European experience. We offer lectures to the Milwaukee community and cooperate with the Polish American community in directing scholarship programs funded by local Polonia and participating in various Polonia organizations. Our members take part in the activities of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, the Polish American Historical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies and other scholarly societies. We frequently visit Poland and other countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Professor Mikos has for more than a decade offered a Summer Study Program at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland for students and members of the Milwaukee community. Last but not least, we are a publishing lot.

In regard to the questionnaire, I generally associate myself with the comments made by Professors Blejwas, Pula and Wrobel (SR, April 1994). I agree with my colleagues that the term 'American Polish community' needs clarification. Are we talking about nearly ten million persons of Polish ancestry who continue to identify themselves as Polish, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report? Or, are we defining this 'community' in terms of some organizational affiliation, be it fraternal, political, religious, cultural or professional?

If we are to look at the successes of Americans of Polish background, the most substantial are the creation and maintenance of such organizations as the Kosciuszko Foundation, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences, and the Polish American Historical Association. On the local levels, we have groupings of scholars at Central Connecticut State University, in Michigan, at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and elsewhere. Some of these groups merit greater financial support from individuals and groups of Polish heritage, so their activities do not come to an end if and when their current faculties leave the scene.

In Poland, James Michener failed to include characters and themes related to the Polish emigrant story. Polish Americans responded by not buying his book.

I do not count as a 'failure' the absence of chairs in Polish Studies in the U.S. The prestige of such chairs is more than offset by the heavy financial cost of creating them. Moreover, as experience indicates, the individuals appointed to such chairs seldom exert themselves in teaching or in training doctoral candidates in their areas of expertise. Also, once the chairs are established, control over them passes entirely to university officials whose agenda does not always correspond to the agenda of Polish Americans.

One historic 'failure' involves the consequences of the death of Polish American Congress President Aloysius Mazewski back in 1988, on the eve of a decision by the U.S. Endowment for the Humanities to award a substantial sum of Federal money (to have been matched by Polonia funds) for a permanent educational foundation promoting Polish studies. With Mazewski's death the wind was taken out of the sails of that enterprise. His Washington, DC contacts could not be immediately exploited afterward and the project died with him. Mazewski's death also extinguished the hopes of establishing a substantial new commitment by Polonia's fraternals in the educational field in the wake of the closing of Alliance College. I was personally involved in writing a proposal to the United States under the sponsorship of the Polish National Alliance at that time. This plan was set aside in 1988.

But the greatest 'failure' has different roots and lies in the general failure of professors specializing in Polish Studies in training doctoral candidates in their fields of expertise. Most of our current scholars in Polish Studies completed their graduate studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Few direct the doctoral research of young people who might one day be expected to follow in their footsteps. Therefore, I fear that the expansion of Polish Studies that we have seen over the past forty years may contract severely over the next two decades.

I believe that the absence of financial support for Polish Studies from the mass organizations of the Polish American community is due partly to the failure of academics specializing in Polish Studies to make a better and more compelling case for Polish Studies to the leaders of Polonia's organizations. Our scholars simply haven't spoken effectively and persuasively on this issue. Part of this problem involves the near absence of scholars in Polish Studies from the ranks of Polonia's organizations. Most Polonia organizational activists I have met do have a high regard for learning. But they are not spontaneously receptive to talk about the importance of Polish Studies to their fellow members and their organizations. This is, I think, largely a result of the failure of scholars to speak to them seriously and patiently about the merits of ties between organized Polonia and its academic community.

The mass organizations of the Polish American community, particularly the fraternals, should be called upon to do more by way of supporting the educational efforts of academics. But they need to be persuaded more effectively by academics than has thus far been the case that this is both important in itself and in keeping with their missions as Polish American societies. Until the time comes when more academics become actively engaged in the affairs of fraternals, it will remain very difficult to make this case effectively.

I do think we are in a "market mentality" situation today in universities and that the perception is that "Polish Studies" are unlikely to attract many students. As a result, university administrators are apt to use their resources in fields that have a 'bigger bang for their buck.'

I agree that negative stereotyping at the primary and secondary schools causes many young persons of Polish ancestry to 'dis-identify' with their heritage out of a desire to avoid being the butt of 'Polack jokes' and other materials. A related problem , is the dismal lack of impartial information about Poland in high school world history and social science textbooks. It is hard to understand how American education has missed the great story of Poland from the time of Kosciuszko and the Third of May Constitution to John Paul II and Solidarity - but it has! Our mass media add to the problem. Perhaps better educated parents of Polish heritage might minimize the damage of stereotyping, but then one still has to ask the question - what do even many otherwise well educated Polish Americans know about their Polish heritage? Can they go beyond Chopin, Copernicus, Kosciuszko, Pulaski, Wojtyla and Sklodowska-Curie and tell why the cultural discourse in Poland is significant to world history? In one sense we're talking about assimilation. In another, however, perhaps we should compile a Polonia version of E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.

The absence of financial support for Polish Studies from the Polish American community is due partly to the failure of academics to make a better a case for Polish Studies to the leaders of Polonia's organizations. Until more academics become actively engaged in the affairs of fraternals, it will remain difficult to make an effective case for Polish Studies.

I also think that we've seen some missed opportunities over the past decade in engaging Americans of Polish heritage in their heritage. One has to do with James Michener's novel titled Poland. This book had a lot going for it, including a very well known author with a mass readership and a subject matter - Poland's 1000 year history - that is both dramatic and little known. But Michener, outstanding writer that he is, received some poor advice and failed to include in his saga the Polish emigrant story. There were, and are, hundreds of thousands of Americans of Polish ancestry who would have been thrilled to read a book on Poland that included their story into the mix, but Michener failed to deliver. Left out of the narrative, they responded by not purchasing the book. The PBS series, Struggles for Poland, also failed to work into even one of its nine hours the saga of the Polish emigrants. Another blunder, one of whose results was that Polish Americans generally ignored the series.

I see no conspiracies to keep the Polish-born and the American-born members of the Polish community apart. There are divisions to be sure, but this problem is understandable. Our Polish newcomers (immigrants here 15 years or less) have yet to establish themselves in this country and it may be more difficult than ever to do this. And even when they do, many if not most will not gravitate to participation in the traditional Polonia groups.

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