Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

How to change a country by means of education?

Ulo VOOGLAID: “The elite is an integral condition of an individual who devotes his or her life to serving the nation”
5 June, 2018 - 11:18
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Modern world is inclined to make simple decisions – it often seems to us that once the name changes, this will immediately change the essence of a phenomenon. The reality of the past few years in Ukraine proves that this approach is wrong. The alternative is a systemic approach, when efforts are made not to transform a phenomenon but to change the preconditions that determine it. As for reforms of the political system and changes in society, well-known Estonian philosopher and statesman Ulo Vooglaid believes we can only achieve success on this path if we take a closer look at the problem of education.

Mr. Vooglaid regularly visits Ukraine as cofounder of Think Camp, a joint international initiative of thinkers and managers, sort of a “private club that creates opinions for the leaders who are prepared to make strong decisions.”

Speaking with The Day, Vooglaid reflects on the formation of a new elite, social support for reform, the importance of activity and responsibility, and slightly lifts the veil over Think Camp’s main achievements.


Mr. Vooglaid, you have been regularly visiting Ukraine in the past few years. You deliver lectures and advise managers, businesspeople, and politicians. Would you speak more in detail about your mission here?

“It would be an exaggeration to say that I advise somebody. I only speak about our vision of various issues and the experience we’ve gained in various fields of social and cultural life. Our meetings are a form of joint creativity.

“The theme of the latest session is ‘generalist: how to make ‘big decisions.’ The crucial point is that organizational activity, in which nobody is responsible for anything, produces a harmful effect, to put it mildly. It is always necessary to know who and why made a certain decision, for the purpose of a decision is to achieve the goal that comes up to expectations. This is why professionalism is a condition for object-oriented activity.

“We spoke of this for a long time. I am sure professionalism grows in the course of such reciprocal exchange of meanings. I think our meetings become more and more meaningful every time.”

I know that one of the main problems you address is formation of governmental, political, and other elites. This is a very topical issue in Ukraine today, for there is a growing societal demand for new elites. Unfortunately, this process is not very successful so far. The new people who come into politics fail to become mature enough to influence global tendencies. What is worse, they quickly find their place in the existing lineup of forces and begin to play by the old rules. What preconditions do you think can promote the renewal of elites?

“This difficult question is topical not only for Ukraine. If there is no elite, it is very difficult for the people to follow guidelines. The nation ‘brings up’ elites by itself – they are the most educated, informed, and experienced part of it, the people whom God or nature endowed more than the others.”

Are you speaking now about an ideal situation?

“Yes, it should be like this. But the point is that, although all people are different, each of them is talented in something. If an individual is lucky, and parents and teachers noticed his or her talent and did not let it fizzle, it is a great achievement. Talent is the basic value of a people. If these people are aware of the duty to serve their nation, if their life is not limited to dillydallying, it is an enormous value. Every nation must care about these people. It is just a proper moment to recall the English word ‘headhunting.’ The US once conducted a poll about which business proved to be the most profitable in history. What topped the chart was the business of ‘stealing talents’ from all over the world. So talents should be guarded as the apple of an eye.

“But to preserve talents in a country is one thing, and it’s a totally different thing to make sure they become educated people. I don’t mean academic degrees or high-skilled specialists only – I mean, above all, that all these people should make true generalists. A specialist belongs to one narrow field, where he must know everything or at least strive for this. But what really works is not specialty but personality – personality as a subject of self-rule and social management. It is the level of a generalist who can get all the necessary specialists (economists, sociologists, lawyers, technologists, etc.) involved in work. It is a team, not an individual, that achieves success. But the team must always have a generalist – not only by specialty, but also by profession and by the office held. The office provides for certain rights as well as responsibility – for what has been or not has been done.

“A university lecturer should know not only his specialty, but also the situation in his country’s society and culture. His mission is to help the student become not only a specialist, but also an intellectual, a person who can embrace integrity and know the factors that influence.

“We cannot change anything directly in society, cannot ‘cut off’ or ‘paste’ a missing part, but we can change the factors on which changes in society depend. If we persist, the contradiction, the problem that worries us, will disappear in the near future.”


Probably, it should be taken into account here that the current elite is, for quite an apparent reason, not always interested in renewal and is often trying hard to keep its status intact. We can see in Ukraine that the space, in which new brilliant personalities could emerge, has been in fact mopped up. And whenever new promising public movements emerge on the horizon, society always shows well-grounded mistrust – maybe, somebody from the “old” elites is “pushing them forward.” Can society create an alternative in the conditions of this resistance?

“It is a very difficult question, and I find it difficult to answer it also because I don’t know the situation in Ukraine well enough. I really hope that the people who came to the Verkhovna Rada and the government sincerely wish to improve the situation in this country, but this requires certain expertise. It is not enough to be a good engineer, economist, or doctor. You should also know very well the country, the people, the factors of social processes, and the principles of human relationships.

“We achieve a certain result through the process. And, to control the process, you should know perfectly its nature, inner logic, and the environment in which it unfolds – not only natural, but also the objective, physical, spiritual, psychical, social, virtual, etc. You must know how to set a goal. The goal is a very important prerequisite for success, but, to achieve it, you should choose and systemize the necessary means. It is in this direction that we work with our Ukrainian colleagues today.”

You repeatedly said in your lectures that the implementation of any serious project, including that of systemic reforms, demands that not only actions and methods, but also goals be continuously revised. In these conditions, it is not so easy for reformers to round up social support for their actions. How can this be achieved?

“This requires stability, on the one hand, and dynamism, on the other – so that life does not grow stiff and we remain on the road all the time. Any achievement is valuably only as a precondition for the next one. It is impossible to appraise a certain process or phenomenon without taking into account a broader contest. The overall dynamics is very important. To learn to see it, one must find a lot of different views. Only in this way can we obtain a sufficiently systemic and trustworthy answer. For the picture may look right from one angle and totally unsatisfactory from another.”

In the educational discourse, and especially when it is about formation of the elite, there is a very popular word, “leader”: “new leaders,” “academy of leadership,” etc. Is “leader” a synonym to “representative of the elite”?

“No. ‘Leader’ is a term from social psychology. The leader is ‘one of us,’ who is better than others. A group singles out the leader. People willingly follow, respect, and trust the leader. He goes first, ‘knows everything,’ and shows the way.

“Meanwhile, the elite is, above all, a way of thinking, the integral condition of an individual who devotes himself to something. Every sphere – economy, science, culture, etc. – may have its own elite. But it is also important to single out the national elite – the people who cherish the country in their hearts and devote their life to serving the nation, rejoicing at every success on this path.”

Is “serving” the key word in this definition? Not working, but doing service – as does a priest or a military person?

“Yes, indeed. Some professions make it necessary for one to be a representative of the elite. For example, an army or police officer, a priest. If a priest does not belong to the elite, it is a shame – it’s better for him to change occupation. The same applies to members of parliament, the government, and civic institutions.”


Courage, modesty, kindness, learnedness, individuality, creativity, and wisdom are the features which you say must be inherent in a representative of the elite. Frankly speaking, this description calls to mind a character of the chivalric romance, rather than the image of a high-placed politician or bureaucrat in today’s world. At the same time, you believe that it is impossible to artificially “bring up” these people. What we perhaps need is a mechanism that will make it possible to find such “nuggets” in society.

“A personality is formed in an environment – be it the home, a kindergarten, a school, and other institutions. An individual will grow into what others want him or her to be. If he is told that he can do nothing, he will end up as a loser. But if you are told that you are uncommon and efficient in everything, that you will live a long life, and that your nation needs you, you will probably wish to became an educated person, a person with the systemic knowledge you know how to use.

“What is needed is not just knowledge but the unity of knowledge, skills, and understanding. In addition to being educated, you should be well-informed (which is very important) and have experience. If you know very much – good for you, take your ‘A’s’! But it’s of little benefit because you should know how to use this knowledge. Learnedness is not the result of special activity, so nobody has the right to say ‘we gave him a good education.’ It is always a wonder. But it is possible to create preconditions for this. It is possible to create a system (it doesn’t matter in which sphere – the government or parliament) that will prevent an unprepared person from taking an office. One must learn, for every moment of life is one of study, creation, and cognition at the same time. The system of cognition comprises not only trivial, but also artistic, religious, philosophical, scientific, and intuitive cognition. In this case an individual cognizes his own self, the world, and the surrounding people; he can take an adequate attitude to the existing problems, phenomena, and processes, differentiating between these notions. For example, we can view production as both a process (an aggregate of processes) and a phenomenon. We should take into account both views to make a proper conclusion. Society will always respect such an educated and honest person.”

In the context of education and formation of the elite, you often appeal to spirituality, spiritual development. At the same time, many public persons and experts consider it inappropriate or even indecent to speak of these categories – it often stirs harsh criticism and rejection. For, in the contemporary secularized liberal society, these notions are regarded as purely personal, as a sphere into which society, the state, and the system of education have no right to interfere. What would you say to these objections?

“I am convinced that we must speak of spirituality in this context! Without spirituality, we have very few chances to organize a normal life of people in society and culture. Life is not rational in everything. Some problems are addressed rationally, but most of them are tackled on the intuitive and emotional level. People not only think but also feel.

“If an individual does not know the essence of ethical questions, has not heard about spiritual values, standards, myths, and taboos, I can only sympathize with him or her. The Soviet era left an impression on the minds of many people that all this is nonsense. But it is never too late to take a book and read about the subject.

“Man is, above all, a spiritual creature. What is an important motive force for him is not only the need but also, for example, interest. And interest is of any sense if there is a will to do the job to the end, without stopping halfway. Besides, there must be faith in that we are doing a right thing and devoting our lives to pursuing the needed goal. You must believe in yourself, your friends, as well as in the government, the officials who reflect on how to improve life in the country. We can achieve nothing in social life without faith and interest. The unity of these factors is a major value. We may discuss each of them separately, but only all of them as a whole can be realized in an individual.”

You speak in your lectures about the importance of responsibility and activity. It seems to me that we have seen quite an abrupt rise of civic activity in Ukraine over the past few years, but, at the same time, the situation is hardly as optimistic when it comes to being aware of responsibility. Another negative factor, which is perhaps typical of not only Ukraine, is dissociation, atomization of society, and inability to unite. This feature is particularly noticeable not so much on the national level as in the case of some local problems which require solidarity on the local level. What do you think can help foster these qualities in a society where they were purposefully suppressed for dozens of years in line with state paternalism?

“You are right. So we should redouble our efforts to restore these qualities. The existence of man in the family and in society is unthinkable without activity and responsibility. It is a necessity, and we have no choice in these matters. The point is that very many people do not know how these two feelings form. We have studied this question quite a lot and concluded that only one way is possible. The feelings of activity and responsibility are formed through making a decision. An individual develops the feeling of responsibility when he or she really, not for fun, takes part in the making of a certain decision. The question is how to create the preconditions which will make people feel that ‘we have decided on this.’ Once this feeling emerges, people will willingly begin to fulfill this decision. And this is activity. What is important is not decisions but the processes that produce the needed result.

“What is needed here is a conscientious attitude to the decision, as well as learnedness, informativeness, experience, rights, duties, responsibility, the goal and the ways of achieving it, the principles that determine our actions, and a free choice. For in a situation of coercion, one can only fulfill, not make, decisions, which makes one passive. These are the mechanisms of societal life. Unfortunately, nothing was known about them in the Soviet era. Now, too, there is a shortage of literature and university courses on this subject.”


Discussing the conditions of societal development, you focus on predictions and planning as preconditions for systemic solutions. What is the foundation of your conviction that rational planning of the life of not only man but also of a society, a state, and the world as a whole is possible and will not fall victim to chance or new circumstances?

“I do not deny the factor of chance, but it is impossible to build a society on this basis. We are aware that anything can happen hypothetically, but the basic processes unfold according to laws. In general, we can single out three varieties: laws of nature, laws of society, and laws of thinking (logic). One must know not only these laws but also the regularity of their manifestation. This requires learnedness (not education!), informativeness, and experience. All this enables man to predict the near and the distant future.

“When we do something, we should be aware of the ultimate result and think over different variants of developments. It would be good to imagine at least three scenarios: rosy (when things go smoothly and the situation considerably improves), black (something very bad happens), and green (when nothing special occurs and things keep going at the same pace and in the same direction). We should draw up a plan of actions for each scenario.

“One should single out an important principle: we only have the moral right to change something if we are clearly aware of what must not be changed under any circumstances but, on the contrary, must be preserved, protected, and strengthened.”

It seems to me that modern political ideologies often do not take this principle into account. What prevails is a wish to slant reality in favor of someone’s universalistic guidelines. And if the two spheres do not fit in, this affects reality. It is obviously the case with reforms in Ukraine, when attempts to establish a new, better, system (following Western patterns) result in destroying the existing achievements.

“This principle must be a credo – it is not about our advantages. If violated, it may have disastrous consequences. It would be a good idea to remind yourself, your colleagues, everywhere and always, particularly in parliament, of it. The MP who is moving a new bill must first prove that it will not harm nature, culture, and health but, on the contrary, will open up a new space and new opportunities.”


Ulo VOOGLAID is an Estonian sociologist, social psychologist, philosopher, education expert, politician, and diplomat; Professor Emeritus at the University of Tartu; Former Member of the Estonian Parliament; a participant in the delegation that negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev the withdrawal of Estonia from the USSR; President of Estonia’s Roman Club; a reformer of education; the founder of three experimental innovational schools; a cofounder of the Association of Adult Education Teachers and other educational leagues; a co-initiator of Think Camp. Mr. Vooglaid teaches and advises, and is the father of ten children.

(To be continued)

By Roman GRYVINSKYI, The Day. Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day