The Clash of Privileges: A Q&A with author Agata Zysiak

Purdue University Press spoke with author Agata Zysiak about her new book Limiting Privilege: Upward Mobility Within Higher Education in Socialist Poland.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

In particular, the book tells a story of creating a university under state socialism and attempting to open academia for working-class and peasant students. It focuses on the biggest Polish city in the postwar years, the industrial city of Lodz, but zooms in and out: from local press to national reforms, from academic biographies to sociological research on upward mobility. It examines the clash of two privileges that limit each other: the state-guaranteed one to educate working-class people and the traditional privilege of academic elites defending their position.

In general, this is a book about social change and modernization attempts, first-generation students facing reluctant academia. It is a study focusing on the importance of social class as an analytical category and sociological theory applied to historical phenomena. The book builds a more general argument about social reproduction and its dynamics but, at the same time, remains solidly based on sources and in-depth data analysis.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

In the beginning I was broadly interested in the question of what happens when a university is designed for a working-class, industrial city like Lodz. However, the study revealed other fascinating questions: how is a rethinking of society, education, and university possible? What did socialist modernization offer, and for whom? Was upward mobility under Stalinization possible, and how? The state privilege for working-class students is also my family story.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

Most often the history of universities under state socialism is told focusing on the university’s captivity or students’ seduction. Centering on upward mobility, modernization attempts, and their failures allowed me to draw a more complex, even paradoxical, story. The picture of the past is much closer to – as I believe – social reality in the making.

This is a study of radical change and the response to it. The clash of privileges allows us to see the perspective of postwar reformers, first-generation students as well as faculty sceptics towards these reforms.  Doing so, it remains sensitive to social and political contexts as well as class, gender or generational divisions.

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

My research started as a material-driven study. I didn’t expect to end up with such a powerful, general argument. I am deeply indebted to sociological methods and theory, which allowed me to understand the past in a novel way.

Considering the role of gender and class in social advancement, it was a sad lesson about social reproduction when research confirms many negative notions about how societies work. All in all, it was a great intellectual adventure, and even after a decade of working on this theme, I remain passionate about it.

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