The students and the faculty members at the end of the program, holding their certificates

Visiting Academics Offer a Philosophical Approach in Armenia

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YEREVAN — What is philosophy and why does it matter?

When asked, a group of philosophers and linguists who have volunteered their time for a free, world-class intensive summer session in Yerevan for the past three years replied in an email: “We think that philosophy, like poetry, mathematics, etc., is intrinsically valuable. In fact, we think it is among the most valuable of human pursuits. If we don’t try to answer questions like ‘Can we be free when we are always subject to laws of nature,’ or ‘What is the difference between right and wrong?’ and ‘Why are we here,’ well, then, why are we here?”

But they admit that the benefits of the field extends beyond the world of ideas.

“The study of philosophy is also intrinsically valuable because it dramatically improves one’s critical thinking skills. Many studies have shown that university students who major in philosophy and then enter the workforce after graduating have higher mid-career salaries than students from almost any other major. And for students who want to continue their educations beyond their undergraduate degrees, philosophy majors outperform just about every other kind of major” when it comes to standardized tests, they add.

The Yerevan Academy for Linguistics and Philosophy (YALP) is a summer program in linguistics and philosophy sponsored by the volunteer faculty from around the world, and hosted by the College of Humanities and Social Studies at the American University of Armenia (AUA).

The students outside the AUA

The purpose of YALP is to provide an opportunity for students to develop their knowledge and skills, possibly with a view toward applying to doctoral programs in philosophy or linguistics (including programs in the US and Europe).

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In 2018, there were 66 students from 20 countries, including Russia, Scotland, the US, Iran, Turkey, the UK, Switzerland, Poland and Finland. There were also many students from the AUA that participated. At the end of the program, Arevik Anapiosyan, the deputy minister of education and science of Armenia, participated in the closing ceremony.

Founding YALP

YALP was started by four people: Professors Daniel Altshuler (Hampshire College), Arshak Balayan (American University of Armenia), Ned Markosian (University of Massachusetts,Amherst) and Susanna Melkonian-Altshuler (a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts,Amherst). Professors Maria Baghramian from the University College Dublin and Paul Boghossian from New York University, have supported the initiative since its founding.

Prof. Daniel Altshuler teaching

For Melkonian-Altshuler, starting YALP and volunteering every year simply make sense.

“I’m Armenian. I know that there are ways in which I can help my country and doing so makes me very happy. I also know that given Armenia’s past as a Soviet nation, Armenians tend to be strong at math and logic which makes them perfectly eligible for the sort of philosophy and linguistics that we do,” she said.

The program is going to be bigger this summer, she said.

“I think this upcoming summer will be special: the number of YALP participants grows from year to year  and although we founded the school only two years ago and although we don’t have funding, we are expanding in various ways: more and more renowned linguists and philosophers express both interest in participating in YALP as teachers and visiting Armenia. They spend their own money for doing this. The interest from our students increases too: we get more and better applicants every year, some of them are not only from Armenia and the region but also from Europe and the US. We are talking here about non-Armenian Europeans and Americans,” she added.

Melkonian-Altshuler was born in Yerevan and when she was 6, in 1993, her family immigrated to Germany. She is in the process of transferring to a different PhD program in the US, one with a strong focus on the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.

Her husband, Daniel Altshuler, is an enthusiastic founding member of the group.

“I think it’s important to expose students interested in linguistics to Generative Grammar — a kind of theoretical approach to linguistics that is currently not offered in Armenia. The approach uses the scientific method to studying the core properties of language, which is has been incredibly fruitful in the last 50-plus years. Armenian is understudied in theoretical linguistics, so not only do I have the chance to teach students, but also encourage them to research Armenian from this perspective. Armenian may offer important insight that has so far been overlooked in the linguistics community,” he said.

Some of the relationships continue beyond the summer, Altshuler said. “As one example, Mariam Asatryan has developed a fascinating project on Armenian tenses,  beginning at YALP. Last semester, she came to visit UMass, Amherst, in the US to continue working on her project. My colleagues and I learned a lot from her visit,” he noted.

Altshuler himself was born into a Jewish family in Russia. The family fled to the US as refugees in 1989. He received his doctorate in linguistics at Rutgers University and has been teaching at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts full time since 2015.

Another nearby participant in YALP is Markosian, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Prof. Ned Markosian

Markosian said he volunteers his time to YALP because “I believe it is a worthy and extremely important cause. From my perspective, as a philosopher, it is clear that there are many brilliant students in Armenia who deserve to have more opportunities than they would otherwise have to pursue their interests in philosophy beyond the undergraduate level.”

He added, “We will all have a wonderful time teaching and learning philosophy and linguistics, the cause of furthering analytic philosophy in Armenia will be advanced (and similarly for linguistics), and a tremendously talented group of students (mainly from Armenia, but also a few from other places) will have a chance to explore an academic discipline (either philosophy or linguistics) in ways that would otherwise not be available to them. In some cases, those students will decide to pursue their studies further, at the Ph.D. level (either in Armenia or elsewhere), and they will have mentors from YALP who will be able to help them in that pursuit.”

Visitors from the Diaspora

The idea for the program dates back to 2013, when Markosian and Baghramian traveled to Yerevan, both for the first time. They were invited to visit Yerevan State University (YSU) by Arshak Balayan, then a lecturer at YSU, to give a series of lectures to philosophy students at YSU and AUA.

The two visiting scholars returned in 2015 for more lectures and after spending more time with students, were convinced that the demand was there for a more formal program.

They approached Paul Boghossian of New York University to participate in what they were calling the “Autumn School of Philosophy.”  He agreed, and was joined by several other scholars from around the world, many non-Armenians.

Another concern for the scholars was that philosophy and linguistics majors in Armenia were unaware that often in the US students who are admitted to a PhD program are fully funded for their entire graduate careers. On the other hand, Armenian students are not well-positioned to apply for PhD programs in places like the US, even if they decide to give it a try.

On a parallel track with Baghramian, Markosian had been championing teaching students in Armenia, especially after 2015; one of his graduate students was Susanna Melkonian-Altshuler. He talked about the idea of a summer school in Armenia with Susanna and her husband, Daniel. They thought that, given the close connections between analytic philosophy and linguistics, it would be a good idea to create a summer school in linguistics and philosophy, to take place in Yerevan, with the goal of providing opportunities to the talented students from the region.

The trio reached out to Balayan and eventually the program was born.

Boghossian, from NYU, was department chair for 10 years, from 1994 to 2004, a period during which the Department of Philosophy underwent a big expansion. He is currently Silver Professor of Philosophy at NYU and director of its Global Institute for Advanced Study. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012.

The child of Armenian Genocide survivors who had escaped to British Mandate Palestine in 1921, he was born in Haifa and left Israel at age 15 for Canada and eventually got his doctorate at Princeton. He taught for several years at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor before moving to New York University in 1992.

When asked why Boghossian donated his time to YALP, he said, “I guess my parents did a good job of instilling in me a sense of obligation to help the Armenian nation in whatever way was within my power.”

In addition to lecturing at YALP, Boghossian said he serves on the Educational Policy Committee of the Board of Trustees of the AUA. “I was approached to take this on by the Board’s chair, the former Provost of the University of California, Larry Pitts, a distinguished neurosurgeon. I remember thinking: If this man, who has no antecedent emotional connection to Armenia is giving of his time, how can I possibly say no?”

Another motivation, Boghossian added, was the hope to “meet some talented young thinkers whom we could trust to move Armenia to a brighter future. I am always inspired by the energy, enthusiasm and hunger for understanding of the students at YALP.”

He singled out Balayan, the only Armenia-based faculty member, for his efforts. “I first met him when I visited Armenia in 2004 to give a series of lectures at Yerevan State University, as a Fulbright Senior Specialist. He was at the time a junior lecturer there. He has been a tireless force for bringing analytic philosophers to Armenia, to introduce this critical style of thought in contrast with the dogmatic Marxism/Leninism that had dominated Armenian philosophy for the preceding 70 years. In important ways, YALP is the direct outgrowth of his tireless efforts over the years.”

Balayan studied philosophy at Yerevan State University. He said, “The Philosophy department at YSU follows continental traditions, but I was interested in analytic philosophy from my first years at YSU. I taught philosophy at Yerevan State University from 2009 to 2016. I have taught philosophy at the American University of Armenia since 2013. My main interests are in philosophy of science and ethics.”

He expressed his pride in YALP.

“This is one of the best ways to use my time.  I take development of philosophy in Armenia to be my main professional goal. Development of linguistics and especially of philosophy can and will have a profound and lasting impact on other social sciences and eventually on society,” Balayan added.

“I very much hope to have another successful summer school of linguistics and philosophy.  We already have a large community of YALP participants. Hopefully we will manage to use YALP 2019 for strengthening and expanding that interdisciplinary and international community,” he noted.

Balayan said he was also happy that his students at AUA would have a chance to meet and receive instruction from world-class scholars as well as meet international students.

Baghramian also praised Balayan for his efforts. “His initial invitation to Yerevan,  which came when we were both spending some time in Harvard, was the spur for my involvement with the project of bringing analytic philosophy to Armenia. His energy,  enthusiasm  and dedication fills me with hope for the future of Armenia and it is that sense of hope and purpose that I bring back with me,” Baghramian said.

The Dublin-based Baghramian’s father was born in Armenia. As a 7-year-old, he, together with his parents and younger sister, had to escape to Iran in 1922. He and his family never overcame the sense of loss of  caused by this forced uprooting. She added, therefore, “I grew up with an emotional attachment to the idea of homeland that never was. Once the distant dream of Armenia  became a reality, I felt I need to contribute to its development in ways that are within my powers and capabilities.”

Prof. Arshak Balayan teaches a class.

She expressed her pride with YALP’s growth. “The Summer Institute has been going from strength to strength and we have a truly impressive line-up of linguists and philosophers for YALP 2019. I am very excited about working with new colleagues and also spending time with  the faculty from the previous years. But above else, I also look forward to teaching and talking to the students who are the main reason for these trips,” she said.

Baghramian left Iran in the 1970s to pursue her studies and received a PhD in philosophy of logic from Trinity College Dublin. She is currently professor of American Philosophy and the head of the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin. She is also a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

She has published regularly both books and articles related to intractable disagreements and relativism as well as on contemporary American Philosophy.

Markosian noted that at UMass Amherst, he often has a number of Armenian-American undergraduate students. “It is nice, when speaking informally with some of those students, to be able to tell them stories of my visits to Armenia. Many of them have not yet had a chance to visit Armenia, and they often become wicked psyched to go after hearing about the wonderful times I have had there, and the wonderful people I have met,” Markosian said.  “Besides that, it is always helpful to teach a group of students that’s different from one’s regular student population. I learn as much from the students in Yerevan as they learn from me.”

Markosian’s family descends from survivors of the Genocide. Born in New Jersey, he went to Oberlin College in Ohio, and received his PhD from UMass-Amherst in 1990.

Applying to YALP

For students interested in applying to YALP this summer, the deadline for applications is April 10. They can fill out the application at https://www.dropbox.com/s/srq7kpx2tz1fzaw/ApplicationFormYALP%202019.docx?dl=0

The completed application should be sent to 2019YALP@gmail.com.

The program is free. Students are responsible for their lodgings and transportation. YALP is actively seeking contributions to help defray as much of the cost as possible.

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