Swiss professors' interview with Kitabistan

Book recommendations by professors
article about 'Swiss professors' interview with Kitabistan' and 'Book recommendations by professors'

Within the framework of the "Kitabistan Talks" project, this time our guests were Swiss professors, Wolf Linder, member of the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Science Council, professor of political science and Sean Mueller, professor of the universities of Bern and Lausanne and head of the "Eccellenza" project of the University of Lausanne.

This academic conference of professors took place on January 28. After the conference they gave a special interview to Kitabistan. In the interview, they expressed their opinions about the book "Swiss Democracy" which they have co-authored, their joint activities, and the youth of Azerbaijan. We present you the interview:


Interviewees: Wolf Linder, Sean Mueller

Interviewer: Melek Hajieva



MH:I am greeting both of you. We are really glad to see and meet you in Baku. On the 28th of January, you had a Talk event within the scope of the Kitabistan Talks project. You spoke about Swiss education and Swiss neutrality. As well as in this event your book “Swiss democracy” was also introduced to the Azerbaijani public. You co-authored this book. First I would like to start with the book. How did you decide to co-author this book and what is the importance of the “Swiss democracy” book?

SM: I think it is important to know that the original, German version was a textbook. A textbook is used by students and Swiss universities when they do political science or history or even sociology that has the basics about Swiss democracy. The English version was first. But this you have to tell. It’s your story.

WL: This was interesting. I met Professor Jones from the London School of Economics. And he said there is no publication in English on Swiss democracy for the moment which is modern and adaptive. And on his invitation, I wrote the first text in English. Which is just 200 pages. The textbook in German is 400 pages. But you see, people are not interested outside of Switzerland reading 400 pages. So it was just 200 pages. But it worked.

MH: How did you meet each other? For the readers and also for myself it’s interesting because you co-authored this book.

WL: There are two stories to tell.

SM: Because I am a little bit younger than my colleague here, about half his age, not exactly but pretty much younger [he is laughing], my story is, I studied with his book when I was a student. So his book was one of the textbooks we had to buy, we had to read. I still have my German version with different coloured pens, and my notes, and how I put the bookmarks, “This is an important point, for the exam”. Political science community in Switzerland is small. So I don’t remember when we first met. I think it was when you came to England.  Because I never studied with you. Because he was at the University of Bern and I studied in Fribourg. And then I went to Rome. Then I went to England. And then we organized an event in England and we were looking for experts from Switzerland. And that proposed to Wolf Linder and he came to visit a Swiss in England for talking about Swiss democracy. Then we stayed in touch because we happened to live in the same town. And I worked at the institute with the professor that was his successor. So when professor Linder retired somebody else became professor and that somebody else hired me as his post-doctoral assistant. And then you (to Wolf Linder) were looking for a co-author. And you asked my boss whether he was interested. And my boss was interested but could not work with him because he had his own book on Swiss democracy. But he proposed to me and two other people. I still don’t know who the two other people are. So maybe you can ask him who the two other people who were proposed to were [he is laughing]. Because he never told me. At first, Wolf was a bit sceptical because we started on the German version. And I took the third edition and I made some changes and I proposed to him “Look this is how I would change”. I remember in our first meeting he was like “That’s a lot of changes you proposed to the text” [he is laughing]. Also stylistic, making long sentences. He liked short sentences. So we found compromised, medium-long sentences, and new elements, like gender. And then we started to meet regularly and discuss. After 1 year we had the new version of the German book. And then 3 years later I was in touch with Palgrave who did the English version. And I asked “are you interested in a new English version” and we decided that since it worked so well in German, let’s do the same thing for the English version. So 3 years later with the same principle we would send the emails, and chapters to each other and we would meet and discuss page by page.

WL: And if you want to know the story from my side, why I chose him? You know, 10 years ago, or no, 15 years ago I got to know there is a young guy who is doing his doctoral thesis, not in Switzerland. But as a Swiss he was in Canterbury and he did his thesis on the subject of federalism. And you know federalism in Great Britain is not an issue, or rather a negative issue. And he did that not in Switzerland but in Canterbury, England.

SM: He must be a crazy guy [he is laughing]

WL: Yes his courage you know [he is laughing]… And we met at the conference in Canterbury. We got to know each other personally. And then I looked for a partner and a co-author for the next edition of the German version because, for the 5th and 6th versions, I won’t be here any longer you know… So I looked for somebody who would be interested to take this book over. So today it is “Linder and Mueller”, the next time it will be Mueller.

SM: .. And Linder.

WL: Or the one next will be Mueller alone, huh?

SM: We'll see.

WL: We’ll see, ok [he is laughing]. So that’s the story. And it worked out very well. I have worked with many co-authors but the cooperation with Sean was the best one I have ever had in my life. Because we understood each other. We accepted the propositions of each other. We always found a solution which was satisfying for both of us. And we had a good time. We laughed a lot. Many jokes, and some glasses of wine [he is laughing].

SM: Old stories, new stories.

WL: Yeah. That’s the origin.

MH: I also would like to talk about the conference. You gave a speech about Swiss neutrality and the Swiss education system. You met with some Azerbaijani students, Azerbaijani young people. I know that you had many conferences around the world. You have been in many academic circles, and in many universities. What’s your impression of Azerbaijan youth? They gave you lots of questions. You kind of get to know their interests as well. Your impression of them is interesting to us.

WL: 4 years ago I did about 4 or 5 conferences or talks at 3 universities here in Baku. They were different places. One very old university, one new, modern, technically perfectly equipped. But in all those places I noticed a great interest. They were asking very interesting questions. So I think your young people, those I have seen, are very curious, open-minded and eager to get new ideas. So that is my impression.

SM: Yeah I agree. I don’t think on the one hand that there is anything special about young people from Azerbaijan or from Georgia or Turkey or Iran. Young people are young people. Thinking in national categories sometimes makes sense, and sometimes does not make sense. But what is definitely observable here is maybe a sense of urgency. Because there is conflict, there is war, there is an economic crisis, or instability in the region. It’s complicated. So there is maybe a greater urgency to learn new things faster. Learn how to apply them more quickly. In other places, people are also curious. They are curious but they can also know next week or the week after. But here they want to know now, or yesterday to apply tomorrow. I felt there was a greater desire for moving things in a certain direction.

MH: Talking about the Swiss education system at the conference, I also would like to take this point and ask you other questions about the Swiss education system. First of all, I would like to know how Swiss education has had any impact on the development process in Switzerland for the last 200 years and what is its role for the Swiss?

WL: That’s a big question. But I will start with a historical point. When in 1848 The Swiss Confederation was founded the fathers of the constitution made one article that the federation has a responsibility to have good basic education for everybody. This was kind of an order to the cantons where the education system was not at the same level. But this was the beginning of looking for high-quality education in Switzerland. What is done for basic education was later also done for the university. And in the meantime, we had all these professional schools which originated in professional organizations which were interested in having good professionals. So there is cooperation between the state or the cantons, in this case, and the professional organizations having good professional schools. And if today we say Swiss education is excellent in international comparison we also believe that this was the base for a good economic development. An economic development which was specialized in certain fields, not in everything, but in things which were possible to do in Switzerland, and for which the Swiss were able to have a professional quality being as watchmakers, as engineers of machinery, and all kinds of industrial specialities up to Swiss chocolate.

SM: I would just add from today's perspective what makes the Swiss education system so great is that it is very local. Every municipality, local-level government, village, city - they have to organize their own schools. It is their responsibility to find the money and to run the schools. So the parents that have kids pay the taxes, and they want to see the benefit. Like how is the school building, is it modern, does it have proper toilets, does it have digitalization, are the rooms big enough, is the air quality good? Because everything is very small and very close, it is very difficult for the local government to take the money and build something else. It is more difficult to be corrupted at the local level because you see  - Are they building the school building or not? Is it renovated accordingly or not? Those who are payers are also those who profit from that service. The parents in that case. And they are also the ones who decide. So when the school building needs to be renovated there is a referendum, there is a vote where everybody gets to say “yes, we need to renovate the building, because it is gone down, or we don’t need to renovate the building”. It is they who decide, it is they who pay, and it is they who profit. That in the example of education contributes to a very democratic school system. Sometimes it is a bit too much because parents demand too much and put the pressure on the teachers to put their kids at a higher level, whereas the kid is not so smart. But the parents make pressure. That’s normal, democracy also lives from pressure. But I think it also transpires into the school, into the classes. Because it’s not a top-down relation where you have the teacher and students just have to learn by heart whatever the teacher says. My mother was a teacher, and for 30 years I heard her stories over the lunch table about what they were doing in school. And she was always exhausted because to discuss with the kids, and to let the kids participate and raise them to be citizens not by teaching them about the constitution, or teaching them abstract values, but by just letting them participate, taking them seriously, creating a space. Every Saturday morning where they sit in a circle and they can all raise points of order, and defend, pro and counter then vote. It is like democracy in small. So the environment is democratic. And each individual school is also very democratic. And it is all public schools. You cannot really choose. You can choose to send your kid to a private school. It is allowed. But then you have to pay for it. Then you end up with weird people because the public schools are pretty great. So why would you want to send your kid to a school that at best has the same quality but costs you 20000 dollars a year? If you can have the same quality for no cost. Okay, you pay through the taxes but taxes are low and you see the benefit.

MH: But public schools are free, yes?

SM: Public schools are free, of course. Well free, they are financed through taxes, and if you live in Switzerland you have to pay taxes.

MH: What are the advantages of Swiss education, and what kinds of things should be exported from the Swiss education system?

WL: I think in a comparative view there is one thing from which other countries could learn. For instance, in France, many people make the Matura and then go to university. In the end, everybody goes to university. And in Switzerland, we have chosen the other way that universities are just for a minority of young people. But the great mass follows the track of professional education first, which makes an apprenticeship. And if they are 19 or 20 they can go further to kind of professional universities. So these people have a practical education combined with a theoretical education from the beginning when they start with an apprenticeship. And it happens that people who have come this way have a higher chance in the labour market than people from the university track. Not in everything but in some fields. But it is added that there is an excellence of the educational system which pays in practice, which pays in the industry, which pays in banks, which pays in small enterprises who sometimes do very specialized products in the world market. But it is because of education. And this is a double track to say.  And from this idea, many countries could profit.

SM: To give you a specific example, I just had my class reunion from primary school. 2 or 3 weeks ago. So the first 6 years - from 6 years old to 12 years old I was with these people in the class. We met and we had a dinner, a fondue actually. And then we exchanged the news. Because I hadn’t seen those people for 20 years. Because I moved away from my canton. So we go around the table, who is doing what. There was one goldsmith, there were two hairdressers, there was an electrician, there was a radio journalist, there was a forester - person in charge of the forest working for the canton, there was one guy in the insurance company, and there was one teacher and there were two people that finished university - me and my colleague. Coincidentally we both did political science. But that’s a coincidence [he is laughing]. So two out of twenty. Not everybody came but, twenty people from the class, 2 went to university, 18 did something else. Everybody was happy. Everybody was appreciative - Ah, you are a goldsmith. Where is your shop? In Zurich. Nice. Ah, you are a teacher. What do you teach? Federalism. Oh, interesting. So very diverse but we all went to school together. And each of us, looking back, had the freedom to choose what suited them more practical. You end up as a goldsmith or don’t really study. And people with the problem with the language, because they have a migration background, so they are not so good in language. They ended up being hairdressers. But one owns her own shop and has employees. So, she is a businesswoman basically. And the others went to study

WL: In some countries, the revenue or income difference between academics and non-academics is very high. In Switzerland it is lower. So which this means people who are not on the university track do not necessarily have lesser chances in economic terms.

MH: Then can we say that not all school graduates can enter university? Or do they choose not to?

SM: They choose not to. Because it is not their thing to read books and study and prepare. And also there are alternatives that are more attractive. Because if you want to go to university you need to do 12 years of schooling. And then 4 or 5 years of university. Then you still need to find a job. Whereas if you choose the alternative track you do 9 years of schooling, you do a training on the job - 3 years. And you directly have a very good job with a very good salary. And the others are just starting to study. You can already buy a car, you can rent a flat, you can already have a family, you can travel. And we just started to study and need to ask our parents to help us pay the rent.

MH: What are the opportunities for foreign students to study in Switzerland? You work at the University of Bern and the University of Lausanne. I know that this question is quite interesting to Azerbaijani young people as well to continue their education in Switzerland.

SM: I mean the easiest option that I experience is people just do exchange semesters. They do their normal program in their home country. And they decide to do one semester in Switzerland. For this to happen the universities need to have an agreement. So that the credits are then recognized and you get the visa to enter. But it happens all the time. Some 10 per cent of my students in Lausanne are exchange students from France, from Germany, from Italy. They just come for 6 months to Switzerland. They study a couple of classes. Then they go back home. Of course, you can also decide to do an entire bachelor or master in Switzerland but then you need to know one of the national languages. Either French, if you go to the French-speaking part of Switzerland or German if you go to the German-speaking part. The level, and how exactly that is measured depends on the university and even on the program. So in my faculty - social sciences you need to have C1 in French to be admitted to the master's program. Because in my university, in my program, social sciences in Lausanne most of the classes are in French. There are classes in English but it is a French-speaking canton, region. So it is a French-speaking university. It is not an English or German-speaking, it is a French-speaking university. So you need to know French to follow the classes. Going further up you also have stipends from, for instance, the Swiss government. So you have to apply through the embassy, for either a one-year post-graduate research if you have already a PhD. Or I think also if you are an independent person that wants to really study a subject in depth you apply. There is a competition and then you ideally get a visa to come to Switzerland for one year and do research. Whatever you want to have one year, you need to be affiliated with the professor. But then you need to go back home. So the idea is, you come for one year, to learn something and take it back. So it is not a hard criteria, you don’t need to sign with your blood that you will really go back. But it is kind of expected that you come to learn and go back. The same when you apply for a PhD stipend. So PhD stipend is 3 years to do a PhD. So you need to have a master's, you need to show one of the languages, but that can also be English, for a doctorate it is enough to show at least English. The same procedures through the embassy, and then you are admitted to the PhD for 3 years. For instance, now I have a student from Myanmar. She applied and she got the money to come to Switzerland for 3 years to study Federalism in Myanmar with me and a colleague. And normally she would have to go back after 3 years. But because she is prosecuted because she is an activist against the military government she cannot go back. Maybe in 3 years, this will be different but probably not.

MH: The last question, it is our traditional question. What is your book recommendation to our readers?

WL: My first proposition would be a writer whose name is Friedrich Dürrenmatt. And he has written a lot of plays which were played all over the world in the fifties and the sixties. And he has written a lot of literature and books etc. One of his most famous plays was “The visit”. This is a book, in short how democracy can be beaten or bought by money. So it at the same time shows how democracy works. And how democracy can be perverted or really eliminated by big money. This is a thing on all democracies in the world today. It is shown by a fascinating story of a young girl, who is abused in her own village. Goes out into the world, comes back as a very-very rich person. People are fond to see her again coming back as an old person, but a rich person. The villagers expect to get gifts from her, and everybody gets gifts. But in the end, she demands that the guy who abused her, who is the president of the commune, must die. That’s the revenge of the old lady. And it is a story which is fascinating and it has a message which goes beyond the story. How even in a democratic society people sometimes are offered or can be doing things which they never would do if they wouldn’t have been in the temptation of money.

SM: My recommendation is a cheesy one because I would recommend “Willam Tell” by Friedrich Schiller [he is laughing]. But not so much because William Tell is a national hero of Switzerland although he never existed. So he is a mythological figure. What is interesting or why I am recommending it is more because of the backstory. In the version that became the most famous, the play was written by a German man. So Friedrich Schiller was a german author. So the national epoch or story of Switzerland is written by a non-Swiss. In one of the national languages - High German. High german is not really our language, we speak Swiss German, the dialect. The story is powerful because it can be read in two completely different ways. One is: It’s a farmer who protects his son, he becomes the leader of the freedom movement. So it is a liberation movement. Freeing the Swiss country and people from occupation by Austria in that case. But it can also be read as opposition of the lower classes against the upper classes. In that farmers, and villagers rise up and rebel against the elite, bourgeoise, the oligarchs maybe in today’s terms. So it became a powerful story over time because once, it kept the Swiss together. So it is not about the language or about religion, it is about protecting freedom through institutions, such as the different cantons and communities. They had to make a treaty. And the play actually starts with the oath that the leaders of different communities swore to each other. We want to protect our freedom, so we collaborate, we work together, we help each other out. But at the same time, it is also a social revolution, within the country. So redistribute wealth. In a way it is socialism but it is also nationalism. I know it is a dangerous combination [he is laughing]. Later on, sometimes the leaders forbid the play because it was anti-establishment, anti-elite, anti-structures, it was anarchism. Everybody can just take the arms and kill the governor or the president. It cannot be, right? But they could not really forbid it because it was about the Swiss killing the foreign. So there are many different themes that can be read into it, that, I think makes it very interesting when you read. Complementary to the modern perspective that you (to Wolf Linder) have. So you see we complement each other even today [he is laughing].

MH: Thank you very much for this interview.

SM: Thank you

WL: Thank you.

Malak Hajiyeva