Eric Boynton, professor and chair in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Allegheny College, has received a 2019–20 Fulbright award to teach and conduct research in Poland — some four decades after first visiting the country as a child.
“I traveled to Poland with my family for the first time in 1979,” Boynton said. “Since that formative childhood experience, I have kept one eye on cultural and political developments in Poland.” In preparing to apply for a Fulbright, Boynton returned to the country three times in recent years, including a travel course he designed and led for Allegheny students.
The Fulbright Program, which increases mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. Only about 500 teaching and/or research Fulbrights are awarded each year.
Beginning in August 2019, Boynton will reside in Krakow, Poland, for 10 months. He will divide his time between teaching topics in the philosophy of religion at Jagiellonian University and visiting memorial sites in and around Krakow, southern Poland and Europe. The latter work relates to a book he is writing on the ethics and politics of commemorating atrocity.
“As the communist imprint continues to fade and Poland reckons with its complicity in past atrocities on its soil, I will analyze recent Polish efforts to memorialize atrocities in the midst of a political climate that mainly sees national harm in such efforts,” Boynton said.
That climate includes a controversial 2018 law making it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust, Boynton explained. Five months after it was passed, the law was weakened to eliminate criminal penalties for violators.
Boynton added that he has a unique opportunity to consider how memorials in Poland might shape memory and the future of the democracy.
“My project seeks to understand how the naked violence and uncompensated suffering of the past — simmering just below the surface of these atrocity memorials in Poland — suggest that a less violent future may be achieved without resorting to top-down moral instruction,” he said.
And the implications of his research extend beyond Poland.
“Debates about publicly memorializing traumatic historical events woven into the fabric of a nation are not foreign to those of us living in the U.S.,” said Boynton, who has taught at Allegheny since 2002. He noted that the Fulbright experience also will help to inform his writing and teaching on what to do with Civil War memorials, Confederate relics and recent memorials to slavery and racial terror in the U.S.
Boynton also explained the project’s importance in the context of what he called “a significant shift in how nations and groups memorialize past violence” — a departure from imposing, triumphant monuments designed to reinforce a nation’s self-certainty.
“This new form of commemoration, which has influenced the design of the 9/11 Memorial in New York, reflects a certain demand that the darkest days in human history be preserved as catastrophe and so memorialized without consolation — markers of irreparable loss and absence,” Boynton said. “If memorial work is a crucial way to legitimate the present and influence the future, these kinds of memorials place a peculiar ethical demand on the public.”
Boynton said he will collaborate with colleagues from Jagiellonian University, Galicia Jewish Museum and the Krakow Jewish Community Center during his time in Poland. He also will work to establish a student exchange program between Allegheny College and Jagiellonian University.
Boynton is the third Allegheny faculty member to receive a Fulbright award in recent years. Shannan Mattiace, professor of political science, received a 2018–19 Fulbright award to Chile, and Eric Pallant, professor of environmental science and sustainability, received a 2016–17 Fulbright award to the United Kingdom.