Ambassador of Gdańsk

Prof. Maria Mendel. Photo by Sylwester Ciszek

Interview with prof. dr hab. Maria Mendel, Department of Social Pedagogy, Institute of Pedagogy, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Gdańsk.


A prominent figure in Polish pedagogy, social pedagogue, researcher and author of the concept of the pedagogy of place, researcher of space and place, anthropologist and sociologist of education. Which of these terms form your scientific identity?

The subject of my scientific interest is the relation between man and the world, in which education plays an important role. Above all, however, I am a social pedagogue, which means that I am a researcher working for a better world, and my scientific activity is also an effort not to leave the world as it is, as Korczak used to say.


Is the Jan Hevelius Award of the City of Gdańsk, which you received for 2020 in the category of humanities and social sciences, for you a kind of summary of scientific achievements, or more a new opening, a challenge for the future?

This award does not mean any closures or summaries for me. Like others, I have felt in all phases of my life, and I also feel in this one, supposedly the penultimate one, that I am simply on my way. Hence Hevelius, this meeting on the trail. It is worth mentioning that it is the second one. Exactly ten years ago we celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of this outstanding scientist and artist. The University of Gdańsk actively supported the organisation of the jubilee. I remember that as the person responsible for these matters at the UG, I was preparing to convince various parliamentary bodies at the national and EU level to make 2011 the Year of Hevelius. I was studying Hevelius and he was studying me. Fascinated by this amazing man, I later wrote about how scholars create places and how they create themselves, and what Hevelius did to Gdańsk's identity and the atmosphere of the city, which I described in a book as ‘Hevellian culture’. It develops when people do their work with pleasure, seeing its benefit both for themselves and for others. Utilitas et delectatio, as Hevelius used to say.


The pedagogy of place developed in the formula of socially engaged research is the main research area of your scientific activity. Could you explain the essence of this concept?

The social engagement of a researcher may take various forms, but what they have in common is disagreement with the existing shape of the investigated fragment of reality and an orientation towards its change. Lately, it has often involved researching within the framework of the so-called engaged ethnography, when the researcher not only becomes a part of a changing community but also often grows into its leader. My involved research may be distinguished by the inherent presence of animation and educational elements in it, when - in the implementation, development part of the project - I usually act as an animator. I will tentatively boast the title of Animator of Solidarity Everyday, recently awarded to me for my research and social activity.  


An important place on the map of this research is Gdańsk. Identity of Gdańsk inhabitants. Building on (un)memory, The city as a common room. Gdańsk's modi co-vivendi - these are just two of the exceptional items from your rich output on this subject. Why is this place so important to you, Professor?

I am getting older... [laughter] I am probably paying more and more attention to my life, and without places, I would not be able to tell myself or others about it. Gdańsk is my first and beloved place. I was born here and I live here, I am shaped by experiencing Gdańsk every day. And the research? They arise from questions that don't let you sleep... Such questions have been pulsating in me since my early childhood. I didn't understand why my mother told me to say a silent prayer for the dead when we passed a stately building, a park or the end of a street overgrown with bushes on the bus. I deciphered one of these places while doing my first project on the haunted memory-place, Pohulanka in Gdańsk. The topic is still hot - my recently edited book Eduwidma, things and places haunted talks, among other things, about urban ghosts.     


Professor Ewa Jarosz wrote that due to the extremely high level of internationalisation of your scientific activity, you can be called a global researcher and at the same time an ambassador of Gdańsk.

The world is the places of which we are made up. So a researcher interested in them cannot be a global researcher. My reviewer probably pointed out that by researching, for example, Gdańsk's Pohulanka, I make certain conceptualisations and create theoretical categories which are later developed in the international scientific circuit. So maybe in this way, after the lessons from Hevelius, I pull Gdańsk to the world and the world to Gdańsk?


You are also concerned with parent-school relations, and one of your concepts involves educational work ‘in alliance’. What should be the place of parents in the modern school?

From the perspective of interest in place, it is not even necessary to cite research to see that parents are rarely really at home at school, although they are legally co-hosts and part of the school community. The concept of covenantal educational work assumes that parent and teacher, having a common goal of education and development of the pupil, stand together on one side. Regardless of the difference in their social roles and tasks, the teacher and the parent are allies of the child. I have devoted many studies and research to this issue, which has embedded me in the mainstream of social activism for the democratisation of social life through education and school socialisation. For years I have been active in an international network of researchers, European Research Network About Parents in Education, which together with the European Parents' Association influences the EU standards of parental participation in education. I also currently chair it. I was involved in the movement that was the Social Educational Society in the late 1980s and I worked for the establishment of community schools in Poland. I am very pleased that the first such school in Gdansk, which I co-founded in 1989 and ran for the first few years as the author of the educational concept and director, is doing well. Bravo, Polanki! Today, the postulate for change, resulting from research on the place of parents in school, focuses on the need to strengthen the ever fragile parental culture, so that it can effectively strive for a better condition of the public good, which is education.


You write and speak about the contemporary social crisis, which is reflected in school as in a mirror: inequality, exclusion, lack of ability to solve problems such as homelessness, poverty, refugees. Are these the most important tasks facing Polish schools? 

One could list them at length, so I will put my answer in the light of what I have just said. With the ‘parents' issue’ in mind it seems that the most important task today is the multidimensional support of parents' movements - so that they are not formed only at the request of parties fighting for electoral votes, but by participating in Polish social and political life they strive for the practice of democratic values in education. In general, and in detail: schools should be made places of meeting, where a social mix will have a chance to take place, including different layers, classes, environments, today strongly separated by life in ‘bubbles’. It is urgently necessary to provide schools with meaningful conditions for working in a multicultural social condition. Schools badly need intercultural education assistants, and it's great that we educate them at the UG. We also really need to work together more effectively for a higher status for teachers, and I'm not just thinking about salary.


Thank you for the interview.



Professor dr hab. Maria Mendel

A prominent figure in the Polish humanities and social sciences, social pedagogue, recognised in international scientific circles as a researcher into the space of parents' subjectivity in education and the author of the concept of the pedagogy of place, developed in the formula of socially engaged research. 

Throughout her scientific life, she has been connected with the University of Gdańsk, where she held the posts of Vice-Rector for Education (2008-2012) and Director (2002-2008) of the Institute of Pedagogy. Since 2005 she has been the head of the Department of Social Pedagogy at the Institute of Pedagogy, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Gdańsk.

Prof. Maria Mendel's rich publication output includes nearly 300 entries, including 34 books (authored, co-authored, edited, co-edited), the majority of which are publications in English. The most important, classified as innovative, include the publications Pedagogy of Place (ed., 2006), Society and Ritual. The Heterotopia of Homelessness (2007), Pedagogy of Common Places: the City and the School (2017), Memory and Place: The Socio-educational perspective (co-ed., 2019). A special place in prof. Maria Mendel's research is occupied by Gdańsk as a place of shared memory and local action (Identity of Gdańsk Residents. Building on (un)memory; co-ed., 2010; City as a common room. Gdańsk's modi co-vivendi; ed., 2015; City (for) art, city (for) city; co-ed., 2018). The most recent of her monographs is Eduwidma, things and haunted places (ed., 2020).

Leader and participant in many international and national research projects and scientific organisations and networks. Most closely associated with the European Research Network About Parents in Education (in 2017 she founded the Polish Research Network About Parents in Education).

Winner of many awards and distinctions (including the Golden Badge of the Social Educational Society for her work for independent education), participant of prestigious scientific stays (including an internship and a scholarship at Johns Hopkins University).

Interviewed by dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, University of Gdańsk, PR specialist for the promotion of scientific research