THE GOOD LIFE OF AN ARTS GRADUATE
"I don't think that any other course of study would have
better equipped me for my present duties," says Mrs Eeva
Ahtisaari, Master of Arts and graduate of the University of
Helsinki's Department of History.
This interview was conducted in the midst of the busy
preparations for Independence Day. To Eeva Ahtisaari,
Finnishness is part of traditional Europeanness. Our
medieval roots in the lap of the Catholic church and our
close contact with the Europe of that era, as much in trade
and education as in war, have surprised many a statesmen
when reminded of our history by Mrs Ahtisaari. Travel has
also extended Eeva Ahtisaari's European dimension, and
continues to do so.
An academic knowledge of history, and a considerable amount
of international experience, has turned Eeva Ahtisaari into
an ambassador for her country, one who is able to gain
personally from what she sees.
"Compared with the Continent of Europe, most of our
architecture is quite recent. On our visits there we've had
the chance to see churches and Renaissance palaces each more
dazzling than the next. But most significant this century
has been Finnish architecture," reflects Eeva Ahtisaari.
"In Hungary, the parliament building in Budapest had been
restored so magnificently that in the end all the gilding
began to make me feel quite faint. Even the Hungarian
President, who loves everything Hungarian from the food to
all things luxuriant, had to concede that this glitter was
just a touch more than necessary," she remembers, laughing.
Though State visits can be very busy and tiring, Eeva
Ahtisaari enjoys them in many ways. Her knowledge and
interest in history and in different cultures enrich such
visits and also provide the fuel to nourish her hunger for
beauty and honest curiosity. Mrs Ahtisaari knows, of course,
that the presidential couple are always privileged to see
the best and the most noteworthy in arts and culture and the
most splendid achievements of architecture.
Her time in the United States greatly strengthened her
European identity, since the way of thinking there, as much
as the style of politics, felt very far removed from their
European counterparts. Africa, on the other hand, remodelled
rather than strengthened her ideas.
"In Africa, Europe shrinks and its system of values is
overturned. Africa is the birthplace of mankind. Its ancient
art and culture tell us of wisdom which far predates our way
of thinking. A local historian there believes that
university teaching began in the Continent of Africa, in
Cairo. I don't know if that's true, but it may have some
foundation," says Eeva Ahtisaari.
"Read history," urged President J.K. Paasikivi earlier this
century. To Eeva Ahtisaari, studying history has been an
inherent need since her early school years. She warmly
recalls the initial enthusiasm gained from teacher Aili
Forsman in the Girls' Lyceum, Kuopio, and from Eero
Hietakari, the upper secondary school teacher who extended
her interest in history.
Throughout her studying Mrs Ahtisaari has found many people
along the way who have inspired her. When she graduated with
a Bachelor of Arts degree in the 1960s and visited classes
as a student teacher, a career as a teacher would have
seemed the natural outcome. Instead, she worked as a local
history officer for the City of Espoo until her joint path
with that of her husband took her on to international
duties. Resuming her studies almost twenty years later
brought an enormous change in her life.
"The feeling of having left something unfinished had been
etched on my conscience for many years, and when my friend
Marjatta Leikola encouraged me to resume my studies I first
ventured very cautiously and full of doubts to the
University's Department of History. But I received such a
warm welcome that on the same visit I decided to continue
and to do my master's thesis," Eeva Ahtisaari recalls.
Her 1960s interest in Thomas Carlyle had faded over the
years. Instead, she found a new subject for her master's
thesis in the shape of Hilda Käkikoski, a women's activist
and one of the first Members of Parliament in the newly
"At the history teachers' forum in 1983 I was telling
Professor Martti Ruuttu that I had gone back to university
and was complaining about the lack of a good subject for my
master's thesis. He must have taken my problem seriously,
because the next day he brought me Hilda Käkikoski's
memoirs, which I was sold on as soon as I looked at them. I
knew it was the right subject for me."
Her good reception at the Department of History gave Eeva
Ahtisaari the impetus to continue her studies after a long
"A good all-round education provides the substance for a
"As a young student I might have selected goals too
ambitious for me, but now I felt it was important that the
subject was genuinely interesting and that I would able to
do the necessary work. Doing my master's thesis actually
turned out to be the best part of all my studies," Mrs
Ahtisaari asserts proudly.
She regards her thesis stage as one of the most rewarding
periods in her life and believes that she may not have got
as much out of it when she was younger. Her lifetime
experiences had taught her to allocate her resources
properly and to make demands not only on herself but on the
"Answers can always be found. The art is in posing the right
questions. It teaches you to examine the answers with a
genuinely critical approach. Writing a master's thesis
teaches you to distinguish the inessential from the
essential, something that's necessary in all aspects of
Arts for technocrats
Mrs Ahtisaari's son Marko Ahtisaari is studying and teaching philosophy at Columbia University in the United States. From discussions with her son about differences between the two academic worlds, Eeva Ahtisaari has found certain exemplary features in the United States which could benefit Finland's often needlessly inflexible university life.
"In the United States the relationship between students and teachers feels quite natural. Even the most learned professors actually instruct their students and even take their childish-sounding questions and problems seriously. And this doesn't seem to diminish their authority. Rather the opposite: there is respect on both sides, and nobody is humiliated," says Eeva Ahtisaari.
A challenging task for Marko Ahtisaari at the moment is his lecture series, Contemporary Civilization, in which he is trying to give his students a comprehensive picture of the history of Western philosophy. This course is also attended by engineering students.
"Professional expertise is always needed, but a good all-round education certainly provides the substance for a fuller life. I don't know that much about teaching in technical institutions, but I would think that the arts have a lot to offer there, too," Eeva Ahtisaari says.
"Those working with maths and science need, and get, information which is extremely precise, for the most part. In the arts you can't use experiments to demonstrate the truth, a fact which acts as both a challenge and a lesson. You must learn to accept that the ultimate truth perhaps cannot be found."
Eeva Ahtisaari herself worked as a teacher for a short while after she returned from Namibia, although in a very different seat of learning.
"I was a locum teacher in Tikkurila upper secondary school. It was a valiant effort, but I found at once that I didn't really have what it takes to teach in a modern school. Everything was more interesting than before, in a way, but the class sizes were enormous! Nowadays a teacher certainly needs quite different kinds of skills than in my day," she reflects.
A varied life
A field better suited to the abilities and interests of Eeva Ahtisaari came along in the form of the project led by Professor Marjatta Hietala on the experiences of former Members of Parliament. The project involved interviewing retired MPs and, as her master's thesis had meant studying a former Member of Parliament, the Parliamentary Library and also the functioning of Parliament in general were already quite familiar to her. Conducting the interviews with the Members of Parliament was an experience of immense value for her.
"Through the interviews I got a ringside seat on the development of Finland's internal politics from the point of view of the different parties, and at the same time the historical perspective gave me an overview of the great visions and paths that have always emerged, even from chaos. When my husband entered the presidential contest he was criticized especially for his poor knowledge of the country's internal politics. But you see, I actually knew quite a lot on his behalf," smiles Eeva Ahtisaari.
"Life has propelled us from one place and from one job to another, but at the same time it has also carried us there. Now and then it seemed that everything was left unfinished, and being abroad, one's whole existence felt at times quite futile. But looking back, everything has its meaning. Life has rewarded us with valuable experiences, many friends and an understanding and acceptance of different cultures," muses Eeva Ahtisaari.
"General Ensio Siilasvuo once told me an excellent definition of a good life. He said that it is a varied and responsible life. I think that an academic education can allow you to find such a life.
"Besides that, I'm a pupil of the old school and believe that you can always get by if you have a knowledge of Latin," laughs Mrs Ahtisaari.