Open letter 2021

(convenience translation only)
Disclaimer: The German term “Bildung” is hardly translatable. We use the term “education”, but mean a composition of maturity, awareness of oneself and a sense of self-identity. As the foundation for social embedment it is based on and therefore only possible through direct encounter. 

For a return to the nature of universities and the foundations of a pluralistic democracy

To all university management in the German-speaking area

To the general public

Not only to the readers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

As students of European educational institutions, we ask for your support. We see during the pandemic and fear for the time after the pandemic that the hopes, ideals and values ​​that we associate with “studying” are increasingly losing their social appreciation. The reason for this is an article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which from our point of view is indicative of the current developments (for more details see “Background”).

We are convinced:

1) Education is and must be more than the result of pure knowledge transfer. The protection of the humanistic values ​​of a university is therefore of the utmost importance in a world that is increasingly characterized by thoughts of efficiency and optimization.

2) Digitization must not be an automatism. Responsible action requires a reflection on the possibilities and impossibilities of technical means, such as – and especially – that which eludes technical access: humanity and closeness.

3) Digital teaching or the introduction of hybrid teaching (i.e. teaching partly face-to-face, partly digital) cannot and must not be a substitute for true, meaningful encounters after the pandemic. The university as such a place of encounter, exchange and dialogue must not be prematurely given up. A return to comprehensive face-to-face teaching is essential.

4) Only a societal climate of respect, mutual esteem and appreciation, including convictions and opinions to the contrary, can sustain a pluralistic democracy.

5) It is time that the quite varying needs of the students experience a differentiated, audible articulation and a more differentiated perception.

The background

With regret we have read an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “‘Deceptions have now reached a different dimension’“(04/25/2021). In it, the Prorector for Teaching and Studies at the University of Cologne and the local student representative (Asta) talk about the experiences that were made over the course of the two Corona semesters with the situation of teaching and the exams. It comes up – and this was decisive for our letter – that there is resistance from the philosophical faculty to a change in the teaching concept that has become necessary in the course of digital teaching. Both sides describe this change as “overdue”. The student representative expressed the demand that “those who refuse now […] should not quietly wriggle out of responsibility and be allowed to return to normality of the past 30 years after the pandemic.”

Such a view of the teaching staff at a university and the previous form of teaching are alien to us and therefore the reason for this letter. We are students, but explicitly call for support from everyone who can agree to the values ​​represented here.

Our point of view

We do not know exactly what resistance the philosophical faculty of the University of Cologne offered, but we are very astonished at the frankness with which the interviewees speak of backwardness and retrogressivity as reasons for this resistance.

Doubts about the changes may be “justified” – perseverance may be “human”, but the necessary transformation to the hybrid future had now begun and had to be continued.

As students (including philosophical studies), we position ourselves against such one-dimensionality. We are against blind transformationism, for transformation must not be an automatism that is set in motion by changed circumstances – we see ourselves as acting people who are not just allowed to adapt to the circumstances, but must and are allowed to decide on their own. Sartre reckoned, “We are condemned to freedom” – we are challenged to make decisions for ourselves and to take responsibility, to joyfully accept responsibility for our life and our way of life and to bear it consciously.

In this respect we do not agree! We do not agree with the image of the student body, perhaps of the young generation as a whole, that is conveyed here. We want to differentiate it.

We want classroom teaching as soon as it becomes possible again, we want classroom teaching for children that enables them to enter into a relationship with the world – instead of having to adapt to the requirements of technology. Hybrid or even distance learning rob the educational institutions of their central element that sets them apart from a pure knowledge transfer institute: that of the direct encounter of people who have a mutual interest.

We don’t want this to be misunderstood as a fundamental rejection of technology and its potential. We want to point out, however, that there are also students who are critical of the supposedly “no alternative” expansion of technical means into all areas of human life. We would like to see an increased discourse about the possibilities and impossibilities of these digital media. Referring to Heidegger, we also see it as essential to become aware of what is beyond the technical view.

Learning takes place in relation, education is inconceivable without such a horizon within which it takes place. Education as reference to the world and self-awareness needs dialogue – with oneself and with the world. As has now been visible for more than a year and is becoming more and more evident every day, digital media cannot do that: They do not open up a world into which we can immerse ourselves and which we can let ourselves be inspired by – they offer digital space as a “substitute” , in which we passively partake, but cannot actively participate creatively: feedback and reflection are missing. This lacks the basis for a reflective approach to oneself and the world. In the long run, this means that, in drastic terms, the foundations for our pluralistic democracy are missing. Studies today are akin to Adorno’s “doing things”, who saw the thoughtless doing for the sake of doing something as one of the prerequisites for the capability of Auschwitz.

More or less frequently, studying today reminds of this: working through tasks that have to be handed in at a set point in time. Perhaps there will be a sentence or two as feedback. These tasks often do not appear to be personally significant, they are done, regardless of what their content is – their completion is a prerequisite for being able to receive a passing grade and they are processed accordingly. “Doing things” instead of education and maturity.

Our request

We want a social atmosphere that is characterized by plurality within the community, without different opinions and views having to lead to “camp formation”. An atmosphere in which changes are not only seen as unavoidable or progressive, but in which dealing with social upheavals is borne by responsible, self-confident citizens. For this, immediate education, that is, education that cannot be conveyed through technology, is essential.

We have all been able to experience the magical impetus of people who have shaped us in the long term and opened up paths for us: whether they are teachers at school or lecturers at universities. Or friends in completely different contexts.

Why do we want to make this existentially human and protective experience of the meaningful counterpart more difficult for the following generations?

We declare our solidarity with the philosophical faculty of the University of Cologne and oppose the public exposure as “backward”. Such a public degradation of “perseverance”, which becomes all the more striking without further explanation, is unsustainable for us.

Instead, we demand a return to the humanistic values ​​of the university and our society.

Technology is not simply a “neutral” means that has advantages or disadvantages depending on its purpose, which are to be discussed. It is like a microscope that may be good at one function (magnifying), but it fixates us on that one way of viewing.

We want us to consciously choose to do what we do – not in order to automatically follow supposed or actual necessities. This requires the open discourse, for which we are hereby campaigning.

We don’t want to give up our universities.

[Signature form and list below the German version: “Offener Brief”]