Beyond the Simple Definition of a University
The reflection I would like to draw upon is the qualification of the title of this presentation. There are two events which represent a new challenge for the Europeans: 11 September and the Enlargement of the European Union. At the same time, we have to promote universal values in order to be able to answer the 9-11 event and also to direct Europeans towards a political expansion of Europe.
Universities have a role which goes beyond education. Firms create jobs, and universities form future workers, but firms and universities have to go beyond this simple definition.
Why? I think that 11 September has been an accelerator, and revealed some deep forces in our world. In particular, it revealed the hidden and tragic side of globalisation: along with the free circulation of goods, there is the circulation of evil. 11 September represents the bridge from the illusion of perpetual freedom to the reality of perpetual war. It was an attack against modernity from the most radical threshold of a civilisation in crisis within itself, Islam. 11 September is also the first truly global event in the history of mankind: no other event has been lived simultaneously by the entire world. This feeling of interdependence and fragility, fragmentation and integration, poses questions for the leaders of the universities. How do we carry on from here? My spontaneous answer is to come out against the politics of chaos. We have to reinvent the Enlightenment, while taking on board the criticisms of the original revolution of “scientific” approaches. We have to create an Enlightenment of the twenty-first century.
11 September poses further questions for us: the authors of the bombing came from middle classes and were educated in our European universities. They embody the contradiction between technological modernity, which we taught them, and the ideological fanaticism that we might have helped to reinforce by our lack of communication of values or by the fact that we have not promoted their integration in our society. Can the university be again what it used to be in the Middle Ages or in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands at Leiden University: a place for exchanging values; of tolerant dialogue between people who accept others while knowing that they are deeply different?
What could our new Enlightenment be? I think that it should be redefined by integrating religious discourse. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment was hostile to and critical of religion, which was perceived as fanatical and intolerant. We need to rethink this: today, we would be betraying our societies if we did not contribute to the formation of tomorrow’s elites with discourses of tolerance and dialogue. Religions ought to be perceived as media of fraternity, so that they can again encourage tolerance in the face of fanaticism. That is one of the major responsibilities of the universities.
Maintaining a dialogue of tolerance means opposing false scientific drifts which allow researchers to hide themselves behind abstract – and often irrelevant – concepts, in order to avoid confronting real problems and engaging in debates with their students. I think that we should give our students the keys to be able to understand the world. We should not be afraid to ask questions about values. This quest for universality goes through the rediscovery of two essential subjects: political philosophy and history. They should be indispensable in any disciplines.
All of this should contribute to making university a place of dialogue and, more specifically, a place of religious dialogue. If there is one place today in Europe where moderate, tolerant, open and modern Islam can be created, it is doubtlessly our universities.
Beyond the universal issues of globalisation and the implications of 11 September, in Europe, regional questions are becoming more prominent. I feel that, at the moment, there are more people in Europe and fewer Europeans. The euro creates Europeans, because globalisation creates Europeans in its own way, but we do not know where we are going, and we do not know what sort of Europe we are building. As European expansion and integration continue, universities have to contribute to the creation of European citizens.
My professional experience saw the creation of a School of Democracy in Moscow for the Russian elites. What I learned from that experience was that one could contribute to the creation of Europeans through education with modesty and open-mindnedness. Eastern Europeans and Russians can learn from our mistakes as much as from our gains.
This double dialogue, religious and European, are part of a fundamental, eternal debate, questioning the value and purpose of universities cut off from humanist and classical traditions. The university’s task cannot be simply to prepare students for a permanent and secure job, because nothing is secure in this complex world. The university’s task is to contribute to the creation and exchange of values from an open dialogue between cultures.