The war against education

Today is one of the darkest days in the history of Europe. The press reports that the Central European University in Budapest is forced to move out of Hungary despite fulfilling all demands of the Hungarian Government. We have seen this coming for quite some time. That this has not been prevented is a disaster. Or so I think. Having had the privilege to live and study in Budapest for one and a half years during the nineties, I am personally moved: I am sad and angry. While I know that there are many people – among them many friends and colleagues – who think and feel as much, I am not sure that everyone is on the same page about the meaning of this fact. I’m not well versed in the details of politics. But I am convinced that this is not a ‘Hungarian thing’ alone. I rather see it as part of a war on education and as such as a war against democracy. While I’m not in the most clearheaded mood, I still want to offer some considerations I have been mulling about recently.

The war on education is a war against democracy. You don’t need to be a convicted Habermasian to see why (higher) education is a necessary element of democracies. Informed discourse and participation cannot exist without education. Threatening teachers, lecturers and students is something we’re witnessing everywhere in Europe and elsewhere. While there is much to be said about the current Hungarian government, this move is not unique. Turkey, the US, Romania, you name it witness similar moves. As a German, I am acutely aware that the far right party (AFD) is currently attempting to facilitate a climate of denunciation, too. That’s peanuts perhaps compared to what we witnessed today, but it strikes me as part of a concerted strategy. This strategy comprises many aspects: intimidation is perhaps obvious; casualisation of the (academic) workforce, while pretending universities are businesses might seem a more nuanced way of destroying education.  If we want to fight this strategy, we have to undermine it everywhere.

As I see it, this war exploits problematic beliefs in the fact-value distinction. This second concern is more invested and difficult (for me) to articulate. But here goes: After the last US elections, there was a lot of talk about what is called “postmodernism”. Suddenly, postmodernism and relativism were held responsible for the “loss” of truth and many other things. Moreover, their proponents were held responsible for the rise of far-right opinions and politics. Perhaps trying to be defensive, some people even embraced that slogan according to which “science has no agenda”, insinuating that science deals with facts and leaves values to politics. I think I’ve never read so much crap in my life. Now, there is a lot to be said why the fact-value distinction does not amount to a dichotomy, but this is for another day.*

Anyway, I guess we’re not doing ourselves a favour, if we sacrifice discourse over such matters to such fast food slogans as “science has no agenda”. What I have in mind today is the fact that many people who should know better applauded when the Hungarian government targeted Gender Studies. Since this discipline is currently one of the favoured examples for the supposed effects of postmodernism, some people seemed not to notice that their abolishment was just another attack against (academic) freedom. While I don’t think that we have to agree about the fact-value distinction, I sincerely hope for the agreement that this is a matter of free discourse. No one should applaud when a government abolishes an academic discipline.

Finally, it is a great thing that Vienna will host the CEU in the future. But universities are not virtual places that can be moved around without loss. They are part of making a place, a city, a country, a continent, the world with its people what they are. Let’s not forget about the people who cannot move along. Being placed in Europe, we are in this together.


* Here is a bit more on this issue.


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