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The German Education Crisis (1963)

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2. Science and scholarship still find a home in the shell of the old Humboldt University, but today little remains of the universal spirit that inaugurated this university. In fact, our universities and colleges today are an external aggregation of highly specialized institutes based on the principle of the division of labor. Their mentalities and methods exhibit an astounding similarity to those seen in the scholarship of the eighteenth century, which the philosophy of German idealism subsequently hoped to overcome through a revolution in thinking. In the same way as then – and yet in a totally new way as well – it is imperative today to recognize that the basic conceptions of the supposedly modern, specialized sciences are antiquated even from a scientific perspective. They are antiquated because they cannot do justice to the real status and actual function of science and research in the technological world. Today, the results of research in the specialized sciences are directly translated into the technological, economic, and political practices of a society that, from a structural point of view, is unable to engage objectively and critically with the implications of science and research. Therefore, the inherited tradition of mediating between theory and practice has fallen by the wayside. Theory is itself and at once the most radical practice of our time. If science is to remain science it must come to terms with this fact; that is, it must consciously make this fact a subject of scientific reflection. Theoretical deliberations on the possible consequences of science and the theory of the applicability of science necessarily become an integral part of science itself.

3. Since the practical implications of scientific research can only be grasped by the researchers themselves, scholars are forced to assume a task previously reserved for politicians. Only science can meet the needs of the modern form of politics, namely of planning – a type of planning that, if it is to make sense, must be supported by scientifically sound prognoses. Science cannot elude this responsibility, because the tools of power it conveys nowadays are so immense that the consequences would be catastrophic if they continued to be thoughtlessly surrendered to politicians, who are scientific dilettantes. Researchers can no longer clear their consciences by invoking the antiquated conception of an allegedly pure science.

4. This, however, leads once again to the opening of broad horizons, which is where the founders of Berlin University [i.e. Humboldt University] once saw the mandate of science and scholarship. For, based on what has been said up to now, it has become clear that the responsibility of science in modern society can only be fulfilled if science, in considering its possible implications, is mindful of the larger intellectual, political, and social context in which each scientific discovery finds its place. Science must make what it does the subject of scientific inquiry once again. That, however, is the classic theme of the science of sciences, namely philosophy, which, wherever it surfaced on a large scale, also understood itself as the science of politics. Therefore, this mandate ties the tradition of German universities to the future tasks of science and research.

Not only the future of our institutions of higher education, but also the future of our state and of our society, and maybe even the survival of mankind, depend on whether science succeeds in solving the problems outlined above. But, as has already been mentioned, these problems can only be solved by the younger generation. Anyone studying a science today should also be cultivating an awareness of the enormous responsibility that comes with the practice of any scientific discipline in our time. Going beyond individual scientific achievements, there must also be a general change in consciousness and a general broadening of horizons. Such a process can only get under way, however, if every individual gets involved on his own accord. Should our civilization be destroyed by a catastrophe, then blame will be found in intellectual lethargy, the blindness of specialists, and that brand of narrow-mindedness that prevents a view beyond one’s own nose. Everyone is called upon today to combat this life-threatening mentality, which is gaining ground, particularly at our institutions of higher education.

Source: Georg Picht, „Tradition und Zukunft der Universität" ["Tradition and Future of the University"] (1963); reprinted in Irmgard Wilharm, ed., Deutsche Geschichte 1962-1983. Dokumente in zwei Bänden [German History 1962-1983. Documents in Two Volumes], vol. 1, Frankfurt am Main, 1989, pp. 231-33.

Translation: Allison Brown

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