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Novembre 06, 2009

Prof. Leonidas Donskis is a philosopher, historian of ideas, political commentator and critic who is a Professor of Political Science at the Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, where he also directs the Political Science and Diplomacy School. In 2004, Prof. Donskis has been awarded by the European Commission the title of the Ambassador for Tolerance and Diversity in Lithuania while his recent reelection to the European Parliament prompted the following interview on his views on European citizenship and the role of universities in the European Union.

Campus Europae: The European Union is originally based on the idea to prevent armed conflicts through economic cooperation. The notion of cooperation has spread to various fields, inter alia to education. What, should, in your opinion, be the contribution of the European universities to the process of European unification?

Leonidas Donskis
: The education of a multilingual, tolerant, curious, and liberally-minded European. I am familiar with countless jokes on how it makes no sense to expect to get the lump in the throat someday on hearing the European anthem or how pointless it is to endeavour to create something like European patriotism. They smear that idea of being at home in Europe as a symbolic space of values and ideas more than anywhere else. Yet the undisputable fact is that European universities provide nearly a perfect framework for such an education. If we are not to conflate high-ranking officials of the EU, or “professional” Europeans, with people for whom Europe is their natural home in terms of their feeling most at home in several European languages and cultures, then we will have to state it plainly: Yes, the European universities are a success story in the European unification process. Perhaps, they are the only success story of this kind. If I saw the United Europe with my eyes, it happened many times during my teaching to our exchange students at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, and also at the University of Bologna-Forli Campus, the University of Helsinki, and Corvinus University of Budapest-Koszeg campus, where I had an English-speaking audience of young people from The Netherlands, England, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Albania, Slovakia, Romania, etc., who were curious about every single detail of European intellectual history, including history of Baltic and Eastern European ideas. 

To cherish Europe’s diversity its citizens are supposed to be “European Citizens”. What does this term encompass in reality and how can students be motivated to aspire this citizenship?

European Citizens are not a fantasy. Quite far from it. In fact, the sooner we realize that our European commitments help our country to get rid of its limitations or to move to a higher level of intellectual and cultural dialogue with other European countries, the better for our country. In a way, it is a call to return to the roots of modern Europe, namely, to the ideals of Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe where a joint devotion or dedication to a certain set of values and ideals was able even to overcome enormous political animosities. Recall numerous translations of Spanish dramatists and admiration for them in Elizabethan England which hated Spain as an archrival and adversary. Or recall a great admiration for French culture that deeply permeated nineteenth-century Germany and Russia, that is, countries that have more than one good reason to dislike French politics. Symbolic European citizenship and citizenry date back to the days of Thomas More and Erasmus; the same applies for the Republic of Letters set up by Voltaire and other philosophers yet enthusiastically joined by such people as Cesare Beccaria and David Hume, not to mention their great German successor Immanuel Kant. I do believe that European humanists and philosophers preceded and anticipated the political and economic architects of present Europe, that is, the founding fathers of the EU, such as Robert Schumann and Jean Monet. All this was possible only trough the aforementioned symbolic European citizens. The only question is how to translate that symbolic citizenship into self-activating political citizenship of present Europeans. I would not write off the critical role of culture and education, for they still remain the most potent instruments of European integration and cohesion. Universities are much more politically efficient and powerful than we are inclined to think of them. You do not need to be artificially politicized to be political in the deeper sense, that is, immune to moral and political provincialism, and also attentive and sensitive to the world around you.

When analyzing the current flows of European student exchange it is apparent that some ‘exchange routes’ are more popular than others. In a Europe of 27, students are more willing to move from the east to the west, from the Balkans and the Baltics to Scandinavia, and the big countries with widely spoken languages. What measures could be taken to balance this trend and motivate students to study in smaller, more ‘exotic’ countries such as Lithuania?

I believe that a number of students sooner or later come to appreciate the uniqueness of Europe, which lies in its incredible diversity, openness, and also in the responsiveness of European cultures. When students realize that they find can a distinct language and culture every fifty miles away, they reveal a simple secret – Europe is made up by countries that are relatively small and tiny yet powerful in terms of culture and historical legacy. The size of the Netherlands or Belgium becomes irrelevant if I want to pursue my studies in the history of magnificent Dutch and Flemish painting or if I decide to undertake a research project related to, say, Icelandic literature, Finnish cinematography, or Lithuanian theatre. When we reveal the cultural highlights or the masterpieces of art of a small country, we go for what we identify as a certain cultural and intellectual centre of gravity with which we are preoccupied, instead of going for tourist attractions or having fun. Therefore, the answer lies nowhere else but in exchange programs and talented educators. An exchange student from Poland at Vytautas Magnus University once told us that the reason why she decided to learn the Lithuanian language and to study Lithuanian cultural history was her fascination with Lithuanian theatre. The time came when she wanted to reveal what was behind a sophisticated Lithuanian theatre company whose production she enjoyed immensely, and how a small country like Lithuania was able to come up with such strikingly original interpretations of classical plays.

“Unity in Diversity” has become a catchphrase of the European Union. It is used to describe the idealistic picture of a unified Europe which preserves national and cultural identities in many aspects with a shared European notion. What are the political and practical implications of this motto?

This motto is a first-rank priority and an absolute necessity for us to be able to tackle the challenges of our century, rather than merely a beautiful yet empty phrase. The “unity in diversity” principle is more important now than ever; it becomes an imperative goal that embraces our key consensus on all fundamental human rights, liberal sensibilities, and democratic values. Unity is always a political and institutional phenomenon, whereas diversity usually is ideological and cultural. I deeply believe that the only ideology that can be adopted in the long run by humanity as a unifying principle is the ideology of human rights and its defence. Having said this, I hasten to add that it takes all sorts of individuals and societies to achieve that goal. Hostility is fuelled each time when an alien religion, political doctrine, or culture is imposed on people. Therefore, the only form of unity is a political commitment to defend a set of values without which our diversity becomes a mere fragmentation, not to say parallel existence. In our case, Europe is simply unthinkable without our standing for human dignity and fundamental human rights. Europe is also unthinkable without alternative visions of how to be a human being and dissenting opinions for which you are not exposed as an enemy of your society, and which do not make you open to the charge of treason. Yet our unity in terms of a single culture as, supposedly, our only raison d’être is a dangerous folly of nationalism. We can share a culture insofar as we can practice it freely. 

The Bologna Declaration recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has been appreciated, but harshly criticized as well. One of the criticisms raised aimed at the European-wide standardization of curricula and university standards. Do we have to be afraid that the Bologna Process in fact diminishes the academic diversity the European Higher Education Area has to offer? Are we running the danger of losing our national cultural and academic identities?

It is one of the most complicated and sensitive questions nowadays. On the one side, every sort of rational improvement and reform should be welcome, once it allows more freedom to manoeuvre and adjust to changing reality. On the other side, some of traditionally more vulnerable disciplines, first and foremost the humanities, may suffer from imposition of uniform practices or approaches. The humanities are closely related and more tied to local sensibilities and national cultures than science and technology. The same applies to a pattern of education we adopt. For instance, I am much in favour of liberal education, the artes liberales pattern, which requires four years of education on BA level. Yet once we begin to insist on three years, this may jeopardize those countries where high schools are not as strong as in Western Europe. It would also deal a serious blow to the idea of liberal education. It appears that we need more flexibility and less uniformity here. At the same time, I am a strong opponent of the inflation and conflation of concepts. It makes no sense to camouflage inefficiency or worn-out practices as something intimately related to a national university culture. We have to talk in a decisive and clear manner here, since so much is at stake. If I defend the artes liberales model of education, I do it because I believe in liberal education, rather than because I have to defend my university or my country.

© Campus Europae. European University Foundation.

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