European Citizens, or How the Culture of Curiosity Works

January 21, 2010

By Leonidas Donskis

What is the role of the academe in fostering and strengthening the EU? The answer is quite simple: the education of a multilingual, tolerant, curious, and liberally-minded European.

True, we are all familiar with countless jokes on how it makes no sense to expect to get a lump in the throat on hearing the European anthem, or how pointless it is to endeavor to create something like European patriotism. They are meant to poke fun of the idea of being at home in Europe as a symbolic space of values and ideas.

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: European universities are a success story in the European unification process.

Perhaps, they are the only success story of this kind. I saw with my own eyes how the United Europe works, this happened many times during my teaching to exchange students at several European universities where I had an English-speaking audience of young people from European countries and the U.S. They were curious about every single detail of European intellectual history, including the history of Baltic and Eastern European ideas.

European Citizens are therefore not a fantasy. 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 us. 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 to overcome enormous political animosities. Recall numerous translations of Spanish dramatists and admiration for them, say, 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, countries that had more than one good reason to dislike French politics. Symbolic European citizenship and citizenry date back to the days of Sir Thomas More and Erasmus; the same applies to the Republic of Letters set up by Voltaire and other philosophes, and enthusiastically endorsed by such people as Cesare Beccaria and David Hume, not to mention their great German successor from the Baltic lands, Immanuel Kant.

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. This was possible only through the aforementioned symbolic European citizens. The only question, then, is how to translate that symbolic citizenship into self-activating political citizenship of present Europeans.

A number of students sooner or later come to appreciate the uniqueness of Europe, which lies in its diversity, openness, and also in the responsiveness of European cultures. When students realize that they can find a distinct language and culture only 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 Latvian literature, Estonian cinematography, or Lithuanian theater.

When we reveal the highlights of culture or the masterpieces of art in a small country, we go for what we identify as a cultural and intellectual center of gravity with which we are preoccupied, instead of going for tourist attractions or just having fun. Therefore, the answer lies in academic exchange programs and talented educators.

I remember an exchange student from Poland at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, who told me that the reason why she decided to learn the Lithuanian language and to study Lithuanian cultural history was her fascination with Lithuanian theater. The time came when she wanted to reveal what was behind a Lithuanian theater company whose production she enjoyed immensely, and how a small country was able to come up with such strikingly original interpretations of classical plays.
This kind of culture of curiosity is our real hope for the future.

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