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9 October 2002

Are the Germans Still a "People of Poets and Philosophers"?

In the winter semester 2002/2003, the Studium Generale series of public lectures at the University of Heidelberg casts academic light on the national education debate triggered by the Pisa study — Vice-rector Prof. Tröger extends a warm welcome to all interested

The results of the Pisa study have caused major alarm in Germany. A feverish hunt has started for the causes and the culprits behind the poor showing of German school pupils. And there is no shortage of education reform proposals for remedying the situation. Though the study itself concentrates on schools, the doubts it has sown go much further. A whole nation is asking itself: Are we still the "people of poets and philosophers"?

The aim of the Studium Generale lecture series has always been to give an academic and scientific cachet to broad-ranging discussions frequently conducted with more emotional commitment than expert knowledge. In the present case, it is also the obligation of the universities to ask themselves whether they have had a part in this apparent educational fiasco and, if so, what consequences they intend to draw from it.

Are Germans still the "people of poets and philosophers"? "The question is designed to be provocative," says vice-rector Prof. Dr. Jochen Tröger, the man in charge of organising the lectures. "We want the speakers to take a clear stance and the listeners to exercise critical inquiry." Well-known speakers — academics, politicians and personalities from cultural life — "will be voicing their views on issues of education and higher-education policy, language and culture in Germany and the influence of these factors on academic and scientific life," Tröger went on, adding his conviction that the highly qualified speakers and the subjects chosen "will assure a good turn-out and encourage committed and probably controversial discussion."

Beginning on 11 November, the 10 lectures in the winter semester will be held by prominent representatives of educational life. Naturally, the Pisa study itself will be one of the topics. On 18 November Baden-Württemberg's minister of education, youth and sport, Dr. Annette Schavan, will be talking on "Pisa and the Consequences". On 3 February her ministerial counterpart from Thuringia, Prof. Dagmar Schipanski, will be discussing "Education and Research for a Knowledge-Based Society".

There is general agreement that the causes of the educational doldrums Germany appears to be in at the moment are partly financial. Accordingly, "How Much is Education Worth to Us?" is the question posed by Heidelberg political scientist Prof. Manfred Schmidt on 2 December. One thing that has become abundantly clear is that the key to solving educational problems lies in the resolve to establish a new and different hierarchy of values. This poses the question of a new evaluation of cultural studies in general, notably perhaps the study of history. Thus the topic of the opening lecture by Prof. Luise Schorn-Schütte (Frankfurt) on 11 November is "Why Study History? Thoughts on a Topic of the Late 20th Century". For the universities, what is at stake is nothing less than the Humboldtian education ideal they have lived by so far. It is against this background that the lecture by Dr. Brigitta-Sophie von Wolff-Metternich (Heidelberg) needs to be regarded: "Taking Our Intellectual Bearings: Critical Remarks on the Standardisation of Knowledge".

One of the crucial factors of failure at school and work has proved to be inadequate linguistic skill and sensitivity. No fewer than three of the lectures concentrate on the role of language — Prof. Wolfgang Frühwald, President of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, on "Conflicting Cultures or the Role of Language in the Academic World" (26 November), novelist Martin Walser on "Vocabulary and Language" (13 January) and former Federal minister Dr. Erhard Eppler on "What Does Our Political Language Reveal?" (20 January).

To offset the danger of an overly introspective view, there is also a lecture by a non-German academic. On 27 January the American literary studies scholar Prof. Liliane Weissberg will be talking on "The Ease of Poetry and Philosophy and the Difficulty of Being a People". An external perspective is also provided by the final lecture. In her remarks on the question "Is the Federal Republic a Cultural State?", Prof. Jutta Limbach, President of the Inter Nationes Goethe Institute, will be inquiring into the standing and status of German culture and language in the present-day world.

In short, a highly interesting programme in which, for the first time, the majority of speakers are women.

Heiner Must

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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Updated: 15.10.2002


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