Higher education and the flow of history
A few years ago I was spending a day in a university library overseas, doing some research on an aspect of legal history on which I was writing. While looking for a particular article in a multi-disciplinary German journal I came across an autobiographical piece by an Austrian scientist whose name I no longer recall (I noted down several quotes from the article, but forgot to record the name of the author). He had been a professor in a university in Austria, and on one particular day in June 1914 he was due to deliver a farewell speech to a group of 52 graduating students. Just as he was entering the hall where the students were assembled a colleague whispered in his ear that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had been assassinated in Sarajevo.
In this autobiographical article he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the likely terrible consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and made a short speech in Latin on educational values. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduating students, 40 would die violently during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the second world war in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the remaining surviving students would be tried for war crimes in 1945. The article I was reading was written in 1946, and an editor’s postscript noted that he died two years later at the age of 86. But in the article this professor wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But all I could do was to say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’
Maybe these were not platitudes. For those of us in education, while like everyone else we will witness disasters, injustices, wars, famines, corruption across the world, we must keep telling ourselves that what we do matters; and while we cannot instantly solve all these problems and right these wrongs, we are (I hope) passing on values of inquiry, tolerance, curiosity and respect. Our research will amongst other things help to shield the victimised, feed the hungry and heal the sick. In the overall flow of history higher education does make a difference. And that is why it deserves society’s support.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, history