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How Can Universities Promote Democracy?

Julia Mehretu, Retropistics

editorial
editorial

How Can Universities Promote Democracy?

In view of numerous crises and multiple waves of uncertainty it may seem somewhat overoptimistic to hope for substantial changes in the near term.

No doubt, you will already have seen on our homepage that one of our programmes is called: “The Future of Democracy”. It wants to explore viable options for making democratic decision-making processes as well as the respective governance structures and institutions fit for the future – more responsive to social and economic contexts, more equitable, and more sustainable. Our focus is thus clearly on constructive, solution-oriented approaches by opening up pathways towards achieving ecological democracy.

However, in view of numerous crises and multiple waves of uncertainty it may seem somewhat overoptimistic to hope for substantial changes in the near term. A quick look at a few titles of books published in the last four or five years may suffice to illustrate this point: “How Democracy Ends” (David Runciman), “How Democracies Die” (Steve Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt), and “The Rise of Ecofascism: Climate Change and the Far Right” (Sam Moore and Axel Roberts). All of these authors are deeply concerned with more recent developments in seemingly stable and well-functioning democracies that are about to fail, or perhaps even “may simply fade away, hollowed out by forces of technological progress and social division that we lack the power to understand, never mind resist” (David Runciman). We probably all agree that in many respects the current state of the democracies we live in is flawed with asymmetries, insufficient separation of powers, short-term thinking and decision-making as well as a clear lack of transparency and opportunities for powerful citizen participation. To my mind this is succinctly expressed in the title of another book written by Astra Taylor: “Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone” (2019).

Who of us would have thought some ten to fifteen years ago that in the early 2020s we could be faced with severe threats to the future of democracy, with illiberal regimes that are violating basic human rights, and as of the 24th of February with the brutal atrocities of a war in Ukraine? And we may ask ourselves: were we simply not sensitive and attentive enough when the first wave of populist and neo-nationalist movements each won a considerable share of the votes in regional, national as well as European elections, and subsequently began to attack fundamental structures and infrastructures as well as the checks and balances regarding the carefully designed division of power and responsibilities between parliaments, governments, constitutional courts, and the public, thus (among others) also affecting academic freedom with quite severe, destructive consequences?

It would be much to easy to deal with the current challenges facing democracies by just looking at the present array of conflicts and crises. Their root causes go back a long time. And although several researchers have been warning us for a while about neo-nationalist, autocratic, and severe threats to our pluralist way of living, we did not really pay attention to them. On the contrary, even in our universities we all too often have fallen victim to neoliberal and technocratic modes of thinking. Already 12 years ago Martha Nussbaum in her book “Not for Profit. Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (2010) emphasized the inappropriateness of higher education and research policies that solely prioritize technological progress and economic productivity. By neglecting the urgent need to train students to be able to think critically, to become knowledgeable and empathic individuals as well as globally concerned citizens, crucial opportunities are missed to equip the future generation with the ability to deal with complex problems (in German: Überblickkompetenz und Urteilsfähigkeit entwickeln).

Martha Nussbaum’s attempt at making educational leaders aware of the dangerous path we are on, and arguing in favour of reconnecting higher education to the humanities resonates well with the mission and vision of THE NEW INSTITUTE and its fellowship-based approach. As a result of the collective work of the first cohort of fellows in our programme “Foundations of Value and Values” a booklet has been published a few weeks ago. Its title is “Towards a New Enlightenment – The Case for Future-Oriented Humanities” and it strongly emphasizes the need for making better use of the integrative capacity of the humanities, in particular when it comes to bringing about systemic change.

This clearly requires a change of perspective not only within the humanities themselves but also in the respective ecosystems of knowledge production at large. The prevailing perception of widely decoupled knowledge domains urgently needs to be changed, last but not least in view of the multiple, interwoven crises we are confronted with.


I am glad that presidents and rectors of German universities address in their responses to our questions these aspects and issues in several respects. Therefore, I would like to thank Julia von Blumenthal, Tanja Brühl, …

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