A Higher Education for a Democratic Society in the XXI Century


One of the most beautiful legends in the world, the legends os the Argonauts, tell the story of 50 heroes of Ancient Greece, among them Jason, Hercules and Orpheus, who searched for the Golden Fleece, a symbol of wealth, power, even happiness. The first person they met on their journey was Phineus, who was empowered by Gods with the ability to predict the future. However, the Gods feared later his enormous power and blinded him, so Phineus, who could see the future, was no able to see the present he was living in, anymore. Moreover, despite having always in front of  him a table full of food, Phineus was robed by evil characters, the harpies, who stole it all, so he would remain forever hungry! But Phineus could also find solution for problems in the future: in exchange for the Argonauts chasing away the harpies who tortured him he taught them how to sail through the clashing rocks of the Bosphorus straight, into the Black Sea or, Pontus Euxinus, the way is was called at the time.

The story of Phineus appears to me quite relevant to the participants at this conference, who have the mission to lead and reform the higher education system, but who might focus so much on anticipating changes that they risk to lose contact with the present or lose the founds required to finance their vision and strategies.

Higher Education for a Democratic Society in the XXI Century is a topic we can talk about either in prefabricated and “politically correct” formulas or, on the contrary, we can profoundly reflect upon it in an attempt to comprehend not only what connects the two concepts of democracy” and “higher education”, but also what might disconnect them and even contradict them. What do we, democratic university professors and staff, need to do if we wish these two concepts to enhance each other? I believe that we should start by elaborating a few theses which we can then debate further. I have chosen the following three theses for my reflection to share with you today.

The first refers to upstream education related to the academic stage; the second examines the contribution of universities to democracy in the societies they have developed amidst – meaning the downstream university, so thus the third would refer to our universities and to their perspectives within a democratic society.

I, and some of you of my generation, remember how a few decades ago, Pink Floyd had an explosive success with their otherwise great song entitled “We don’t need no education”. Two years prior, in Paris, young rebel crowds had set cars and police stations on fire. They also set fire to schools and destroyed Parisian university buildings, starting with the Sorbonne, a symbol of the “republic of philology” in Europe and in the entire world. Back in 1968, students on American campuses and in the great European universities were shouting, as democratically as possible, “il est interdit d’interdire”, in protest at the Vietnam War. They also fought against traditional courses, such as archaeology or classical studies. In consequence, democratic society generated policies that brought about a transformation of the educational system unheard of until now, together with anarchical protests against the “system”. But why should this be so?

We can understand that any educational process is also a process of “taming” that which Plato called the wild part of the human being. It is absolutely natural to face a certain resistance from beneficiaries. We can understand that the European youth aspire to have all the advantages of a competitive world, but do not take responsibility for its uncertainties. It may be possible that hostility against the academia, as perceived retrospectively, also arises from the assertion that the educational system is disconnected from the realities of contemporary society. I do not refer here to the often called-upon adjustments to the labour market requirements. Numerous experiences and experiments have proven that the maximum adaptation to these exigencies is not absorbed by the young beneficiaries of an early specialized education, even through the computer information or other modern disciples, but, on the contrary, by those who have passed through a formation intelligently cantered on the traditional fundaments of science and culture and who thus gain a flexibility that allows them to further choose the highest fields within the professional “hunting field.”

We can notice that once society had entitled higher education to have a major role in economic development as well as to be a social driving force for a merit-based system of social advancement, the state of higher education and the direction of its development gained a new attention and legitimate interest of the democratic society. It also has a formatting role with regard to elites.

A democratic society does not deny or suppress its elites. It uses them for mutual benefit, by making them accessible to any citizen willing to employ his talent and abilities to reach as far as possible on the individually chosen path. Thus, the argument it is not about increasing the number of schools that produce early “specialized robots” on the assembly line. It is not about mechanically making available to all the students the templates and the criteria of the 19th century school which addressed at most 5 % of a generation. It is not about gathering 40 pupils in a small class and feeding them a cannon invented by pedagogues contemporary to Napoleon and Dickens, or with post-modern thinkers, that will build a 21st century democracy. One of the most noxious illusions of the present times is misinterpretation of ”mass education” as the “democratization of the educational system”. In Romania, as probably in the majority of the countries of the former socialist space, we have already passed through the experience of cultural massification through a distorted and at the same time under-financed educational system, with pupils and students trapped in an equalizing assessment mechanism that systematically neglected the theoretical and human sciences for the exclusive benefit of standard practical occupations. You cannot imagine the despair many of us feel when seeing how the same errors, that generated harsh consequences, are now being repeated in the name of the “knowledge-based economy” and of narrowly-understood policies of “widening of access” in the name of democracy.

By no means am I here advocating a going back to the “old good days”. What I call for is that in order to avoid these confusions, we must reinvent the school so that it will know how to preserve and use its passionate interest for exploration, for knowledge and the new. It will be a school that transforms every child’s passion for stories into an ability to use adequate words. It will be a school that puts in service of the didactic process all the childhood colourful fantasies, and the explosive inventiveness of adolescence. It is about a school full of the joy of learning. Such a school integrates and does not compete with the almost infinite information means that today’s society is fast developing.

We must reinvent the school so that it will not exclude, but include. It would take into account every child’s and teenager’s talents, it would offer him or her a customized path that will yield his or her personality to the full. Under present circumstances, of an informatics and information revolution, the bigger effort necessary to radically reinvent the school is not the one involving economic effort, but one concerning the intellectual effort. The universities that are, at the same time, the beneficiaries of the educational process and its latest achievement, ought to reflect upon this vital issue and fight for a real democracy that is knowledge based and for a new humanism, that would be capable of radically rebuilding contemporary society.

Will this process be adopted by our democracies? Will the families, the local communities, the mayors, the counsellors of different sectors, or even the members of our parliaments, be willing to take the chance to support and finance such a radical reform, to open the way of an adapted, flexible education, able to mould itself on any child’s needs and potential?  Maybe the issue of financing education could tame the budget “shrews” in an apparently paradoxical manner, and not through restricting the access to studies that include higher education, but on the contrary, through a larger and democratic opening of the school gates at all levels. At least these will be the results if we take into consideration the projections published in a recent McKinsey Consulting Company study about the state of education and school-related challenges in the United States. As a starting point for its analysis it takes the situation presented in a well-known report presented in 1983 entitled A Nation at Risk – which also draws attention to economic and social consequences of the increasing mediocrity within American education. The McKinsey study calculates what would have been the possible earnings, during the past 25 years, if the measures put forth at that time would have been implemented. If between 1998 and today, the United States had attained the educational performance of Finland, the GDP of the United States in 2008 would have been higher by at least 1,3 and up to 2,3 trillion dollars. If the graduates from disadvantaged ethno-cultural groups such as Afro-Americans and Latinos  would have reached their white colleagues level between 1998 and today, the GDP of the country in 2008 would have been bigger by between 310 and 525 billion dollars, and if the difference between the quality of education for youngsters from families with poor income and the rest of the population would have had decreased over 10 years ago, the GDP in 2008 would have risen by an amount between 400 and 670 billion dollars.

In the above context I would like to support initiatives such as the one undertaken by the renown economist and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz to come out with a new way of calculating GDP in order to reflect better the economic benefits of good education, performant health care system etc. [actually I am going to have a meeting with him next week so I shall have an opportunity to discuss with him this important initiative].

I do not know if such studies have been made for countries such as Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic or even for Great Britain or France. What I do know, without any statistics, is that in my country there are many talented adolescents that never succeed to realize their potential because of un unhappy combination of objective – basically economic related – and subjective situations, especially related to the family and social environment they live in, and that, for many reasons, do not offer them the enthusiasm, the motivation and the support necessary to perform in an educational system which incorporates also ethical principles and humanistic values. Such a system automatically isolates them because it is built on inflexible principles guiding performance evaluation: just to give a simple example within a complex situation, a child having a perfect ear for music, but with no native talent for mathematics has no chance to become prize-winning pupil; if, on top of that, he comes from an disadvantaged environment, the chances of dropping out of school hugely increase. There is no doubt – the most profitable investment is one made in the educational system, under an essential condition – that financing should increase and not restrain both the democratic basis of the academic institutions and of the communities, and their contribution to the democratic development of society.

During the last few years, one of the increasingly obvious situations that had drawn particular attention in the academic community is that of the “world-class universities. The tough competition generated by globalization long ago touched the academic world and now this competition has elaborated its instruments, concepts and weapons, and has become obvious even in the eyes of public opinion, much more sensitive towards the Olympics environment – or boxing match – interwoven between world university centres than towards the essence of the issue: what is a worldwide competitive university? Why should we make the effort to enrol our own universities in this race and at what price?

It is not only about money, although we are talking about a great amount of money. The figures provided by a recent study made by The World Bank entitled The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities (Washington 2009), demonstrates the existence of a direct relationship between the level of general financing, professor’s remunerations, endowments, and research grants of the most performant universities, and their place occupied on such international ranking as the Academic Ranking of World Universities [commonly referred to as the “Shanghai ranking”]. Obviously, a research team that attracted huge grants in the past had all the chances to do it also in the future. A laboratory led by a Nobel Prize laureate will attract, most of the time for good reasons, funds beyond compare and more significant than those allotted to a quasi-anonymous laboratory located in Eastern Europe.

We, the university professors working in the institutions of higher education in Central and Eastern Europe, come from a different background when compared to the world of open competition for grants. In the communist regimes there was a struggle for power between political groups, having branches within the intellectuals. Let me evoke here an example from the past history of my country where sociology, forbidden for a period of time, rehabilitated then for a few years, and then isolated again from 1978. The arbitrary distribution of the resources came from the ideological options of the communist party. Thus, the massive support enjoyed by the technical sciences reflected a very simple idea: “the more engineers exist, the greater the production can be.” Back in 1990, 67 % of the university graduates in Romania were engineers. On the other hand, during the communist regime, a researcher could have been sure that, unless breaking the party rules, he could obtain financing for the research he wanted (or a modest, but comfortable, life of miming research with a big economy of effort). We did not have the opportunity to critically examine how the research and the university studies were organized as it was imposed onto us through a political system that we had not adhered to. But a number of us had also the capacity to see the weak points of the competition-based system developed in the universities of the Western democracies.

The terms used within academic competition in the contemporary world have many positive qualities, such as a low level of subjectivism and abuse, not to mention the absurdities generated by the political guiding of intellectual life. However, it does not mean that we would live in a perfect world. Far be it for from to deny the virtues of academic competition. In essence, this is an effect of democracy: in Athens, we find, not only the great architectural projects of the Parthenon or the Propylaeas, but also the well-known literary works written by great poets and playwrights of the Age of Pericle, financially supported following a public debate in the People’s Assembly.

I wondered for a long time if Pascal had ever won a research grant, no matter how small. Especially given that he did not write in English…

Seen from this perspective, the present financing system of the universities in Central and South Eastern Europe dramatically points out the inequalities inherited from the recent past: even though the new democracies governments allocate 5 or even 6 percent of their GDP to education, we are talking about a share of modest GDP and about a system that has been poorly financed for decades. The research programs the new EU members have access to rectifies the gaps only in a partial manner, and, on the other hand, import within the system their traditional lacks of balance – between the “tough” and the “soft” sciences, between theory and practice, between the Anglo-Saxon traditional system and the continental Europe one; last, but not least, between the national element and the one of internationalizing the higher education.

I will choose today, from among such distortions, only the one that places at risk traditional fields of excellence in the Euro-Atlantic academic community. However we speak mainly about less expensive fields, that need only a few books and a computer or even because of that, a great part of the humanistic sciences, particularly those situated beyond the acute now-to-date characteristics to which are often subjected the projections regarding the educational system and the research, are less and less supported in the study and financing programs. The history of civilizations, the languages of the old documents, the rare languages, and the history of philosophy may become, in today’s society, more and more endangered knowledge species. This happens also because of the power games played within the world of academic decision makers. In Romania, for 50 years, it involved the refrain of “bourgeois prejudices”, while today in western countries the decisions are being taken by the post-68 generation, with all its qualities and also with all their post-colonial and post-modern prejudices. It also happens as a consequence of democratizing the decisions and of the labour market pressure.

The current world crisis has raised a question mark over a great number of options that the last half of century has considered as implicit, and makes us reflect on the extent to which our own choices have contributed to the aggravation or even to the beginning of the global crisis. If we agree on the fact that, beyond the rotten credits, the balloons of imaginary money, and the artificially raised shares on the stock market and all the speculative ways that have brought on all of us the present financial crises, there is one common denominating cause – a serious value crisis.  We should also keep in mind that the history of past crises of this proportion shows that our fate will be determined less by the event itself than by how we respond.  In this context, I believe that our responsibility in this crisis, as university professors, administrators of university institutions, and intellectuals, is undeniable. During the last decades, we have all contributed through our resignation, to a vast massification process of the educational system; that is increasingly dominated by the obsession with a fast profit, and less and less preoccupied by the formative value that can be provided by disinterested knowledge. We have accepted that we can build a knowledge-based society almost completely lacking in philosophic contemplation in fundamental theoretical knowledge, in an interest for archaeology and for the history of concepts and values of our contemporary societies. We have accepted, on behalf of an illusory practical efficiency, the dehumanization of the research approach, a damaging subordination of the asymptotic search for “real truth” in the benefit of the mass production of “convenient truth”. Just like corruptible bankers and investment funds administrators, we have accepted and been pushed by illusions of easy and fast wealth. It is, I believe, the right moment to reconsider the academic education passing over the narrow touch of the present and the mechanics of a fast profit for the benefit of a new hierarchy of values and of a true knowledge-based society.

I believe that globalization should not be considered only an egalitarian force in the negative sense as is very often the case nowadays. Technological and knowledge monopoly, the promotion of the culture of consumption or the one-language supremacy [and you know which one I have in mind…] to the detriment of cultural diversity and natural identities, are realities that generate for good reason the opposite reaction. However, there is here the positive meaning of the equal opportunities now available for the young generation. Globalisation has opened a borders-free market in the educational system. Meanwhile, globalisation has offered a communication infrastructure beyond space or time. In order to place a value on this opening it is necessary to move on from reforming the institutions to redefining them. The educational exchange process in Europe and increasing also in other regions can be compared with a tree. If mobility were to be the tree top and the roots, a network of domestic and international institutions, then the tree trunk must be made up of a new informational strategic organization that would bring profit from the critical mass of fundamental knowledge. I do hope that the on-going transformation of European higher education in line with the objectives set up by the Bologna Process is going to bring about such desirable outcomes in Europe and other regions of the world.

The double propeller of education and work can be functional only if it follows two principles: a lifelong education, and a multi-disciplinary profile. Lifelong education was officially implemented in Romania a long time ago by generally applying the license/ master/ doctoral degree in Europe, including the member states from the Central and South Eastern Europe of the European Union. The multi-disciplinary profile has not yet escaped the tyranny of disciplines and of the research institutes caste mentality. A solution for surpassing this situation would consist of an offer to be addressed to the young generation, by which we do not choose the name of the disciplines, but instead those of the professions, and present them as a horizon of the professions, where disciplines are replaced by modules that allow a personal study itinerary able to make up personalized curricula. The professors should become more than prestigious entities of the research world, that teach courses and give grades. They should rather become tutors and models, reviving the old European tradition of school founding fathers. It is necessary for us to create, both in the educational system as well as in research, new playgrounds and new games amidst which university presidents have the ability to manage inter-actions. The organizational background should also change within the context where the fight for talent becomes global, and jobs are accessible trough the Internet. Managing talent becomes more an art rather than a profession.

The challenges of technological development place an enormous pressure upon human resources. It is perhaps correct to state that to form and develop human resources should be considered as one of the essential concerns for humanity, as there is no technology able to produce the men and women that use it.

First, it is necessary for us to persuade the political decision makers about an obvious and often neglected, fact: the social cost of education system shortcomings is by far bigger than the costs involved in the educational system. The globalization of educational problems involve: a scientific or technological transfer that cannot be made without a transfer of the necessary skills to use it and without a system of values that would lead to its good use.

Second, the gaps between richness and technologies are not coextensive to the one between human richness. The situation of the Central and South Eastern Europe countries proves clearly that, in spite of the local delays that have taken place during the last half of century, they have still kept the formation networks that have allowed for the survival of an intellectual and cultural potential, not connected to their economic resources, seriously hit by aberrant politics. It is the human capital which bodes well for their development. But this capital will diminish fast if not replenished with a new generation of researchers and teachers.

Third, we need to preserve and assure that the university or the “academic space” [in which I also include the academy of sciences and other research organizations], are also spaces of human interaction and communication. It is the space in which intellectual disputes take place and which germinates new ideas. The university transcends the frontiers of space and time. It also in a way unites people of different generations. It is also the context in which I see the advantages of the borderless education able to respond to the challenges of globalization. Evidently this would require much effort and re-thinking of our systems as well as the redefinition of our institutions. We need to educate at advanced academic level [graduate and post-graduate studies] individuals with global competencies, able to act according to the religious, technological and cultural local environment. We should not forget that the origins of globalization are constituted by the problems encountered. Global problems, very often diseases, require global answers. The slogan:  "Think globally; act locally” is not a geographic definition, but a phrase and a way of action adapted to local situations, with a global impact. Globalization in association with democratization can no longer be perceived as an exclusively western product. Modern technology is indeed a product and consequence of the scientific production being concentrated in the most developed countries. Globalization, perceived as an answer to the global problems, urges western technology to consider the local characteristics while it searches for global solutions. In order to build a new concept of global solidarity in the higher education field we must look at it not only from a technological perspective but also from an anthropological one. Only by following this path will we be able to reach the globalization ethos.

Higher education can answer the great challenges of 21st century democratic societies only if good managers from our present educational system are, along with a leader, able to change the present educational system – in other words being able to re-think education. But even more is needed. Confronted with the present financial and economic crisis, economists and politicians are looking for solutions that would ensure the survival of the present political and economical system. The world financial crisis represents a historical opportunity for a new political project that would reorganize the global contemporary society. It is the right moment for the representatives of the academic environment, not constrained by the pressures of the profit-driven business world or unlike the politicians that need to gain popular votes, to build a new cultural project that will answer the 21st century uncertainties. The essential difference between political systems, today lies in how uncertainty is managed. They can assume it by trying to find solutions through a dialogue, or can try to eliminate it through an ideological, religious, or financial dictate. But the most effective framework for managing uncertainty is done in a democratic society in which confronting what is really at stake stimulates behaviour which allows seeking responses to the challenges of reality through respect for values and ethical principles. When we cannot act motivated by the certainty of success, we can act from the consciousness of duty. This concept corresponds best to what politics should be in a knowledge-based society and in the global future world: a complex vision of the future, based on a new dialogue about human values. This is why I share the view of Jacques Attali that every university graduate should have learned at least four things: how to be a good citizen, how to communicate, create and criticize.  In the context of the topic of my paper, of particular relevance is what it means to be a citizen which, and let me once again cite Jacques Attali; “means knowing the law, one’s duties and one’s rights. But it also means learning how to live in society, to make decisions, to participate. Student life itself should be a first-hand experience in learning about democracy”.

Let me return to my Hellenic analogy with which I started my remarks today. Gnothi seauton (know yourself), states one of the precepts decreed by Apollon at Delphi and preached by Socrates in Athens. The present world crisis brutally commands us to choose between to have or to be. A higher education for a democratic 21st century society may create a new balance between power and knowledge that would reshape a framework inside which each individual can be as well as become.