The political responsibility of universities for democratic culture was at the center of a transatlantic online symposium last week, cohosted by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), and the Thomas Mann House. The symposium marks the beginning of substantial German-American exchange on the importance of democratic values in the twenty-first century.
Around the world, democracy faces a crisis of confidence. Germany and the United States, in particular, face questions about the impact of misinformation, a rise of extremism, and declining trust in government. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, debates in these two countries have sparked questions about the role of higher education institutions in democratic societies. What responsibilities do universities have in building a healthier political culture and in preparing students to be engaged and active citizens?
These questions were at the center of last week’s online symposium. The event is part of the American Academy’s work to advance the recommendations in Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, the final report of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The Commission represents a crosspartisan cohort of leaders from academia, business, and civil society who came to unanimous agreement around 31 bold recommendations. The report argues that political reform cannot only happen in Washington and in our state capitals—the nation needs to build a healthier political culture and more resilient civil society. This work needs to happen in a wide variety of venues, especially higher education institutions.
In the 1930s, author Thomas Mann witnessed how German universities and science became willing collaborators of the Nazi regime. Mann himself underwent a transformation from an unpolitical observer to a defender of democratic values. Like other intellectuals, Mann in his American exile raised his voice against totalitarianism, and in 1949 he was elected to the American Academy. Today, Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles serves Germany as a place for transatlantic discussion.
Professor Peter-André Alt, President, German Rectors' Conference, noted: “Democracy is the foundation of our universities. Freedom of research and teaching is inconceivable without it. As places of open debate and autonomous science, universities, in turn, strengthen democracy.”
Professor Julika Griem, Vice-President of the German Research Foundation: “Defending knowledge-driven research against the notion that the mission of science is an immediate 'return on investment' is becoming increasingly difficult in the U.S. as well as in Germany. Nevertheless, it would not be sufficient to only consider the transatlantic perspective. Attacks on research freedom and the dismantling of democracy take place worldwide and are a global problem.”
Steven D. Lavine, President Emeritus at the California Institute of the Arts and Chairman of the American Advisory Board of the Thomas Mann House, said: “Liberal democracy and the American university grew up side by side and depend on shared values. Faced with democratic regression in the United States, Europe and around the globe, it is vital to explore and to encourage the role of the university in restoring faith in and the functioning of democratic government.”
David W. Oxtoby, President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences: “The American Academy of Arts & Sciences is committed to collaborating with organizations around the world that share a commitment to effecting positive change and supporting democratic values. As part of our work to advance the recommendations in Our Common Purpose, we are proud to partner with three renowned German organizations to reflect on how higher education can advance democratic principles and foster engaged citizenship.”