East is a cultural Eden

November 25, 1994

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Rudyard Kipling was thinking of Europe and Asia when he wrote these verses. I quote them not just in continued amazement at what has happened on our continent since 1989 but also at the continuity of western self-assertion, 100 years after Kipling wrote The Ballad of East and West.

Taking 1789 as the starting point for the recent political developments and cultural changes implies the view that the European east has finally joined the European west in what seems to us to be almost the natural course of history. At last, the east has arrived where we have already been for a long time.

It is this asymmetric viewpoint that has led authors like Francis Fukuyama to bid a prematurely triumphant farewell to history. Of course, an undeniable asymmetry lies in the fact that no merger will take place between east and west. The market will replace a planned economy and parliamentary democracy will have to replace -- and indeed ought to replace -- the dictatorial rule of a single party system. The east is not meeting the west --the former is simply joining the latter.

I wonder, however, whether a view that is certainly correct for the economy and for politics at large should also be adopted, without qualification, for science and education, for scholarship and the arts -- the vast area which we might want to describe as the cultural system of our societies. This is an area where we in the west should take the recent historical developments on our continent as a most welcome opportunity to learn from each other instead of using it as a pretext to teach others.

East and west have indeed met. Europe is far from being united but has become a continent whose unity is no longer a utopian vision but a concrete political goal. The collapse of communism is not so much a reason for triumph as a motive for modesty.

In the summer of 1989 the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the German Institute of Advanced Study, began to consider founding an institution similar to our own in Budapest. The Collegium Budapest, the first institute for advanced study in central and eastern Europe, was inaugurated two years ago, and is functioning, like other similar institutes, by inviting up to 25 fellows a year, from all parts of Europe and from the scientific community at large, to Budapest to pursue their research. The collegium is funded by private foundations and governmental institutions from six European countries: Austria, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the German states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Berlin. Funding has been secured for the 1996 academic year after which we will have to look for new and additional support. I hope that the European Community will become engaged in this noble effort.

Two years ago, six American and European institutes for advanced study -- Princeton, Stanford, Research Triangle Park, Uppsala, Wassenaar and Berlin -- established the New Europe Prize. Funded by private foundations and governmental organisations, the prize is given to a scholar from central and eastern Europe who has been a fellow at one of the institutes mentioned. The individual scholar, however, only receives the honour attached to the prize, while the money that comes with it has to be spent to create a new or to strengthen an existing institution in the recipient's country. Based on one of the first two New Europe Prizes and with considerable additional funding from Switzerland and Germany, the New Europe College has been founded in Bucharest -- a postgraduate institution devoted to the human and the social sciences where young Romanian scholars receive a yearly stipend for their research, work together under conditions that will, hopefully, become comparable to those in the west, spend time abroad at a host institution and are given the chance of buying recent foreign literature.

The graduate school for social research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw is largely funded by the Stefan Batory Foundation, with support from the Ford Foundation and from the New School for Social Research in New York. The Wissenschaftskolleg is trying to create a scheme of support where the newly founded German National Foundation and France would join in order to secure the survival of the school and turn it into an international institution.

It is high time for us in the west to admit that the long-lasting division of Europe has not just been a problem for those in the east, but for us as well. Being cut off from the intellectual and cultural traditions that made cities like Budapest, Warsaw and Bucharest centres of great attraction in the past has also impoverished us. By helping to recover and to rebuild great European traditions of learning and scholarship, of literature and the arts in central and eastern Europe, we are improving our own intellectual strength.

Priority must be given to efforts to strengthen local cultures of knowledge in our intellectual and cultural involvement. Unrestricted and uncontrolled mobility is a prerequisite for the functioning of the international community of science but it is now even more important in Europe to build organisations that will motivate and enable our colleagues in central and eastern Europe to continue to work in their home institutions and that these institutions are of such quality that they will also attract foreign scholars. The strengthening of local cultures of knowledge is the most effective measure to reduce the brain drain that is afflicting more and more institutions of higher learning in central and eastern Europe.

As scientists and scholars, we tend to think of ourselves as dyed-in-the-wool cosmopolitans. Nationalism, however, plays its role in science and scholarship as well. We have therefore not created a Collegium Hungaricum in Budapest and are trying to make sure that neither the New Europe College in Bucharest nor the Graduate School in Warsaw are seen as Romanian or Polish institutions, respectively. It is my belief that institutes for advanced study, more perhaps than any other type of institutions, have something in common with the Olympic Games: they take place not in a country but in a city.

The multilateral arrangements made it easier to convince local authorities that our aim was not to build up national, but European and, wherever possible, international institutions in their city. What one might call European provisions were included in the charters of all the institutions mentioned above; for example, stipulations that require the institutes to appoint teachers from different European countries, to attract students from various parts of Europe and to teach and to learn in different European languages.

Such provisions are too often seen only as requirements that are difficult to meet -- it is therefore of considerable importance to show that they also demonstrate the advantages of intellectual diversity. Europe's intellectual strength always was its cultural plurality and we should never forget that Europe consists of something one might call an assembly of translated cultures.

Wolf Lepenies is rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His article is edited from a speech delivered at a conference on the European responsibilities of universities at the University of Pisa this week.

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