This post is part of a more general reflection on the role and aims of higher education which has been a concern of mine for some time now – see the earlier post Not for profit – and has been given a new impulse by recent developments at the UvA Faculty of Humanities, where I am working as well.
«What is it, exactly, that constitutes the legitimacy of an intellectual endeavor? No one today, I believe, would dare to say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action. Experience has surely taught us that it is impossible to decide in advance whether even the most abstract speculations may not eventually prove extraordinarily helpful in practice. It would inflict a strange mutilation upon humanity to deny it a right to appease its intellectual appetites apart from all consideration of its material welfare. Even were history obliged to be eternally indifferent to homo faber or to homo politicus, it would be sufficiently justified by its necessity for the full flowering of homo sapiens». (Marc Bloch, The historian’s craft, pp. 9-10 of Manchester University Press’ 1954 edition; the book was written in 1941 and first published in French in 1949).
As far as higher education and democracy are concerned, few people better than French historian Marc Bloch (1886-1944) embody the idea of critical thinking as essential to political freedom (and courage) and a healthy democracy. In case you don’t know: despite age and his position at the Sorbonne, Bloch not only volunteered for the French army at the outbreak of World War II, but also joined the Resistance in 1942. He was arrested, tortured and killed by the Nazis in 1944. Bloch was also a Jew «if not by religion, which I do not practise, no more than any other, at least by birth. […] I never claim my origins, with one exception: when facing an anti-Semite» (English translation – from Bloch’s L’Étrange défaite. Témoignage écrit en 1940 – is mine; original French text available online at the website of the Université du Québec à Quicoutimi).
Marc Bloch’s photo from the website of the Association Marc Bloch.