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Professor Thies, should we be looking at the subject of education anew?

Schools and universities must not become digital facilities to which you connect your computer, says Christian Thies, professor of philosophy.

The Coronavirus crisis was an opportunity to learn a good deal about the status of our society and that of our educational institutions – i.e., schools and universities. To go by the discussion in the media, Germany's shortfall in the matter of digitisation was a revelation. They maintain that home schooling and university online provision were not as good as they might have been; now, apparently, the coronavirus crisis gives us the impetus to finally make a breakthrough in matters of digitisation. That, I believe, is a fallacy and in the long term, even a dangerous one. 

No-one would deny the need for a decent technical system that works well, but computers and digital networks are at best only means to an end. Unfortunately, it often happens that when a system is employed across the board it becomes an end in itself. Whether digital learning is a good way to acquire knowledge, I will leave others to judge. But I do wonder whether it only highlights the differences in underlying social conditions. Be that as it may, acquiring knowledge is not everything in life. Our schools and universities perform at least two other functions. 

First, in today's ever more complex societies, they are essential for social integration. It is at educational institutions that friendships are forged, networks built up and respect learned for different generations than one's own. Digitally, these things can be achieved only in a limited way. Virtual communication groups are fine for strategic consultation; they cannot build communities. The necessary trust can only grow through direct personal contact between people, not through people in the shape of zoom tiles. And prejudices against foreigners dissolve mainly as a result of personal encounters. 

Second, our educational institutions help young people towards maturity and develop their personalities. And that certainly does not come about in having pupils and students crouching in front of their screens. An identity, or feeling of self, is formed through reflexive adaptation and meaningful adoption of social roles – roles that on the one hand we are obliged to play, and on the other hand willingly assume. None of this can emerge if our private and public existences, family and career, social and political lives merge into a uniform ‘home office’ existence. 

Schools and universities must therefore be places in which experiences are made and life is lived, where one learns to be a public actor. Knowledge can be conveyed in a socially responsible way only in such scenarios. Universities should not become digital institutions, where one simply plugs in one's computer.

This article was published in the 01/2020 edition of the Campus Passau Magazin.

Prof. Dr. Christian Thies

Professor Christian Thies

researches practical philosophy

What can classical philosophy contribute to the digital society?

What can classical philosophy contribute to the digital society?

Professor Christian Thies has been holder of the Teaching Professorship of Philosophy at the University of Passau since 2009. The emphasis in his research is on practical philosophy and, seen historically, in particular classical German philosophy.

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