Research and Emptiness

In today’s Frankfurter Rundschau, U. Herrmann writes (in German) about “Research and Emptiness” = “Forschung und Leere”, which is a homophon of “Forschung und Lehre” = “Research and Teaching”, whose unity/ oneness is an important principle of the Humboldtian university ideals.

The article complains about the current financial promotion policy that divides universities into those with research and those that merely serve a cost-effective (i. e. lowbrow) training. He argues that research in the universities, unlike research in special institutes of the Max Planck, Fraunhofer, and Leibniz societies, has been first and foremost for generating and developing research competence, not for long-term fundamental research or application-oriented research. And he reminds of the reasons for the principle of unity of research and teaching:

“that professoral teaching should be based on research experience and activity of one’s own, i. e., on the breeding/ generation of science and not only on its transfer, and that studying in its advanced stages should be characterized by participation in this generation process, respectively by qualification for such a participation process, and not by the mere take-over of scholarly knowledge.”
(Emphasis and translation mine, longer German version here.)

This suggests that too much Tayloristic division-of-labor between research and teaching exhibits a curtailed view of learning, learning as knowledge transmission, similar to the Nuremberg Funnel.

But why should students be bothered with a research environment if they will never do research later on? Because research and their distinctive future tasks have somehing in common: solving complex new problems on their own that no one else has solved before, where probably nobody in the enterprise can be asked.

In contrast, if they just accumulate factual knowledge that can be transmitted by a cheaper second-choice professor, it may be doubted that this sort of knowledge will suffice, no matter how much the curriculum is inflated. And if this sort of “knowledge” can be transmitted with minimal human teacher effort, with canned e-learning objects, almost mechanistically through the funnel — why not go one step further and suggest that it can as well be looked up just-in-time on the web instead of being memorized?

(Disclosure: My university is not among the three German “elite” universities selected last week. And yesterday was its 620-th birthday.)

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