3 letters on History

Endless Present

Dear Ole Bouman,

The definition of shared ground, and consequently a shared notion of heritage, implies the notion of an extended time horizon. We share a territory, a landscape or a city only if we can plan to inhabit it in the long period, only if we can imagine our children also living there. In the end, pharaohs or emperors built palaces only because they believed that their dynasties would use those buildings in the future. Certainly they lacked the idea of sharing, but they did not miss the idea of an extended time-frame.

On the contrary this long-term prospect disappeared from the contemporary perception of time. Capitalism removed the longer time frame to have everybody concentrated on a endless present, with respect to which we will never be updated enough. Is the lack of a consistent heritage policy in contemporary western democracies, just a consequence of their obsessive concentration on the present?
Is it necessary to move away from modernity (in the sense of an everyday effort to adapt to the newest incarnations of the Zeitgeist) in order to re-gain a perception of what we are being deprived of? And how to claim the relevance of an extended time horizon (extending to the future and to the past) without sounding terribly conservative?

Stefano Boeri


Dear Stefano,

If we can distinguish between two kinds of “extended time-frames”: one retrospective and the other proactive, the latter is at a much worse condition than the first.
I have lived a big part of my life in the city of Amsterdam, with its semi-circular historic core, one of the famous European cities. There’s no lack of sharing history. On the contrary, with a booming tourist industry, history has become a kind of cultural regime that is very hard to escape from or to go beyond. Folks start to compare it even to Venice, as a people processor that promotes its heritage as a monolithic narrative, and the perfect backdrop of a leisurely life. But of course, it’s not a Venetian issue, it is about a European condition. History, seen this way, is no opposite of modernity. It is part of our continental version of modernity. Then, here and now, all-in the same bowl. With a massive taboo on what should be next.

This makes it all the more difficult to imaging the future as an act of shared creation and shared experience. But it is not necessary to “move away from modernity to regain a perception of what we are deprived of”. Apart from the fact that this would mean a completely different mindset that we will have a hard time to cope with for other reasons, there are also very interesting acts of design thinkable, that will re-introduce forms of synchronization between people, without the meta-historical onus to prove the point. For instance the return of a social service for all will foster a
cross-generational empathy. For instance a post-fossil environment may inform a new city life that we have to learn together. And there is much more. “Claiming relevance” is almost always a failed project. Let’s prove relevance with what we do best.

Ole Bouman


Dear Prof. Dr. Wanka,

At the website of the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, you state,
Our responsibility in the area of education addresses every stage of human life, beginning with early childhood learning through to continuing education and lifelong learning. [...] One of our priority concerns is the establishment of social equality in education to ensure that a person’s background no longer determines his or her chances to get an education and that no talent is wasted. International exchange in education and science is also one of our responsibilities.

At a time when Germany is grappling with a sudden and sizeable influx of foreign refugees who must be educated, in addition to fed, housed and protected against right-wing racism, these are important and salutary goals. However, meeting them requires an educational system that can provide these refugees, as well as any native German student at any level from any class background, with stability, sustained personal attention and continuity in the classroom environment.

These consistency conditions are necessary in order to counter the disruptions, chaos or disorientation the students are experiencing in their background environments. Such upheavals confine young people to an endless present, in which they are forced to improvise anew at each moment merely in order to survive. They inhibit and strangle the ability to think about the long term, and to make plans for the future. They deprive young people of the ability to dream that their lives might ever be better than they are now. They rob the young of hope.

It is very hard to imagine how your goals of a lifelong education in social equality for all students in Germany, regardless of their class, ethnic, national or international background, can be met under conditions in which a teacher, at any educational level in Germany, is expected to teach classes that enroll 25 to 300 or more students, without any prior student teacher training, lecture support staff or grading assistants. The resulting overcrowded, understaffed classes make extended conversation, focused attention on individual students, and an adequate quantity and quality of writing and research assignments impossible to maintain. They reproduce in the classroom the very chaotic and unstable conditions the students are there to escape.

Stefano Boeri has observed that “[t]he definition of shared ground, and consequently a shared notion of heritage, implies the notion of an extended time horizon. We share a territory, a landscape or a city only if we can plan to inhabit it in the long period, only if we can imagine our children also living there.” Why does Germany’s Minister of Finance think it is more important to balance the budget than to invest enough in education, NOW, in order to ensure a shared notion of heritage for Germany’s present and future generations?

Yours sincerely,
Adrian Piper