At Arm's Length

In Laboratory for Education and Society (ed.), Sketching a Place for Education in Times of Learning. Leuven: Springer. pp. 49-52 (2018)
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In 1915, a student named Walter Benjamin published his first article, entitled “The life of students”. In this reflection on the condition of student life, Benjamin touched upon one of the most puzzling features of the university: its disconnection from the real world. Benjamin draws our attention to the “huge gulf between ideas and life”, which the university was supposed to bridge through its connection with the state. Benjamin claims, however, that there is no such bridge. On the one hand, we have university life, which is all about living and breathing theory, about “the will to submit to a principle, to identify completely with an idea”, as Benjamin puts it. On the other, in the world, we have the unchangeable rites and practices, institutions, marriage, family, jobs, legal systems, and tacit rules of proper behaviour, a way of life to which everyone assents by dedicating their own life to it. Benjamin is saddened that the world remains the same no matter how many students pass through the university, where they engage in an intense theoretical life. The university stage of life ends abruptly, when the graduates are cast away, back to the other side of the gulf, on the shore of the old world, which cannot be changed by the abstract theories smuggled out from the university.
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