Minna Lindgren's speech at the anniversary ceremony 26.3.2024

Madam Rector, dear guests!

It seems absurd to speak to this audience in this hall about the Finnish concept of ‘sivistys’, which encompasses culture, edification, learning and Bildung , a topic assigned to me from above. This is a bit like talking to the Finnish Medical Association about health.

I was given this topic because the Ministry of Education and Culture, together with the Lifelong Learning Foundation, has declared this year as the Year of Sivistys. That is a bold act. I already thought that ‘edification’ and ‘enlightenment’ were words consigned to history, as they are often substituted for with the acronym RDI, which stands for research, development and innovation. They are, of course, associated with economic growth and the mission of universities.

On leap day, an event entitled ‘Sivistyksen yö’ (The Night of Sivistys’) was organised under this theme. It was opened by the esteemed economist Sixten Korkman. While I respect him, I am a little worried that economists have taken the place of philosophers in public discourse. When economists write about the humanities and education, we are all thrilled – not because they have something new or interesting to say, but because when an economist speaks about the significance of the humanities and the importance of education, we take them seriously. There is no column space for humanities scholars saying the same thing, nor is there any interest in their thoughts on the topic.

In connection with this theme, I also listened to the discussions and interviews at the Aurora future seminar. Surprisingly, the keynote speaker was not an economist, but a journalist, the documentarian Louis Theroux. Under the title ‘sivistys’, Theroux spoke genially about himself only: his documentaries, books, parents and education, even his children.

Following Theroux’s example, I will tell you about myself. The previous generations of my family included many professors, and even one university rector. When I talk about university, I mean the University of Helsinki, as it was the workplace for the men in my family, which hails from Helsinki. Growing up so immersed in Bildung, I had already as a child become accustomed to parties where day-to-day politics is discussed. A recurring topic in my childhood was the establishment of so-called rural universities.

I remember the family men being very upset about the idea of founding universities all over the country. Rural universities were what they called these institutions, devised by the Centre Party of Finland, and they did not take seriously my maternal uncle, who signed up as a professor of mathematics at the newly established University of Oulu. “He’s not a real professor,” they said.

Why did these well-to-do gentlemen in Helsinki disapprove of the spread of universities throughout Finland? Because they were not honouring the idea of Bildu ng. Having said this, I hear a terrible rumbling from the direction of the Hietaniemi Cemetery, where my horrified relatives turn in their graves. Never could they imagine being uncivilised – after all, they specifically defined, through their work and manner, education, learning and edification.

But it was short-sighted and selfish to question the spread of university education throughout the country. In the 1960s and 1970s, Helsinki scholars feared the deterioration of their interests: would there be enough money, what will happen to research if it can be conducted in any rural village, and will the University of Helsinki lose its autonomy? Those were their worst fears.

In fact, at a celebration on a day like this, we must bear in mind that ‘academia’ and ‘scholarship’ do not automatically mean edification. The concept is frighteningly often associated with a sense of superiority, a kind of delusion, making it exclusive in principle. And when you are fighting for public funds, the biggest

determining factor can be your own interest instead of edification and Bildung, equality, responsibility and far-sightedness.

University is not the only path to Bildung. Educating all Finns at university does not result in the best possible society, as a good, well-functioning and equal society cannot rely solely on the highly educated. While we naturally consider it in our best interest to keep the highly educated segment of our population strong, in power and, preferably, growing, we cannot overlook what else our society needs.

After all, we cannot assume that there will always be a group of less educated others who will do the work we do not want to do ourselves. Right now, we are calling for more work-related immigration, as we understand that our educated people do not want jobs that are low-paying and undervalued but vital to society.

Is it a civilised solution that private businesses specialise in bringing Philippine mothers trained as nurses to work as nursing assistants in our public healthcare? Is Wolt, sold to the United States while earning sizable stock options for its founders, a genuine Finnish success story, when its success is based on the exploitation of immigrants?

Bildung is about hope and action, about choices and courage. Bildung is a prerequisite for advancement and progress. I assume that few people question these statements. I would also like to add that Bildung is about humour. The loss of humour in our public life, the absence of sketchwriters in our newspapers and that of sketch humour, political parody or social satire in electronic media is a symptom of the decline of certain kind of education. There are other symptoms, of course, but that does not mean that there is no education. Education just keeps changing, along with everything else.

In February, the Helsingin Sanomat daily published an essay on Finnish education by Professor Hannu L.T. Heikkinen from the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä. According to him, a key question that should be asked about education is the question of living a good life. What is a good life? What must we learn to achieve it? Heikkinen questioned skills as part of the discourse on education, as it guides the discussion towards the goals of business life.

In his essay, Heikkinen wrote about the Parks–Eichmann paradox. It compares the American Rosa Parks and the German Adolf Eichmann. Parks, a Black woman, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. In the service of the Nazi regime in Germany, Eichmann was responsible for the transport of Jews to the concentration camps. In his trial, he defended himself by saying that he only did his duty, following orders, while Rosa Parks violated the rules and launched the civil rights movement in the United States.

Heikkinen’s question was this: Are we educating Parks or Eichmanns?

This is not just about basic and upper secondary education, but also about universities and employment, society as a whole. Why do we value the Eichmanns, the obedient, conscientious citizens who do as they are told? What are we turning the world into if we disregard those who violate the rules and question the prevailing morals, these Rosa Parks?

As far as education, or Bildung, is concerned, this conflict pits obedience and action against each other. Good things don’t come from good thoughts, but from deeds. This is why Bildung requires courage alongside learning and knowledge. This is why Bildung does not stay quiet when in power. Silence is acceptance – or, as Alexei Navalny reminded us, evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

I believe I said that Bildung is a prerequisite for evolution, advancement and progress, and you nodded your heads. But neither advancement nor progress is an absolute value, nor are they always something to be pursued. Advancement can result in disaster, as we are seeing right now, and progress can result in decline.