Historical Dreams and Dreaming History – From Virginia to Lüneburg

By Veronika M. Heinrich

When I start­ed study­ing at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, I even­tu­al­ly went into the library and couldn’t help notice the quote by Thomas Jef­fer­son on the library stair­case. The words and pos­si­ble mean­ings were res­onat­ing with me. By study­ing here, I imag­ined, I can cre­ate a bet­ter future. No mat­ter how dark the past is, we can make the future brighter.
Now that a few semes­ters have passed, I recent­ly start­ed to ques­tion the quote. By only look­ing into the future, don’t we neglect the past? What kind of quote is this to put in a library, which basi­cal­ly con­sists of works of the past? Is there a deep­er mean­ing to why a quote by Thomas Jef­fer­son was cho­sen? And is it suit­able to put his words on our walls? What else is there to know about Jef­fer­son and his dreams for the future?

To ana­lyze the quote prop­er­ly, I think we need to know more about Thomas Jef­fer­son and the con­text in which the quote appeared. Jef­fer­son was the third Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States (1801–1809) and one of its founders. He was also a philoso­pher and archi­tect. The quote orig­i­nates from a let­ter he wrote to John Adams (sec­ond Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States) in 1816. Look­ing back at his life, Jef­fer­son remarks that

big­otry is the dis­ease of igno­rance, of mor­bid minds; enthu­si­asm of the free and buoy­ant. edu­ca­tion & free dis­cus­sion are the anti­dotes of both. we are des­tined to be a bar­ri­er against the returns of igno­rance and bar­barism. old Europe will have to lean on our shoul­ders, and to hob­ble along by our side, under the monk­ish tram­mels of priests & kings, as she can. what a Colos­sus shall we be when the South­ern con­ti­nent comes up to our mark! what a stand will it secure as an alliance for the rea­son & free­dom of the globe! I like the dreams of the future bet­ter than the his­to­ry of the past.

Look­ing at this state­ment, Jef­fer­son doesn’t only dream of edu­ca­tion and free­dom, he also dreams of the pow­er and the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. His dreams have come true in a way, since Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties have now also adapt­ed the Amer­i­can Bachelor/Master sys­tem. Then again, he couldn’t pos­si­bly have imag­ined that every­one would have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend these uni­ver­si­ties. Giv­en that Jef­fer­son was a slave­hold­er and that he fought against the Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions of Amer­i­ca, his ‘enlight­ened’ world­view crum­bles – at least from today’s per­spec­tive. In his times, the Age of Enlight­en­ment meant a new and rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal sys­tem where you would elect your leader. Though his idea of free­dom and equal­i­ty meant that only white, prop­er­ty-own­ing men deserved polit­i­cal participation.
You might ask why a Jef­fer­son­ian quote was placed in our library. Of course, a uni­ver­si­ty cre­ates the future by cre­at­ing knowl­edge. But inter­est­ing­ly enough, there’s more to it. Leuphana’s cam­pus con­sists of for­mer mil­i­tary bar­racks called Scharn­horst Kaserne. Through the reform of the Bun­deswehr, Germany’s army, this area was free for repur­pos­ing and the bar­racks were con­vert­ed into a uni­ver­si­ty in the 1990s. The goal was to find a bal­ance between the mil­i­tary past and the uni­ver­si­ty future. The orig­i­nal bar­racks were con­struct­ed in 1930s dur­ing the Nazi era, with infantry units posi­tioned there. Now, these for­mer bar­racks have turned into sem­i­nar rooms and offices.
The library used to house tanks – there was a lot that had to be changed. The foy­er alludes to the tem­ple of Athena, using pil­lars and a tri­an­gle-shaped roof. This sup­pos­ed­ly shows how knowl­edge is wor­shipped here. At some places in the library, traces of the mil­i­tary past remain to cre­ate vis­i­bil­i­ty and remembrance.
The plan was to cre­ate a cam­pus fash­ioned after Amer­i­can cam­pus­es, a con­cept called the aca­d­e­m­ic vil­lage. In the cen­ter, there would be a library instead of a church, an idea from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia (built between 1817 and 1826), designed by Thomas Jef­fer­son. Appar­ent­ly, he want­ed to put knowl­edge at the cen­ter of his world order.
I like this idea of a cam­pus vil­lage, a place to gen­er­ate knowl­edge and inter­act with oth­er stu­dents. The library is the go-to place for research­ing and writ­ing term papers. Knowl­edge is pow­er, they say. If that’s the case, it only makes sense to cre­ate a tem­ple for it. I like to look at it this way: You need to learn from the past. And you have to ques­tion what you’re look­ing at. Look­ing deep­er into the quote was only pos­si­ble by research­ing its ori­gin – part­ly in the library.
Of course, we can’t neglect the past. Maybe that’s what Jef­fer­son want­ed to do, but I don’t think it’s what this quote means in the con­text of the library. A lot of pre­cau­tions were tak­en to assure that the mil­i­tary past of the Leuphana cam­pus wouldn’t be for­got­ten. Our gen­er­a­tion might not be guilty of the Nazi crimes, but we bear the respon­si­bil­i­ty to pre­vent them from hap­pen­ing again. There­fore, this quote inspires me to learn from the past and to cre­ate a bet­ter future.
Thomas Jef­fer­son was a man of his time. His ideals were not the same as the ones we val­ue today. Maybe he stood at the begin­ning of a devel­op­ment that brought us to where we are today.

 1,519 Total Views,  4 Views Today