My inspiration for creating Berlin: City of Reinvention

Dr Alexander Heinz is the last person on the right

Dr Alexander Heinz is the academic lead of “Berlin: City of Reinvention” and King’s Summer Programmes’ Associate Director for Research and Innovation

Three years ago, I wrote a new kind of short-term programme that combined what had fascinated me about current research in international education and my own personal experience. The programme was about the possibility of transforming the world through personal agency; but I called it “Berlin: City of Reinvention”. It has allowed over 100 King’s students from very different subject disciplines to spend a week of encounters and active learning in Berlin since.

Some of the genesis of the programme is very personal. I used to be a student myself in Berlin, once romantically in love and out of love with the city. Coming from a generation who was politicised by the fall of the wall, that most liberating and exhilarating of times that one can live through, I believe that Berlin is one of the places where students, who were born a decade after these events, can still discover and feel that initial sense of wonder and of human power to overcome what seems to be accepted in life. A recent US President said in his farewell speech, “the most important office in a democracy is being a citizen”. I have always believed that, perhaps also for all my student years spent as a scholar of the German National Scholarship Foundation, who gently instilled in us the ethos of taking initiative and of taking action for others.

Doris Sommer’s concept of civic agency and how art was a major factor in empowering us was a major influence for Sarah Williamson, Director of King’s Summer Programmes, and myself recently. The Humanities’ role in addressing issues in society is coming increasingly to the fore, in Germany the minister for education just last week announced a large Geisteswissenschaften programme to address issues of social cohesion, recognising the innovative potential of practical applications and hopefully an exciting opportunity for engagement with Germany in the future. At the same time, I build on my own research as a historian. I spent many years researching and writing a book on the stereotypes in Britain about Germans, and these perceptions are with us, in different formations, in all generations. Our learning about Germany will not be free from them; “the war” is still one of the first things that Generation Z Britons associate with Germany in our pre-departure classes. Nobody comes to this course as a blank sheet. It’s both astonishing and at the same time not a surprise at all. I wanted this course to acknowledge the ability for us to change how we think about things, even if our perceptions might be deep seated. Berlin with its broken history seemed to be the historical personification of this ability to change, to reimagine itself.

Yet, this is not a history course. The course is firmly in the present with its job market challenges, start up scene, refugee “welcome culture” or lack of. Berlin is not a beautiful place on the surface. Its main resource are its people. It reveals itself to the visitor, the temporary local, over time. “What makes Berlin’s citizenry so attractive”, our workshop in the middle of the week, is often a turning point for participants. A couple of sessions before, a discussion like this could not have happened. The centre of the course is in truth not Berlin either. It is easier if we first look at others, those Berliners and then think about ourselves. In reality, the course wants to be about each participant individually on this journey, and how we position ourselves vis-à-vis the situations we find ourselves in and the people who have power over us or who we have responsibility for. It is all too often not too difficult to say with hindsight, which side of history we would have stood on. Yet, when is resistance in our everyday required and legitimate, even though it might not be legal? The challenge is to think about our freedom for today in Britain, in our professional, social and our political lives.

The programme is thus challenging intellectually, physically and sometimes mentally, in a measured way. It has its painful moments and asks about the role of guilt to move on, the need for forgiveness to live in Germany, the responsibility of generations born long after an event. It is also demanding in other ways. It requires students not just to think as medics, as geographers, as scientists or literature students. It requires the courage to do so and the openness to listen. It asks of us to think about wider contexts and areas of our life that they might not have thought about, or not have talked about. Are the Stasi headquarters offices boring as the evil is banal? Is evil even the right word? Last year a student mentioned that she felt listened to for the first time in her life.

In the United Kingdom, the idea of creating international opportunities for non-traditional or first generation students is still a relatively new endeavour and the course is attracting interest from colleagues in this country and at large conferences internationally. Educationalists speak a lot about a sense of belonging at the moment. That sense might often have been there at school, but it needs to be built from scratch at university. I myself often felt that that sense would primarily come through making a meaningful contribution, but there are other, more effective ways of achieving this. We put a lot of emphasis on peer-to-peer support and learning in King’s Summer Programmes and the course is an opportunity to network and build friendships in a warm and safe atmosphere.

For many students on the module it is a first step to rediscover the power of the international in their own life and the cultural stake that they already have in it, perhaps in their own family history, that can serve them very well in the future. We are learning through looking at and encountering the lives of others and are arriving, with criticality, at a stronger self.

All this is exciting and we in Summer Programmes are set to continue to develop and refine this type of programming further in the future, using the academic disciplines within the College as a galvanising power. Berlin will remain a mirror, a destination, but there is so much more to discover on this globe and within ourselves.

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