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“Brussels is a dream spot.” Caroline Pauwels made that statement somewhat halfway through her academic opening speech on Tuesday 26th September. That image also was the figurative crux of her plea to the capacity crowd of the Henri Le Boeuf room at BOZAR. She referred among other things to the rebellious views of René Magritte, that taught us to look differently at that was is familiar. An example to follow, echoed Jana Goyvaerts. The recent graduate in Communication Sciences flanked Caroline Pauwels on stage as rector for one week.
Brussels, city of dreamers
With her Magrittean description Caroline Pauwels reminded the audience that Brussels has always been a refuge for rebels, revolutionaries and dreamers. Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Multatuli and many more cherished their utopians view in our city and in doing so changed the world. Their spirits and that of Magritte have a lot in common, because even though we tend to use surrealism in its meaning of unreal, strange and absurd, it also entails a way of observing and thinking that question, rebels against and undermines the obvious. “That spirit, which is also the spirit of the early days of VUB, I want to bring back.”
The need for this spirit is great, according to the VUB rector. What is going on in the world today, seemingly only accords with the first, most common definition of surrealism. A president of a powerful nation, claiming global warming is a fable from China. Academics and journalists in Turkey are being jailed as terrorists by the hundreds. Even the academic world is not free from blame with fake papers, describing fictive life forms out of Star Wars, finding no trouble to get published in certain scientific periodicals.
We call these types of events surrealistic. Often as an alibi not to change them. But that position is untenable and self-destructive, Pauwels continued. On the contrary, we must once again dare to be radical dreamers: radically digital, radically sustainable, radically humane and radically diverse.”
Breaking down the walls with konekt.brussels
Yet, dreams are nothing without action. That is why VUB couples each dream to a project. konekt.brussels is such a project: a radically urban experiment to trigger students to head out in the city and thus opening up new horizons both literally and figuratively. “We’re turning our city into one giant living lab where students from all our faculties will take classes on location.” In other words Pauwels is following up on her maiden rector speech from last year: the walls between city and university must be brought down.
“We must return to surrealism in its original meaning,” Pauwels concluded. “We must dare to dream of a different world and of different science. As Vrije Universiteit Brussel, as heirs of Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen and in the spirit of René Magritte, it is our moral obligation. As long as we also keep questioning ourselves, there is nothing wrong with that. Because a Vrije Universiteit Brussel that becomes a university like all others, has a priori lost its very raison d’être.”