No 36 First Quarter 2001

Po-mo dream team

If postmodernists were soccer players, this would be something like the dream team. In the front line you’d find Peter Greenaway and D.J. Spooky flanked by John Waters and Chantal Akerman. The solid defence would include Jean Baudrillard, Donna Haraway, the ‘bad boy’ of Hegelian theory Slavoj Zizek, and Nietszche specialist Fred Ulfers, three-time winner of the New York University’s Best Teacher award.
The team was put together by a mercurial Schopenhauer specialist Wolfgang Schirmacher. (An updated version for 2006 is here)

Studying under the "stars"

By Peter Hulm

The Canton of Valais -- one of Switzerland's major mountain playgrounds and the source of its best wine -- has never had a cantonal university. For a long time this seemed a major drawback, condemning it to suffer a brain-drain of its best and brightest young people to the major cities and the universities of other cantons.

Recently, however, cantonal authorities have turned this apparent drawback to an advantage - giving foreign private education establishments the chance to register themselves in the Valais and offer degrees. This has enabled the canton to attract academic stars and compete in the "brain wars" that are causing Switzerland such problems elsewhere in the conventional university system. The European Graduate School, based in the Valais, provides one example.

Not many universities can offer filmmakers Peter Greenaway and John Waters as active members of their faculty. Nor can many promise courses with French cultural guru Jean Baudrillard, US "performance art" lecturer Allucquère Rosanne Stone, feminist theorist Donna Haraway and Slovene postmodern critical theorist Slavoj Zizek.

Yet for six weeks in summer a series of intensive seminars brings these stars of the academic world to the high Valais resort of Saas-Fee for the post-graduate media studies course of the European Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Studies (EGS). Other faculty staff include Fred Ulfers, three-time winner of New York University's Best Teacher Award and a specialist in the newly fashionable Swiss-based 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and museum curator and critic Yve-Alain Bois.

The courses include several hours of online teaching in preparation as well as intensive seminars.

EGS Dean Wolfgang Schirmacher, a long-time member of New York's New School of Social Research, explains: "We teach communication from a cross-disciplinary perspective by bringing together master's and doctoral students with the visionaries and philosophers of the media world." The objective, he declares, is to achieve "creative breakthroughs and theoretical paradigm shifts."

As a result, though it has no physical campus, the School attracts some of what Schirmacher calls "the best of the cybergeneration" -- young creative artists, media professors with practical experience, Web workers and other members of the 'creative' professions.

"We consider only fiercely independent students who work well within a program combining distance learning and limited residency," Schirmacher points out. Launched in 1998, the Media and Communcations Division of EGS is graduating two MA and two PhD students, its first, in 2002. (It has an equally successful Expressive Arts Therapy Division launched in 1994).

EGS stresses its cross-disciplinary approach, and the school has reminded many people of the legendary Black Mountain College in the post-war United States, which brought together composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and painter Robert Rauschenberg along with a host of other artists. The difference is, that thanks to the Valais educational authorities, EGS can hand out post-graduate degrees.

The brainchild of Schirmacher and likeminded academics, EGS was launched to attract students not just by its star turns but to offer people who had already made their mark a way to absorb some of the cutting edge ideas in communications. Its format also sprang from Schirmacher's determination to get away from the dismissive way US universities often treat their graduate students -- as cheap teaching staff -- and from the impersonal distance between professors and students at European universities.

So though Schirmacher has 15 years experience with online teaching, the Saas-Fee intensive seminars are a key component of the course. "It is not so much the content the professors provide," he says. "They come here to present their case. They also expect their students to present their case. Students have to be independent personalities in their own right."

Nor does EGS want students who seek to use their degrees solely for their personal development. "We will not accept 'pensioners.' We want students who will make an impact at a professional level."

EGS is determined not to depend on public money for its operations, enabling it to keep complete independence. This means that student fees have to pay for most of the running expenses, but by keeping down administrative costs and using cyber-educational technology to the full, each academic year is restricted to a score of students and total fees are a competitive US$15,000.

Schirmacher, President of the International Schopenhauer Association, used his wide-ranging contacts to build up the star cast of the EGS faculty and many of the students are graduates of the New School. EGS wants to expand its range of students but young working professionals in the arts find the fees hard to pay from their own pockets, even in Switzerland. "The ideal would be a trust fund or sponsorship for scholarships to enable students to take advantage of the opportunity we offer," says Schirmacher. East Europeans, Chinese and Swiss have applied for places but had to withdraw because they could not find ways to obtain the money, he reports. So that is the next step EGS wants to take in its "brain wars".


Dr Wolfgang Schirmacher
Dean of the Division of Media and Communication
CH-3953 Leuk-Stadt

Tel +41 27 474 9917
Fax +41 27 474 9969

Peter Hulm, co-editor of Crosslines Global Report, signed up with EGS in 2001.

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written September 2000