Who: Teun Dekker, philosopher at University College Maastricht (UCM)
Book: From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Jules Verne
Target: UCM students
“It is about a group of engineers – The Gun Club – who improved artillery during the American Civil War. The war is over, they are bored and think: ‘Let’s do something fun. Let’s build a canon to shoot a bullet to the moon.’ They all think it's a great idea and start collecting money – this book is about the American attitude. Then a telegram arrives from a Frenchman who says: ‘If you are going to shoot a bullet to the moon, why not put someone inside it?’. So they build a gigantic canon and embark upon the journey to the moon.
“This is a tribute to fantasy and fantasy is important: you have to think up something before it becomes reality. Of course it is a ludicrous idea: using a canon to shoot a bullet with people inside to the moon. But 104 years later, it actually happened. In Florida, close to the place where Verne had his imaginary canon built. Mankind is only limited by his powers of imagination.
“One of the things I try to teach my students is to dream big. We are inclined to reject an idea if it is strange or different. You have to give those ideas a chance, think them through. Verne used everything he knew about technology, mathematics and astronomy to calculate how big the canon should be, where it should be placed, which materials should be used – he worked the idea out in great detail. Don’t ask ‘why?’, but ‘why not?’. Having an open mind is important for UCM students, who have a broad field of study and look beyond disciplines, not to mention philosophy students. Ideas are never crazy in philosophy.
“We live in an exceptionally miserable time. What is lacking are large projects – like the lunar excursion – which are supported by everybody. Something that gives us a sense of solidarity. During the last depression in the thirties – which, by the way, was much worse than the present one – there was a lot of creativity. Not this time. “Never waste a good crisis,” Milton Friedman said, but that's exactly what we are doing. The weirdest, most out-of-the-box idea that we can think of in the Netherlands at the moment is organising the 2028 Olympics. Not that I have anything against that, but I do think: is that it?
“I read all of Jules Verne’s books when I was young. Every now and then, I reread them. For the cheerfulness, the optimism and the inspiration. Great art is often about suffering. It is important to make people aware of injustice and sorrow. There is very little really good optimistic literature, but that is important too. In the end, everything begins with fantasy.”