German Studies Strikes Again

by Sander L. Gilman
German Studies Strikes Again
Sander L. Gilman
The German Quarterly
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L. GILMAN University of Chicago

German Studies Strikes Again

One of the texts I read with my under- graduate students in our Western Civiliza- tion course is Tacitus's The Germania. About a thousand years old (give or take a bit), it provides me with a chance to talk with them about how the Romans needed to idealize the Northern peoples they fought and did so by constructingapositive stereotype of German. Tacitus's image was rooted more in his views about Roman dec- adence than any type of simple praise. In complex ways, reading Tacitus's text also enables us to trace how we see the Ger- mans seeing themselves. Knowing the German reception of Tacitus from the sev- enteenth century to the present can help us examine many of the fantasies, myths, and constructs about German-ness. But equally important a thousand years after Tacitus wrote The Germania (OK, 902 years) we stop and look back and see in his text, which is more about the Romans than the Germans, our own reflection in the texts we read and the books we write. Our North American study of things German is a reflection of our own sense of the Ger- many we need and the Germany we con- struct. Books written for other people's needs and readers other than ourselves shape our fantasies, and yet they become part of who we are and what we desire.

"Why and How I Study the German" was the title of an essay I published in these pages over a decade ago. (German Quar- terly 62 [1989]: 192-204.) And to this day my German-born colleagues look on this attempt (semi-satirically) to chart our field as a personal insult. I am accused of reduc- ing them to objects of study. Indeed, we in the field of Germanic Studies (whether lin- guistic, literary, cultural, or historical scholars) must be aware that it is precisely our collective construction of Germany, the Germans, and the German, in all of their variety, all of their projects, and all of their texts, that forms part of our North Ameri- can scholarship at the close of this century. (And that does indeed include all the Aus- trians and the German Swiss as well as things German throughout the world, from North America to the former German colonies in Africaand the South Seas.) Why and how we study things German is at the center of our enterprise, and that center has shifted radically over the past thirty years.

In the 1960s the final wave of Ger- man-trained Germanists began teaching at American universities. Following upon the Imperial scholars of the pre-WW I period, the emigre scholars of the Nazi pe- riod, the post-WW I1 emigration (which in- cluded even some Nazi scholars), the eco- nomic emigres of the 1960s were the last substantial wave of German Germanists to establish themselves in North America. The earlier waves of academic immigrants added measurably to the mix of the North American academic experience, bringing with them new insights, new methods, new texts. Our German-trained colleagues who came here in the 1960s have over the past thirty years also added to this mix, many of them becoming major figures both in the German as well as the American academic scene.

However, over the past twenty years the shift to North-America-based German Studies has meant that we have been able to train our own students for their roles in

The German Quarterly 73.1 (Winter 2000) 8

GILMAN: German Studies Strikes Again

the North American system. The importa- tion of scholars trained in Germany has become a trickle. Among the students we now train in North America are relatively large numbers of European-born German speakers who have opted to do their gradu- ate (and some even their undergraduate) training here. In addition, we have gradu- ate students and colleagues from every cor- ner of the world, as well as from the widest range of American ethnic groups in Ger- man Studies. Over the past twenty years we have increased the number of women in the profession radically, as well as produc- ing the first (and still the most active) ma-

jor organization of women scholars in Ger- man Studies.

Such diversity in personnel and ap- proach has little parallel in Germany today, where Germanistik is struggling with its own self-definition. No longer training large numbers of students for the public school system; no longer able to produce large numbers of doctoral students who are po- tential academics, and yet overproducing young academics; the field is confronted with the rise of cultural studies as an intel- lectual alternative in much the same way that English Departments in North Amer- ica were confronted by literary theory twen- ty years ago. In an odd way, the restructur- ing of German Studies in North America has begun to provide an alternative model for German Studies in Germany. It is not that the new model of anintegrated Ger- man Studies can be imported into Germany in its entirety, but rather that the develop- ment of such alternatives (as in the United Kingdom and France) points to the need for multiple models for the study of na- tional traditions. The new model of Ger- man Studies is, however, rooted in a notion of "smaller is better." We will not and can not compete with Gepartments of English or even Spanish for numbers of students, but we can compete in terms of the intellec- tual breadth and depth of the field.

Does German Studies have a future? No, it does not; it has a past. There is little value in trying to "sell" German as one of the primary languages in the new global community. Nor is there much sense in try- ing to rely on or resuscitate a nostalgia for things German in the various German communities, as Ursula Hegi has shown in her interviews with young German- Americans. We have seen the gradual ero- sion of German in high schools and colleges and the universities. Heritage speakers even in the Midwest have all but vanished. Our model of activity should not be Span- ish but Latin, which has carved a meaning- ful and productive niche for itself in the contemporary academy.

German will play a relatively small role for North American students who come to be engaged in the new global economy. When the chancellor of the Federal Repub- lic (joined by his Austrian counterpart) re- fuses (as he did in June 1999) to attend a European economic summit in Helsinki because German was not an official lan- guage, then we must really rethink the function of German in our day and age. He was wrong; the Finns were right. English is the lingua franca of the new Europe as it is of our globalized economy. We have the ad- vantage (and disadvantage) of having Eng- lish as our language of commerce and in- struction. Our students know quite cor- rectly that with English they can and will be able to function throughout the world. (And that awareness is especially true of students in North America whose first lan- guage is not English.) German can not be primarily studied because of its relevance for today's world, no matter what the cul- tural politics of the Federal Republic of Germany desire. It is not that German will vanish in the coming century. Certainly in- dividuals in international business who will live and work in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland will need to know the lan- guage and the culture. There will be more and more of them. And we must recognize this. But most students will study things German for other than pragmatic reasons.

What is vital is that we integrate the


riches and horrors of the German past into our curriculum. Twenty years ago, it was clear to me that the most interesting and compelling things which German Studies had to offer were being taught (and re- searched) by colleagues in other disci- plines. Mann, Kafka, and Benjamin were taught in English or comparative litera- ture departments; Freud (if taught at all) was taught in departments of English, and here at the University of Chicago in the So- cial Science core course; Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche (again if taught at all) were taught in departments of philosophy; Virchow, Koch, Einstein, and Planck in departments of the History of Science. "Holocaust studies" was becoming a main- stay of Jewish Studies programs (with all the caveats about this that Peter Novick gestures at in his new book). German his- tory was taught in history departments using literary texts in translation from Goethe to Grass; German art was taught in art history departments reading the Ex- pressionist dramatists in Walter Sokel's anthology; and German music in music departments, with the texts of operas by Beethoven and Wagner and Berg read in English. German cinema from the 1890s to the present was taught in cinema pro- grams or communications departments with crib sheets translating dialogue and little knowledge of the cultural background of the films.

The undergraduates (and some of the graduate students) interested in things German knew little or no German. Little or nothing was actually made of the German, Austrian, or Swiss linguistic contexts of these fields. Language was separate from culture and culture separate from the for- mal or structural aspects of these disciples, which stood at the center of instruction some twenty years ago. In German depart- ments, where one did read the language, the literary canon was chronological and clearly defined. Some attention was begin- ning to be given to popular culture but wide arenas of literary production continued to be ignored. Women writers from Rachel to Bachmann were rarely taught at all.

German Studies departments over the past twenty years have reintegrated these texts, writers, and these arenas of study into wide-ranging sets of courses taught by scholars highly qualified by their training and research. These courses reflect not only a complex knowledge of the language and culture, but also the theoretical ap- proaches to reading texts and cultures de- veloped within the broadest range of the humanities over the past decades.

Where will we be going in the next de- cade? I have no idea. But I do know that a few things have become clear. Our under- graduate students will not (and should not) be seen as pre-professional while our graduate students must be treated as young professionals. We should have un- dergraduate students from every corner of the university in our classes because they will find intellectual value in the things we teach and the way we teach them. We should teach in English and in German. We should give our undergraduate students the ability to read and study those texts and fields that interest them with those colleagues who have the scholarly exper- tise to teach. We must not be bound by con- ventional notions of what must be taught; we must teach those things that excite us and excite our students. Certainly we should and will have a small number of un- dergraduate students who wish to pursue German studies further. But we should not construct our undergraduate program like many departments of biology, which as- sume that the majority of their students will go on to PhDs in the Biological Sci- ences, while knowing full-well that the ma- jority will apply to medical school.

On the other hand, we must deal with our graduate students as if each and every one will be our handpicked successor. We should produce small numbers of very well trained scholar1 teachers who can function just as well at strong liberal arts colleges, major research institutions, or junior col-

GILMAN:German Studies Strikes Again

leges. In each case they will be contributing to the task of education and producing knowledge. No graduate student should be in any program because academics feel that they need to have graduate students; because slots in basic language courses have to be filled; or because every one who loves things German should be permitted to pursue graduate study, without a sense of what it means to spend seven-plus years and be jobless or underemployed at the end. (And that does not mean writing a dis- sertation on Kafka and getting a job work- ing for an insurance company, no matter how tempting the analogy. The only jobs which we should consider adequate as a measurement of our success are jobs which require or need the expertise graduate stu- dents acquire from us during their study and research.) Virtually everyone who ap- plies to a graduate program in German Studies for the PhD desires to teach at a

college or a university. Diversity and qual- ity, not numbers, should be our goal. And diversity in our field means looking at its real makeup now in the year 2000 and making sure that no single group, method, or direction defines the field.

Taking stock is a task for breaks in the calendar. At the end of every December, at the end of every end of a century, and now, for the second time in the Christian calen- dar, at the end of the millennium, we again take stock. In thirty years of teaching, I have seen the most extraordinarily posi- tive change in the field of German Studies. I can only hope for more such changes. For it is only with a permanent revolution that we can keep our field alive and vibrant. The changes of the past twenty years will be- come (if they have not already become) the status quo of the next century. They too will need to change. And will continue to do so.

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