Academic journal article German Quarterly

our predicament, our prospects

Academic journal article German Quarterly

our predicament, our prospects

Article excerpt

Our Predicament

For several decades, Germanists in the United States have been worrying about the state of the field. Our discussions have responded to two distinct phenomena: the statistical decline in German enrollments from their high point in the late sixties and the challenges of methodological debates which called into question established practices of criticism. Arguments frequently link these two concerns by suggesting that if certain reforms in our teaching or scholarship were to take place, then the problem with enrollment numbers would be solved. If only we were more theoretical, or perhaps less so; if only we would teach more in English, or less narrowly; if only we were more American and less German, then, so the arguments went, our predicament would improve. In retrospect those suggestions appear comprehensible only in light of the panic that the drop in enrollments elicited; by now we can also recognize the various claims as outdated and dubious.

What took place in German in the last third of the twentieth century was to a very large extent not a result of Germanists making mistakes. On the contrary, it was only one small piece of an enormous transition in American college education, an epochal student migration out of traditional humanities concentrations. All the languages have been losers, particularly if one looks at numbers of majors graduated, rather than gross enrollment statistics. The winners have been social sciences, as well as vocationally-linked curricula. The point of this remark is not to suggest that we should ignore our situation, nor that we refuse to consider alternate strategies, but that we take a broader view of the historical transitions in higher education and especially in undergraduate education.

The future of German Studies depends on our success among undergraduates, above all. Neither innovative scholarship nor (over)productive graduate programs will do us much good, if the undergraduate programs fail to thrive. It is impossible to overlook the growing national concern with the quality of undergraduate education. In part, the attention to undergraduate teaching reflects broad-based shifts away from research funding (including basic research in the sciences) and a concomitant shrinking of graduate education. In addition, for some time already, the public has been wondering about the value it receives for the ever-higher college tuition it is forced to pay Institutions respond by reviewing the quality of undergraduate programs and teaching. In a more positive vein, given the recent success of the current American economy and, particularly the low unemployment, undergraduates today are under less pressure to focus on the immediate vocational relevance of their college education. Humanities majors, generally regarded as least linked to career paths, may be regaining some of the plausibility they lost after the sixties.

German Studies can never win a game of pure numbers. Other languages will always attract more students, and other fields will always be more attractive than languages and literatures. However in the present context, there is an opportunity to focus on quality: to provide highest quality instruction in all classes, language and literature, and to build programs that retain students and lead to strong major populations. The intellectual vitality of German Studies, combined with as much individualized attention to students as possible, should make our programs attractive to energetic and ambitious students. German language enrollments hover around ten percent nationally Given the demographic make-up of the West Coast, the figure at Stanford is closer to five percent. Nevertheless, last June ( 1999), more than twenty percent of Stanford's BAs in foreign languages were in German. All universities have to pay attention, of course, to overall enrollment patterns, but no college or university can afford to ignore educational success.

Cultural Transfer

The intellectual energy of the study of German in the United States has always derived from the position of the field as a medium of cultural transfer between Germany and the United States. …

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