Academic journal article German Quarterly

A modest proposal

Academic journal article German Quarterly

A modest proposal

Article excerpt

The rapidly approaching end of the old millennium and the beginning of a new one invite reflection on "the status and the prospects of German cultural and literary studies in the years to come," as Dagmar Lorenz, editor of The German Quarterly, puts it in her letter to prospective contributors to the "Forum" section of the "millennial" issue. What better place to start than with the problem recently posed by Herbert Lehnert in this journal (71.2 [1999]: 75-77), that is, the question as to what constitutes "The Heart of Our Mission." In responding to the comments on Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) in GQ by Russell A. Berman (71.1 [1998]: 63-67] and Jeffrey M. Peck (70.2 [1997]: 168-74)both of whom had reacted to Lehnert's original piece on Goldhagen (70.1 [1997]: 57-64)-Lehnert expands Berman's claim by postulating that "the evaluation of German culture" is not only the task of GQ but that of all Germanists. After discerning that which is "valuable" in German culture, they are charged with disseminating their knowledge and with imparting it to their students. As innocuous as such a charge may sound, the notion of something valuable in and about German culture is no longer an uncontested issue; furthermore, in defining Germanists' function as that of cultural mediators, Lehnert is likely to run afoul of those who engage in the isolationist politics of Abgrenzung from matters German (see GQ 71.1 [1998]: 67-69). Needless to say, Lehnert does not advocate the exclusion or suppression of the sinister chapters in German cultural and general history-among which, as the Goldhagen debate demonstrates, the Holocaust looms extraordinarily large-yet it is doubtful whether his proposal to use the study of "the German aspect of Western culture" as a kind of cautionary tale to alert students to the persistent dangers of "anti-Semitism specifically, and ethnic hate generally" in all of Western culture will be applauded universally.

It is not necessarily a sign of a profession in disarray if the perceptions of that which constitutes its "mission" differ significantly; in fact, one may construe the existence of fiercely contested issues to be a sign of vigor and health. Be that as it may, once upon a time there were commonly held presuppositions as to the subject of study as well as its purpose, the curriculum, and so forth. Robert Holub writes about this irretrievably lost state of affairs in the North American Heine Society Newsletter:

Throughout most of the twentieth century the curriculum was firmly based in language and literature. Students learned German so that they could read great literary works; poems and short stories were already part of the curriculum in the earliest semesters of instruction [...]. Graduate studies were more of the same, more intense, more inclusive, but always literary (Summer 1999, 1)

The vast changes that have been sweeping the profession (and society at large) are propelled by a new emphasis on race, class, women, and minorities. The subsequent institutionalization of appropriate programs and courses has resulted in the modification or abandonment of the formerly exclusively literary focus of various departments. This change that has been hailed by some as progressive, state-of the-art, and cutting-edge scholarship (one should be mindful, however, that today's cutting edge may be tomorrow's discarded blunt knife); it is viewed by others with skepticism, distrust, and alarm. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.