Academic journal article German Quarterly

German studies and the crisis of humanistic work

Academic journal article German Quarterly

German studies and the crisis of humanistic work

Article excerpt

I

As I write, the "longest peace-time economic expansion in United States history" still continues, benefitting those who benefit from such expansions, and yet the college- and university-level humanitiesparticularly foreign language and literature departments like German Studiesfind themselves newly or still or once again in crisis.' In the absence of an obvious economic explanation for the perceived crisis, professors in these departments argue variously that the crisis is new (Berman, "Reform" 61), or old (Lindenberger), the result of "the decline of the nation-state as a selfenclosed monolingual unit with a single national ethos" (Miller 233), or of a deeplyrooted American isolationism (Bernhardt), of a backlash against bilingualism (Seeba), or the "decline of the status of foreign languages, literature, and the humanities in general" (Henke), or because, with the end of the Cold War, universities are no longer exempted from market rationality and therefore begin to adapt themselves to a corporate model which discourages tradition, inflexibility, and the high fixed costs of long-term, tenured, employment (Hohendahl 84). Enrollments in language and literature departments not teaching Spanish or Asian languages continue to fall; tenure-line billets are not replaced; "brilliant and dedicated new PhDs" (Miller 233) are not hired; professorial autonomy is eroded, while whole departments are closed or allowed to wither. Humanistic study in foreign languages and literatures, these commentators agree, is in the midst of a long and serious crisis.

By definition, crises are experienced as threatening. In a 1958 speech on the crisis in American education, Hannah Arendt pointed out a potentially positive consequence of crisis: it can have the salutory effect of destroying previously unquestioned assumptions, and therefore of opening up all previously settled questions for discussion. "Der Verlust von Vorurteilen," Arendt argued, "hei]3t ja nur, daB wir die Antworten verloren haben, mit denen wir uns gewohnlich behelfen, ohne auch nur zu wissen, daB sie urspriinglich Antworten auf Fragen warm. Eine Krise drangt uns auf die Fragen zur(ick and verlangt von uns neue oder alte Antworten, auf jeden Fall aber unmittelbare Urteile" (5).

In the current situation of the humanities, it is clearly the case that we have lost effective use of at least some of the justifications which were once our answers to questions about the meaning of humanistic work. This is evident in the indifferentism into which the humanistic disciplines appear to have sunk after the intoxicating mock-battles of the age of pure theory. The current crisis of German Studies, then, is not only an economic or administrative one confined to small language departments, but also an intellectual crisis affecting the humanities as a whole. The current crisis can enable us to become conscious of our habitual answers, but also of the questions which prompted these answers.

One of these answers seems to have been an ethic of professionalism: not so much, or not always, as an explicit credo, but as an assumption behind a very common defense of the humanities which scholars began to give in response to the legitimation deficits and consequent motivational crises of the past thirty years, including the political crisis of the sixties, the economic one of the mid-seventies, and the cultural wars of the past decade.' Humanistic knowledge in the form of literary or cultural theory, it was and is sometimes still argued, is justifiably as complex as physics or chemistry; there is no more reason that the broader public should be conversant in the one as in the other. Although is not only Left or Left-liberal humanists who make or have made this argument, it has been particularly attractive to them for its non-political character. The argument was first heard in the late seventies and early eighties, at a juncture when, in the United States, a great political gulf had opened among university students, faculty, and extra-university organizations and publics. …

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