Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Bonn Broadens American Studies

One German university offers more courses, more balanced views of US and Canada

JAN TRUPER strides through the arch of the University of Bonn, his long red scarf adding a touch of brightness to another gray day here. He is heading for the local student hangout after having just finished a 9:00 a.m. seminar on the United States and the Vietnam War.

This tousel-headed student, enrolled in the University of Bonn's North American Studies program, has a rule of thumb: no morning classes. But Vietnam, he remarks, is an exception. This class is worth getting up for.

About these ads

Jan is entranced by America in the '60s. In addition to being a full-time student, he also plays keyboards and composes music. "For me, as a musician" that decade has a lot of meaning, he says. "You know, the beat generation, free love, radicals, Vietnam" ... and all that. He would like to live in Los Angeles at some point and work for a record company.

Courses on the Vietnam War, says North American Studies director Lothar Honnighausen, were the rage at German universities in the '70s. He says they were used as a way to "criticize" the US and typified a period in higher education "when American studies in Germany really became anti-American studies."

At the university here, says Professor Honnighausen, that war is treated like the Civil War, World War II, or any other war: "for its role in the American imagination, for what it means to the American psyche."

Honnighausen is steering Bonn's one-and-a-half-year-old program toward what he hopes will become a new standard at German universities. One of his goals, he says, is "to transmit a more balanced view of the United States."

He wants to do this not only through fair and objective presentation of course material, but also by offering a wide variety of courses on North America (including Canada), which cover everything from religion, to history, to geography.

For the most part, according to Honnighausen, German universities have improved on the fairness issue. The backlash of anti-Americanism (which followed an equally strong post-World-War-II pro-Americanism) has disappeared from most German universities, he says.

But, he adds, American studies in Germany has a long way to go in terms of curriculum development. In Germany, American studies still means chiefly American literature and language.

About these ads

A 1989 report released by professors of American history in Germany, for instance, exposed a shocking deficit of American history courses at the university level. According to one of the report's authors, US history was offered at only one out of nine west German universities. In all of western Germany, there was only one full-professorship in American history, compared with more than 30 in Soviet and East European history.

Generally, "this has not improved," says Heinz Ickstadt, president of the German Association of American Studies. "It's always a question of power and money," he laments.

A handful of universities, such as those in Munich and Frankfurt, have added American culture (civilization) as a strong component to their literature programs.

But only one, the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin, can boast a full range of subjects. Professor Ickstadt, deputy director of the JFK Institute, ticks off an astonishing eight chairs at JFK: culture, literature, language, history, political science, economics, sociology, and geography.

The Institute, started in 1963 with considerable funds from the American Ford Foundation, is the creme de la creme in Honnighausen's eyes. But it's "not feasible financially" to have a JFK at Bonn, he says.

In Germany, universities are government funded, and university budgets everywhere are under pressure - especially because of the high cost of reunification. (Mostly due to financial restraints, American studies in eastern Germany is off to a very modest start indeed.)

Honnighausen's challenge was to turn the university's program on American literature and civilization into one offering the variety of the JFK Institute in Berlin, but with a much smaller budget. He found a way to do this, but only by bucking German educational tradition. "It's been a long, uphill battle," says this lover of William Faulkner.

His solution (radical in German eyes), was to set up an interdisciplinary course of study augmented by faculty from 10 other departments in the university.

Thus, students in the North American Studies program (and only 30 of them are admitted each year), may take a course on the American presidency offered by the political science department, or on the North American Plains Indians, offered by the ethnic studies department.

This may not sound radical to educators in the US, but it is revolutionary for German universities. From day 1 of their university education, students here must choose their major field of study. Unlike in the US, there is no first year of broad experimentation in different subjects. Students here are limited to their specialization, and if they change their minds, they have to start all over again in some other department. Thus, departments are like mini-schools within the university, autonomous fiefdom s, separated by almost impregnable walls.

The North American Studies program in Bonn is unique not only because it crosses departmental lines, but also because it offers more than the usual fare of language and literature.

Freshmen, for instance, must take a mandatory year-long overview covering American literature, geography, economics, political science, and sociology. They have the choice of further optional courses in these subjects and more, including American religious and art history, for instance. At midpoint in the program, it is hoped the students will spend several months studying and working in the US or Canada.

The broad range of subjects offered to the North American Studies students has met with "stern opposition" from education purists, says Honnighausen. To them, he says, the program is "a new-fangled thing" that departs from the German tradition of dedicated research.

There is a place for research, and in fact, the North American Studies program here considers research a vital part of its mandate, explains Honnighausen. But the trouble with most American studies programs in Germany, he adds, is that they are producing highly specialized teachers or professors at a time when the field of education is flooded with job seekers.

"We have been turning out students in masses that couldn't get employment. We have produced teachers who couldn't get a job. They knew all about symbolism in poetry... but nobody wanted these kinds of graduates," says Honnighausen. "So, we got the idea of preparing them better for the job market."

This is why, for instance, the real-world subject of economics is compulsory and accounts for an eighth of the credits for the North American program in Bonn. This is also why Honnighausen is involved in something else very un-German - peddling his students to German firms for eventual employment or internships, his own version of recruiting week on US campuses. He is targeting the media, public relations firms, and even the Foreign Office in the Bonn government for possible placement.

"We are considered exotic" on campus, confirms American Studies student Miriam Kassler, adding that students in other departments envy their freedom of choice. In fact, it's precisely the variety of classes that she likes about the program.

That, and the fact that it's limited to a small number of students, says her friend, Katja Auen. A typical German university student flows from one enormous lecture hall to the next, with little contact between professor and student. Here, "you're not just a number, you don't feel lost," says Katja. "I feel people take me seriously."

The students interviewed for this article were highly enthusiastic about the program, though acknowledged some failings: not enough use of English; a disorganized approach to the study and work period in North America; and the fact that some teachers drawn from other departments are not necessarily America experts.

But this last shortcoming, counters Miriam, is offset by the university's ability to pull in excellent guest professors from the US or Canada, as well as experts from the American and Canadian embassies in town.

* Next week: South Africa. Part 1 in this series appeared Feb. 3, Part 2 on Feb. 10.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.