A View from Within: Great Research, not so Great Teaching
By Ulrich Herbert
In its recommendations on the state of humanities in Germany, the German Science Council has pinpointed strengths and weaknesses and has come forward with ideas for improvement.
In Germany, research in the humanities is excellent, as are the concomitant skills of its junior researchers, even by international comparison. The German Science Council came to this conclusion in its recommendations on the state of the humanities in Germany, published in 2006. The density of university departments, libraries, museums, and research institutions is extraordinary; the quality of research meets very high standards. In the disciplines art or ancient history, German researchers doubtless lead the global field. The same is true for archaeology, a portion of philology and history. International comparison also reveals the outstanding breadth and diversity of the more minor humanities disciplines at German universities. Furthermore, outside the university setting, a great number of other research institutions are devoted entirely or in part to the humanities. The German Science Council lists no less than 80 larger facilities.
Another remarkable aspect is the promotion of humanities by dedicated private foundations, the Academies' Programme, and, above all, the German Research Foundation (DFG). Aside from material benefits, DFG promotion is highly symbolic: Humanities are perceived as a legitimate science, not as a sort of parascientific field. They can thus join the other sciences in their quest for recognition, financial funding, and freedom. They can also hold their ground when it comes to defining differences between them and other sciences, just as the other disciplines do amongst themselves. However, universities are becoming increasing ly competitive, and the humanities need to be able to showcase their contributions appropriately. There is work to be done. Standards must be set and basic objectives defined so that they can then be developed into quality indicators.
More students, fewer lecturers
The fact that the humanities can boast of high performance and institutional stability does not gloss over its undeniable deficits. The main problem is teaching, which often takes place under outrageous conditions. Even though total student numbers almost stagnated between 1995 and 2003, the number of humanities students increased by about 50 percent aft er 1995. The number of professors remained unchanged; that of lecturers actually declined. The results are irresponsible student- teacher ratios of almost 100:1 on average and unacceptable dropout rates (humanities averaged 45 percent in 2002, compared to 26 percent overall). As another effect, it now takes new graduates an average of more than five years to find a professionally appropriate position.
This problem, not research, is at the root of the much debated "humanities crisis". Not even the structural changes prescribed by the Bologna Process will be able to stem this tide as long as the deficits persist: Necessary capacities are lacking and the increase in student numbers, which policymakers have encouraged, is not evenly spread over all disciplines. Instead, the humanities bear the brunt because they do not require much equipment and are thus thought to be cheap. Quite apart from this, it is essential to start improving teaching - not only teaching conditions, but teaching! The practice of humanities teaching at German universities is stuck in the parameters of the 1960s and 1970s, when 15 or 20 percent of school leavers went on to university. In the meantime, this percentage has almost doubled. The German Science Council has recommended that the introduction of a qualified teaching professorship would lastingly improve the quality of instruction, enhance the standing of teaching as an academic task, and favour an environment where university lecturers are trained to teach effectively.
One of the effects of overloading humanities professors is, of course, that there are ever fewer of them who actually do active research. In order to change this, and to reclaim research from non-university institutes, universities need to orient their policy of research promotion towards obtaining more research time rather than more research staff. The German Science Council wants to complement project-oriented individual or collaborative promotion in the humanities by "International Research Schools in the Humanities". These Research Schools will enable excellent domestic and foreign academics to dedicate themselves to and complete one major project over a longer term. The DFG and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research have responded to this initiative and introduced programmes to promote it.
„There are ever fewer humanities professors who actually do active research."
Finally, there are the so-called minor disciplines, the future of which is endangered at many locations due to the rising pressure on universities to sharpen their profiles. It is vital to prevent the multifarious budget cuts, which often hurt the minor disciplines, from damaging the continuity of entire disciplines beyond repair. There is a need for a national clearing centre to track the development of the disciplines in the different German Federal States and prevent the extinction of entire discipline cultures. The German Rectors' Conference and the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs have been working in this direction, so far without success.
A report on the state of humanities in Germany, clearly pinpointing its strengths and deficits, may help silence the talk of a "crisis in the humanities" that has continued virtually unchanged for over a century. Whether it is the benevolent, charitable talk of its supporters or the amused, condescending depiction of those who despise the humanities - it is wrong to portray the state of the humanities as a general "crisis": their performance is known to be strong and society accepts them as significant. It is fair to say, however, that today's humanities no longer receive culturally or politically motivated special treatment - be it as a cultural-religious antidote to the pernicious influences of modernity, as a "national" science, like in the first half of the twentieth century, or as a vehicle for democratisation since the 1960s. In order to be first and foremost a science, the humanities need to drop this kind of special status and steer clear of the corrupting proximity to politics, nation, or society. Cutting these ties will free the humanities from their notorious overload and enable them to capitalise on the unique research conditions in this country as well as compensate for blatantly misguided developments and deficits.
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