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    Humanities Year: "Researching and Answering Civil Society's Questions"

    Professor Dr. Christoph Markschies; Copyright: Humboldt-UniversitätProfessor Dr. Christoph Markschies; Copyright: Humboldt-UniversitätThe German Education Ministry has announced a "science year" every 12 months since 2000. Only the natural and engineering sciences have been featured to date. But in 2007 it's the humanities' turn in the limelight. We talked about that with Christoph Markschies, president of Humboldt University in Berlin.

    Germany is celebrating Humanities Year. Are you blithely celebrating too, Professor Markschies?

    Yes, I'm cheerfully celebrating too. For that's part and parcel of the laws of the mass media society: if you want more attention and more money, too, for something like the humanities, you've simply got to accept the laws of this media society. That won't corrupt anyone: after all, there's no harm done if the results of research in the humanities are publicized somewhat more cheerfully and nattily than usual for a year. On the contrary, that's an expression of the responsibility of the humanities for civil society, which was so important to the founding fathers of my university back in the 19th century. Besides, not only is extra money available this year for media exposure: fortunately, there's actually extra money for the humanities, too. That alone would be reason to celebrate!

    What exactly are the Geisteswissenschaften: the same thing as the "soft" arts or humanities in English in contrast to the "hard" and innovative sciences?

    The vivacity of the Geisteswissenschaften in Germany is borne out among other things by the many attempts to define the term since the 19th century when it was coined. Personally, I wouldn't go as far as some of my colleagues at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, who in 2005 tried to renew Hegel and Dilthey's theories in a "Humanities Manifesto". Unlike my esteemed colleagues, I don't think that the subjects of the humanities like language, law, government or economics should be conceived of today the way Hegel and Dilthey saw them in the 19th century: as expressions of an "objective spirit" owing, for instance, to their transpersonal dimension. I myself try – and how could I do otherwise as a theologian? – to stress the enduring orientation of humanities subjects towards the question of truth, though without any desire to reverse the thoroughgoing historicization of all the questions posed in the last three hundred years.

    The president of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, Dieter Borchmeyer, who also teaches German literature in Heidelberg, complains that: "The humanities are no longer in the canon of disciplines that determine the elite." In the history of Germany, or just of universities, have they ever been leading disciplines?

    I don't think that the contest for excellence between German universities that my smart colleague in Heidelberg is looking at actually confirms Borchmeyer's fears. It's true that in the 19th century scholarship in the humanities counted for more in the educational canon and scholars like Theodor Mommsen were media stars in a wholly different way. But the negative side of the story was an aggressive contempt for the natural sciences among some scholars. It occasionally occurs to me we might now be seeing here and there a certain counterreaction on the part of scientists (and residues of the old attitude can still be found among some scholars in the arts). There has always been mindless contempt for contemplation – and I'm completely convinced that to this day the humanities are among the canon of disciplines that determine the elite. At least at the university I'm president of.

    One of the great advocates of the humanities, Wolf Lepenies, once characterized them as an "experiment in understanding", evidently a deliberate allusion to the now highly-regarded experimental sciences. That raises the question: what does society stand to gain from the understanders' experiments?

    Hauptgebäude der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Denkmal Wilhelm von Humboldt; Copyright: Humboldt-Universität/Foto: Heike ZappeTo begin with, it's simply a matter of responsibility to truth when at least those working in the humanities don't approach the fundamental questions facing our society as though we'd already found the answers: When does life begin? When exactly does it end? These are bones of contention and every halfway reasonable humanities scholar knows that our positions here are "experiments in understanding". But we also need the humanities (among other things) to show how, notwithstanding their experimental nature, binding ethical and legal standards can be laid down and what they consist in. Ideally, then, by providing at once certainty and uncertainty, the humanities help keep society from succumbing to ideologies.

    How do the humanities in Germany rank by international standards?

    Can a German humanities scholar make a truly objective assessment? Sometimes, for example when I read a scholarly book by one of my colleagues, it seems to me that excellent research is being done in this country. With such a dynamic research realm, one is not inclined to talk about "ranks", seeing as nobody's going to war. But sometimes, when I find a poor subject being used in the execution, by hook or by crook, of some mindless fad, I bemoan the lack of resistance to passing fads in the German humanities. That being said: wherever people conduct Bach or Mozart, or read critical editions of the Greek Fathers of the Church, all over the world they go for products by German arts scholars. So we can't be doing all that poorly.

    What do you think of the proposal of creating a two-class society in academic research, of those on the inside and those on the outside, by setting up special schools for high-tech research?

    Always this fear of a two-class society? No-one's ever bewailed the collapse of the democratic order because the railway and Lufthansa offer first and second class seats. Especially seeing as access to the choicer class in high-level research doesn't depend on the size of your purse. Without a firm commitment to the elite – and I mean a commitment we're happy about, not one that's been anxiously squeezed out of us – there simply are no achievements in high-level research that can then be passed on far and wide. I myself enjoyed being a fellow at such a school, I owe some decisive insights to that year and would wish the same for any colleague. So there's no reason not to establish such islands of repose in the universities, too. Quite the contrary!

    Are the humanities, now as ever, a labour of love?

    Here in Germany, as has long been customary in England, we may well have to get used to a smart graduate in Byzantine studies finding no work in middle-Byzantine prosopography, but standing behind the counter at the British Midland Bank – and in good hands there. If a divinity student can't find a pastorate and ends up working in human resources at a big company, I wouldn't regard that as a catastrophe, but as a contribution to the company's working atmosphere. And if I concede the value of employment like that, I'm not going to say there's no money in the humanities.

    Christoph Markschies has been president of the venerable Humboldt University (HU) in Berlin since 2006. The Protestant theologian was appointed in 1994, at the age of 32, professor of Church history at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, then in 2000 professor of historical theology at the University of Heidelberg, and in 2004 professor of Early Church history at HU. For his scholarship on the development of Christianity in antiquity, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Association) in 2001 awarded him the Leibniz Prize, the highest academic distinction in Germany.

    What – When – Where? Humanities Year high points:

    • 25 January 2007: Inauguration of Humanities Year by federal minister Annette Schavan in Berlin
    • May: "Internationality and Languages": symposium in Berlin organized by the German Academic Exchange Service
    • 6–10 June: conference in Leipzig on "The Spirit of Europe – European Identity"
    • 14–16 June: "The Power of Language": a Goethe Institute festival in Berlin
    • 20 June: symposium in Berlin on "The Emergence of the Political Sphere in the Ancient Orient"
    • September: panel discussion at the Deutsches Museum in Munich on "Imagined Europeans: The Scientific Construction of Homo Europaeus"
    • September–November: "Reading the World", a series of events in Berlin on culturally conditioned world views all over the globe
    • October: Munich Arts and Sciences Days – this year's theme is "Life and Culture. From biological to cultural evolution"
    This interview was conducted by Hermann Horstkotte,
    a freelance journalist in Bonn.

    Translated by Eric Rosencrantz
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

    Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
    May 2007

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