Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Morituri te salutant?

William Deresiewicz's article in The Nation on the decline of the profession of Eng Lit -- based on a re-edit of Gerald Graff's influential "institutional history" Professing Literature -- provides a disturbing snapshot of the state of the field in the US.

Much of what he has to say is true of the field of English in Germany as well, with one stark difference: the "steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline" of English that Deresiewicz, describes (and which he links -- quite plausibly, I think -- to the rapid turnover of fashionable disciplinary trends, at the cost of more "traditional" topics, in US academia) is something unheard of in Germany.

Here, numbers have been rising steadily -- much to the government's joy, especially in light of the snub the German education system received last year from UN investigator Vernor Munoz for its fundamental "inequality." (A good introduction to his report and the vehement reactions to it is via here). And much to the despair of all sane people, who know that quantity and quality do not necessarily go together.

That the government's wish to increase the student population is being heeded, in the humanities at least, clearly has to do with the fact that many of the students in those fields study to become teachers. Teachers are currently in demand, it is a terribly safe profession to be in over here (most teachers are civil servants -- that is, they have a job for life) -- and teaching has for a while now been something of a last resort for the, shall we say, more blunt tools in the shed.

A recent study has bolstered this felt lack of quality amongst teacher students with real evidence. As Udo Rauin, a professor at Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe University in Frankfurt points out, the students who typically study to become teachers are not only weaker than most in their field, disturbingly they are also aware of their shortcomings. Most disturbingly, however, when confronted with their lack of talent and ability, they still don't rethink their desire to "teach" others.

Now why is that? A neuroscientist would point out that self-delusion is the human condition. People like Michael Gazzaniga and V.S. Ramachandran have ably proven that our perception of the world and ourselves is merely a convincing simulacrum built on the flood of information that constantly pours into our brain.

So, we're all, by definition, deluded. Ok, I can live with that. But even delusion is selective. Why is it, for instance, that I would never in my life have deluded myself into wanting to be a quantum phycisist? Because physics is hard and I was terribly bad at it in school. Why can somebody barely capable of grunting English (let alone German) delude him or herself into thinking they can become an English teacher? Because English is easy and everyone can sing along to a few crap Christina Aguilera lyrics.

And so we live not only with more and more students, but also with more and more weak students. Students who spell "through" thus: "thru" -- and don't even notice. Students who will write things like "the book of McEwan" or "he go" -- after years of training in the secondary and tertiary sector (thereby wasting the precious time of people like me).

Hence we have an odd situation in German universities: rather than leaving the sinking ship, the rats are flooding on board.

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