The Obsolete Man and the German Scholar

Picture yourself being called into a room. A man behind what appears to be a mile-high podium looks down at you. A crowd surrounds you as you approach a spotlight, positioned behind an ever-reaching table. He glances over your file and leans forward, towards a microphone.

“Your program of study?” he asks.

“German, sir,” you reply.

There are gasps from the crowd. The man at the podium pales at your response. Did he hear you correctly or did you incriminate yourself in front of dozens of witnesses? You are beginning to sweat, but you will not sacrifice your academic integrity.

“German,” you repeat.

“I heard you,” he states. He looks down at the file and stares at you intently. “The field investigators have declared you obsolete.”

Cue reality. Am I dreaming or did I wake up in the “Twilight Zone” last week? By the looks of it, Rod Serling is no where to be found and I’m not hearing any eerie theme song, so this must be real.

After years of rumors, news has reached Scotland that the Department of German at the University of Southern California is being abolished. No more upper division language classes, no more German literature courses or applied theater. It’s gone.

I remember my Freshman year like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my first International Relations course, holding Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” in my hands, confident to have declared both International Relations and German as my majors. Choosing to switch from Spanish studies to German studies after visiting Western and Southern Germany in conjunction with the San Gabriel Valley Tribune’s Young Columbus Program–a program that sadly is no longer in existence–I returned to America determined to become fliesend in the language. Germany had left a considerable impression on me; I admired the German-speaking world for its vast contributions to fields such as philosophy and literature from Goethe’s internationally-read canon to Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht’s expatriate accomplishments in Santa Monica.

This veneration for the German intelligentsia is equaled by my admiration of the German department. One departmental opportunity had allowed students to direct scenes from Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” and Max Frisch’s “Andorra.” Other memorable experiences included having the chance to speak with an Auschwitz survivor who had escaped from a train that would have almost certainly delivered him to his death—a tale I retell to this day.

What I am trying to understand is what kind of a message USC is sending in its decision. That an elementary understanding of a language is sufficient in a student’s academic experience? Without involving myself in advanced German courses, I would not have felt confidant enough to study abroad at the Albert Ludwigs Universität in Freiburg and I certainly would not have been able to travel throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, parts of France, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands, resembling a cultural “insider,” or an American conversationalist able to communicate without the assistance of English.

We are Trojans and we pride ourselves in victory; yet, this is one “touchdown” against foreign languages that I cannot bear to watch. I await some compromise to be made; however, dismal that appears at the moment. It’s difficult to hear that your undergraduate degree is–metaphorically speaking–now obsolete. I truly hope this is not a reflection of the future to come in foreign language studies.

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1 Comment

Filed under america, Deutschland, German, Germany, Goethe, life, Muggles, transatlanticism, University of Southern California

One response to “The Obsolete Man and the German Scholar

  1. Dad

    Kudos for striking a blow for the downtrodden! SC’s decision seems wall-like. Perhaps your words will be the clarion which will gather other voices. The walls of Jericho tumbled with the constant sound of trumpets, drums, and tambourines.

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