News from Nov 12, 2007
Berlin (Weltexpress) - The newly refurbished Henry Ford Bau of Berlin's Freie University had already reached its capacity of 1,200 when the University Vice-President Ursual Lehmkuhl stepped to the podium to formally and proudly announce the launch the Graduate School of the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies on Nov. 5th, 2007.
Just two weeks earlier the university had successfully won admission to the elite club of higher education institutions in Germany, which makes the Graduate School a showcase of things to come. Thus the high profile staging, appearance and one-hour address of Guest Speaker Joschka Fischer.
Lehmkuhl's 10 minute speech emphasised liason, networking, quality and responsibility. The move towards greater transparency, the importance of building local and international partners, the application to scientific study was regarded by her and her fellow colleagues at the JFKI as a continuum of the work that began when the Institute was founded in 1963. Only now it was under 'new conditions', code for regular evaluations by international peer universities.
Following Lehmkuhl to the podium was the School's first Director - Professor Ulla Haselstein. Her more detailed account highlighted the School's distinctive interdisciplinary curricular that already yokes literature, history, culture, politcal science in the study of the United States, and open in the first year to 11 scholarships. Haselstein also emphasised, too, the post-9/11 significance of such enquiries, where debates on 'democracy' and 'freedom' have become a profoundly global concern.
Hence the clustered themes under which the courses are structured - Religion in Public Life; American Exceptionalism in a Changing World; Arts, Aesthetics and Culture, Struggles for the Public Sphere, Media and Cultural Narratives, for example. One particular curricular strand - Research Methods - focuses on honing Advanced Academic Writing (Year One), sharpening Managerial Skills in Academia (Year Two)and improving Didactic Skills (Year Three). One core curricular element was underlined - the explicit move towards training academics as teachers, 'a fundamental component of the programme'. In fact, the School is already operating courses in English designed to refine and improve pedagogic skills for working teachers.
Haselstein finished with a knowing nod across the Atlantic, where elite universities such as Harvard($3.6 billion) can compete in drawing the best students and most favoured academics, and a readiness of the challenges that transparency and peer evaluation brings.
It was left, then, to Joschka Fischer - Germany's former Foreign Minister and Visiting Professor at Princeton - to speak on the realities of the past, present and future Transatlantic challenges that, for him, will remain irrespective of who presides in the White House.
Fischer's characteristically robust and forthright talk spanned the postwar era, highlighting the vital significance of the USA post-1945 to the German nation, and the alliances under 'freedom' that quickly emerged in the 'existentail balance' of the Cold War. Since 1989, however, the world engages with a 'unique unilaterilsm' and that this is 'the main problem that the US is currently facing'. But it wasn't one that it acknowledges. With a Europe still behind in its moves towards integration, Fischer warns, we have a power vacuum in global affairs in which there is no influencial counterbalance to the US superpower. For Fischer, it would be a serious fault amongst Europeans and others to assume major changes after the elections of 2008. It is an endemic situation that makes the United States an inevitable player in world affairs and it was beholden on Europeans in particular to work on the re-establishment of shared values - of the kind that existed when the J.F.K-Institute was founded. His closing comments ticked off current headline concerns - the global environment, the regional crisis now looming in Pakistan - which has the bomb - and, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan where, he made clear, a NATO failure would lead to 'chaos'. The post-9/11 world creates 'a joint security challenge for both sides of the Atlantic'.
By the time Fischer closed on China, India, Russia and the price of oil it seemed - for a moment - a far cry from celebrating the curricular wonders of an elite university.
However, no better reminder of the importance of the work of John F. Kennedy Institute could have been better articulated or knowingly timed. The rigorous analysis and questioning of what constitutes the United States has become, whether we like it or not, a central concern - and at a time when, as Fischer reminded us, 'globalization is not a one-way street'.
Which means that Professor Haselstein, her Executive Board Colleagues Professors Winfried Fluck, and Harald Wenzel - and their 20 External Faculty Members - have their work cut out for them.
The hundreds of students and professors in attendance - and who crammed the local train station after the showcase ceremony and who made their cold thoughtful way back to Berlin - was testimony in itself of the current value of such work and its future importance to the University and Berlin as a whole.
We are now all Americanists in one way or another, for better or worse.
The John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies was founded as the Amerika Institut in July 1st 1963 - and renamed after the assassination of the President later that same year. Political scientist Ernest Frankel, along with Henry Ford III, was instrumental in its founding, having returned to Germany after his forced exile to America during the war. Since 1967 it has been housed in its own building on the university campus. The Ernst Frankel Lecture Series is the forum for talks by Visting Scholars - for example, Vivian Sobshack (2007), Donald Pease (2004 & 2007), Noam Chomsky (March 2005) and Leo Marx (2003). Dr. Alan Taylor is Guest Lecturer (US Film & Media) at the JFKI, 2007-2008.